The authors of Imagining Decolonisation, from left: Mike Ross, Ocean Mercier, Jennie Smeaton, Rebecca Kiddle, Moana Jackson, Amanda Thomas, Bianca Elkington. (Photo Unity Books)

Last week, we brought you Moana Jackson’s poignant, hope-kindling chapter in the recently published book Imagining Decolonisation, along with a talk on the subject in Wellington. This week Kennedy Warne delves into the rest of the book.


Suddenly, decolonisation is in the air. The word is on people’s lips, in the media, and the subject of many a casual conversation. 

At a dinner party, I am asked for my opinion about the spending of “taxpayer money” to repatriate a turtle to the rohe where it washed ashore, and this morphs into a discussion about power sharing and a separate health system. 

My son tells me about a decolonisation workshop he attended at a festival. A leaked report on Māori self-determination is seized on by opposition parties as evidence of the government’s intention to establish “separate sovereignty.” A blustering opinion piece by former MP Richard Prebble claims that the report’s vision is radical and antidemocratic.

All of which makes the book Imagining Decolonisation even more relevant now than when it was published in 2020. Written, in the main, by lecturers at Wellington’s Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University, the book starts from the premise that every New Zealander needs to know about colonisation and its impacts. It’s only when those impacts are understood that the idea of decolonisation will make sense, and be something that “every New Zealander can get on board with and benefit from.”

Māori studies lecturer Mike Ross opens the discussion, likening colonisation to the throat of Parata — a legendary personification of the maelstrom. Its whirlpool swallows you whole. Most New Zealanders, he argues, are unaware of how brutal and devastating the effects of colonisation have been and continue to be.

He uses Moana Jackson’s helpful analogy of two houses. Each house represents a society that provides shelter for the people who live within it. Each rests on foundations that include a resource base, a system of governance, justice and laws for the safety of its citizens, education to maintain and develop it, health practices to support the wellbeing of its members, and a language to carry its values, views and norms. Each house has its own traditions, etiquette, myths, stories and music. Each has been shaped, modified and improved by its owners over centuries.

Colonisation says: “Your house is inferior to mine. In fact, it is a disgrace and needs to be pulled down. You need to live in a replacement house built on my design. And, in fact, owned by me. You can live in my house but you must pay me rent. You’re a tenant now. Get used to it.”

Choosing another analogy that will cut to the bone for many, he likens colonisation to an abusive marriage. In Aotearoa’s case, the Treaty served as the marriage licence. 

Your partner moves into your home, as agreed, but you soon find out he is not very nice. His ideas about your relationship revolve around domination, removing personal choices and aspirations you had. His denigrating behaviour causes you to lose confidence. You begin to believe the picture he builds up about who you are, and your status and sense of worth becomes reliant on your relationship with him. You remain committed to the relationship, but the benefits roll only one way, couched in paternalistic rhetoric: ‘It is for your own good!’ The abuser sees and openly describes himself to you and others as a gracious benefactor. He places constant pressure on you to justify his use and maintenance of power, and finds it difficult to hear an alternative view; he is genuinely surprised if challenged about the inequality of the relationship.

Building a society on a foundation of coercion enforced by violence is the “hidden shame” of New Zealand’s founding, writes Mike Ross. It has affected relationships between Māori and other New Zealanders ever since.

By the 1970s, he writes, 

. . . a previously flourishing, multi-dimensional Māori society existed only as hollowed-out remnants in rural pockets, often in impoverished communities; traditional cultural practices were observed in enclaves of Māori homes and marae on the margins of society. In the cities, Māori struggled to maintain connections with their tūrangawaewae, and their efforts to continue and forge new cultural practices were hampered by the economic constraints of life within the Pākehā system. . . . The Māori way of life and its belief system became regarded as a mere facade, retained only for its myths and legends, kapa haka entertainment and physical relics in museum displays.

Having established the damage inflicted by colonisation, Mike Ross passes the baton to fellow lecturer in Māori studies, Ocean Ripeka Mercier, to explore how it can be undone. She picks up the house metaphor and asks: “If you don’t know what your own house looked like, how can you recognise what’s different about the colonial house?”

This task of recognition precedes action to rebuild. But how do you rebuild if the landlord is still present, still calling the shots?

Ocean digresses to draw a distinction between two types of decolonisation. 

One involves the departure of the colonising power from countries where the indigenous people retained a numerical majority, such as the African colonies of Belgium, Portugal, Italy and France. 

The other, more difficult and complex type of decolonisation, she writes, is the one called for in settler countries such as Canada, Australia, the United States and Aotearoa. Here, physical departure of the colonising power is not on the agenda.

Ocean quotes Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and Michael Yellow Bird, two US Indigenous studies scholars: 

We are not advocating the immediate taking up of arms or the organization of an Indigenous militia. Instead, we are advocating peaceful, intelligent and courageous challenges to the existing institutions of colonialism as well as questioning our own complicity in those institutions. 

But make no mistake: Decolonization ultimately requires the overturning of the colonial structure. It is not about tweaking the existing colonial system to make it more Indigenous-friendly or a little less oppressive. The existing system is fundamentally and irreparably flawed.

Ocean makes the same point: “While decolonisation discourse in Aotearoa is almost never about the removal of people, decolonisation is not just a metaphor. It should not be treated merely as a consciousness-raising device.”

Rather, the decolonisation she and the book’s other authors advocate is about restoration and repatriation of that which was lost. 

