Te Huia Bill Hamilton. (Photo supplied)

Treaty educator Te Huia Bill Hamilton tells Siena Yates that we should be looking at Te Tiriti from a perspective of community rather than race.


At least one partner in the coalition government intends to redefine Te Tiriti and its principles. They want to do that without consideration of what tāngata whenua know and think. They justify their actions by saying “needs” not “race” should be the basis for service provision. When, of course, Māori now have much greater needs, correlated to our ethnicity, as a direct result of racist government policies which stripped us of our resources and our reo.

This kind of rhetoric around race mirrors the colonising justifications used in the late 1800s and during the 1960s to 1980s when assimilation policies were at their zenith. It frames the Treaty as outdated, racist and divisive.

But if you look at Te Tiriti from a community perspective, it’s actually about balance, and a promise between two peoples to take the best possible care of each other. It’s as relevant today as it was when it was signed in 1840.

The trouble is, understanding Te Tiriti has been complicated by successive governments, and politicians in general, who used their own interpretations to benefit themselves; to leverage votes based on fear, and to support the greed of those settlers who kept them in power.

It’s also been complicated by academics who write about Te Tiriti based on law, but who fail to explain it in terms of tikanga. However, the law is only half of the story, and so their explanations tend to support the Crown’s position.

In more recent times, understanding Te Tiriti has been complicated further by judges who’ve unilaterally developed what they call the “principles of the Treaty”. These concepts may help them in their courts, but they do nothing to give honour and effect to Te Tiriti. They minimise the meaning of rangatiratanga and make it subservient to the law. That wasn’t the agreement in Te Tiriti.

In 2002, I talked to about 400 community groups about the human rights dimensions of Te Tiriti, and those conversations are really what informed how I’ve approached Treaty education since. During those talks, we asked: “What do you know about the Treaty? How do you feel about it? What can we do about that?” A lot of people started off by saying: “I don’t know anything about it at all.” We found that there was a lot of fear and ignorance in the community.

Much of that comes from the purposeful mistranslation of words in the Treaty, like rangatiratanga. For example, if we look at how David Seymour is approaching the proposed Treaty Principles Bill, he’s saying that everyone has rangatiratanga — including the people who are flying into Auckland today from another country. He uses rangatiratanga to mean self-determination for everybody, which is nonsense. The Treaty is clear that rangatiratanga is self-determination for Māori, while kāwanatanga is self-determination for tauiwi.

Seymour also talks about how we’re all equal. And, of course, that’s right, but there are differences within that. For example, we all have an equal right to language, but which language we have a right to may differ. As New Zealand citizens, we all have a right to English, because that’s the colonising language. And, as the other Treaty partner, Māori have an equal right to our language, te reo Māori, and for our language to have equal status with English.

Let’s look at education. We all have a right to education, which means Māori have a right to kaupapa Māori education. We all have an equal right to healthcare, which means Māori have a right to rongoā and hauora, and to having our different needs equally met by the national health system. Māori communities put greater value on whānau rights, whereas Pākehā and other tauiwi put a greater emphasis on individual rights. So, we all have equal rights, but how they’re expressed are very different depending on culture. And that’s something that’s never explained.

Instead, David Seymour and co replace “culture” with “race” and approach everything as an either/or option. “You can have either this or that.” It’s the tyranny of the “or”. Whereas, we say it’s “and”. “You can have your culture and the rights of being a citizen.”

It’s about living as communities, with all our differences — and the Treaty is what can enable that to happen, if we let it.

The other word I talk about a lot is “tūrangawaewae”, because the Treaty gave tauiwi a tūrangawaewae too. So we can’t just turn around and say: “Go home.” We must respect that tūrangawaewae status because the Treaty gives tauiwi an authority to belong here.

One of the aims of Te Tiriti was for rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga to work side by side. But our leaders haven’t been able to have a mature conversation about how that will work in practice — mainly because successive governments don’t want to share the power and resources they’ve gained through colonisation.

We in the National Iwi Chairs Forum are now labouring over how we can address that — because, how can the coalition government try and change the Treaty without that being the result of a conversation between both Treaty partners? The process that’s being outlined in Act’s proposed Treaty Principles Bill is that the Crown will say: “Come and talk to us at the select committee.” But that’s not a conversation. You’re not there as equals. You’re making a submission and you’re in a subservient position.

The good news is, we don’t need the Crown’s permission to have constitutional conversations at a local level and at a community level. There’s nothing to stop iwi having a Treaty conversation with councillors, mayors and business leaders in their community, and talking about how we can have kāwanatanga and rangatiratanga work together in our communities.

The only thing that’s preventing that is vision and capacity. It’s an issue that we’re working on now in the National Iwi Chairs Forum. We’re building relationships with Local Government New Zealand to see if we can encourage it to happen.

Those conversations would require us to sit down and say: “These are our iwi, these are our marae, these are our leaders, and these are the things that are important to us.” And then the Crown would do the same: “This is what kāwanatanga looks like for us in our community. This is our genealogy, this is how we got here, this is what we’re responsible for, and these are the things that are important to us.”

It’s really as simple as having a template like that. And if we can get 20 or 30 communities to have those conversations, I think it could make quite a difference.

The tough part is getting busy iwi to say: “Oh, we’ll put that on our plate too with the other one hundred things we’ve got going.” But I would argue it’s just as important as fighting for another kura in your rohe, or for more houses, or a better say over the care of your children. Because, if we can address things at that fundamental level, the fights for those other things may not have to be so hard or so frequent.

There have been some gains made in the Treaty relationship in recent years, but the new government has a programme that’s designed to nullify Te Tiriti and attack Indigenous rights. It will build on the ignorance and fuel the fears about Te Tiriti and rangatiratanga. And it fails to recognise that to strengthen its legitimacy as a government, it needs to honour Te Tiriti, not reduce its constitutional importance.

The government also wants to get rid of “Māori privilege”, whatever that means. All social indicators show that Māori are the least privileged in health, education, the justice system, household income, housing, and participation in our local government and boards. Co-governance of our resources is a right, not a privilege as claimed by right-wing politicians and their funders.

However, now is the time to have this conversation because the opportunities are immense. The recent hui at Tūrangawaewae, Rātana and Waitangi have made it clear that we are strengthening our rangatiratanga through kōtahitanga (unity) and we are not going away.

I have faith in New Zealanders being fair, especially when they’re informed. My experience as a Treaty educator, supported by the recent Human Rights Commission survey, indicates that people want a principled discussion about where Te Tiriti fits in our communities. I look forward to a government that has the courage to lead that.


Te Huia Bill Hamilton (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngā Rauru, Scotland) is a Treaty of Waitangi and human rights specialist and a lead adviser for the National Iwi Chairs Forum. He has spent 25 years educating Pākehā and other tauiwi about Te Tiriti o Waitangi through his company Treaty Solutions.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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