It doesn’t necessitate the wholesale withdrawal of ‘the coloniser’, but does require that power imbalances are addressed, that negative effects of colonisation are peeled away and that pre-colonial ways are revived — often starting with language, education and social practices or tikanga. 

As [University of Waikato] academic Ngahuia Murphy explains, decolonisation is about confronting a continuing colonial agenda that [includes] the denial of our right to autonomy as indigenous peoples, the self-hatred that thrives in our communities as a consequence of ethnocidal policies that attempted to stamp out our philosophies and practices, and the relentless plundering of our elders — the land, the sea, the forests and rivers — under the banner of ‘progress’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘development’.

Just as colonisation began in the mind — as a set of ideas based on racial and cultural superiority — so must decolonisation begin with a mental deconstruction of those ideas. 

Hawaiian sovereignty leader Pōkā Laenui speaks of five stages in the decolonisation process. The first four — rediscovery and recovery, mourning, dreaming, and commitment — are in the realm of the heart and mind. These must precede the fifth stage: action.

It is exhausting work. And, I imagine, demoralising work. As Ocean puts it: “The work of decolonising thought, knowledge, methods, pedagogies and all the rest, goes against the grain. It is an uphill hike. It needs constant attention, vigilance and effort. As with weaving, if decolonisation work stops, the work unravels.”

Decolonisation scholars say that peeling away coloniality is like peeling away a layer of skin. One thinks of surgeons in a burns unit, the shocking pain of the process. The grief involved. Hence Pōkā Laenui’s mourning phase, in which “injustice, trauma and losses are acknowledged and confronted.”

In time, like te ao marama emerging out of te pō, mourning gives way to dreaming. But how do you learn to dream again when your culture has been told collectively, over generations, that your dreams are irrelevant, futile? Or, by some of today’s conservative politicians, that they are antidemocratic, insurrectionary?

Dreaming, writes Ocean, “invites us to imagine a decolonised reality in which contemporary truths and stories are acknowledged and drawn upon, to strengthen what has been revitalised or reawakened. [Laenui] describes this step as most crucial for a ‘true decolonisation’, by which he means that Indigenous peoples should not simply occupy coloniser positions and replicate colonising structures.”

Again, this is hard mahi. “The colonial machine and its blanketing mentalities is an exhausting, all-encompassing thing to break free of,” writes Ocean. There’s a reason Ranginui Walker called it a “struggle without end”.

The task is challenging, not least because the machine evolves to defeat efforts to escape from it. As Indigenous agendas surface, the colonial apparatus may give them lip service and superficial accommodation, subtly subverting them and enfolding them into the existing paradigm. In the same way that business co-opted environmental sustainability, defusing its challenge to the extractive capitalist economy, colonial institutions can appropriate indigenous efforts for their own ends. 

Ocean gives a local example. 

The Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi, for instance, is one of various bodies using the practical policy called Vision Mātauranga to ‘unlock the innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people’. This sounds like an act of Indigenisation, but . . . perhaps it is not a decolonising move but a colonising one. Mātauranga Māori is seen to have economic benefits to the colony and is thus subsumed within current colonial and capitalist practice.

Decolonisation must continually have one eye on what is being revived and another on how it may be being subverted. Is there an end point to the process of decolonisation in a post-colonial settler state? Can Te Tiriti reconfigure relationships, or does it inextricably bind colonised to coloniser like stars destined to orbit each other forever?

And whose struggle is it? Just the colonised, or the coloniser as well? Two of the book’s contributors discuss the role of Pākehā in recognising and remedying the effects and continuing manifestations of colonisation. 

Amanda Thomas, a Pākehā political geographer at Te Herenga Waka, writes: “A colonised society was created through Pākehā ideas about how things should be, so it is our responsibility as Pākehā to step back from those outdated ideas, take the cues from Māori leadership and do the work of decolonisation.”

But she warns that when the descendants of colonisers engage with ideas of decolonisation they may be doing so to alleviate guilt and shame, rather than facing the more demanding imperatives of change. 

North American researchers Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue that “non-Indigenous engagements with decolonisation have often focused on decolonising the mind only, allowing ‘conscientization to stand in for the more uncomfortable [prospect] of relinquishing stolen land’,” writes Amanda Thomas. “In other words, to properly go through with decolonisation, non-Indigenous people will have to give up power and privilege in material ways.”

What might that relinquishment look like? The book is largely silent on that crucial question. It was not intended as a roadmap, commented Moana Jackson in his talk at a Wellington book event, but something to give confidence and willingness to dream about what change might look like.

Appropriately, Imagining Decolonisation concludes with Moana’s call for a new set of stories to describe and define a decolonised Aotearoa. (Read his chapter in its entirety here.)

Moana finds strength and hope in the centrality of whakapapa — whaka papa, building relationships. “In whakapapa, no relationship is ever beyond repair,” he writes.

For Moana, an ethic of restoration is more appropriate and appealing than a focus on decolonisation, because it’s relational. Even so, the changes restoration requires will be challenging. 

It will require courageous wisdom to change, and some will say it is impossible and unrealistic. But when the ancestors crossed Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, they overcame what seemed impossible and realised that courage is simply the deep breath you take before a new beginning.

In his talk, Moana calls this “hopeful change.” Restoring values, restoring the sense of justice and harmony that the Treaty envisaged, restoring for Māori the sense of self-determination that is “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

When we reach that point, he says, we will have decolonised this country. We will have reached the justice of change and have fulfilled the hope of change.


Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. Kennedy has written extensively about the connections between people and place, past and present, both in Aotearoa, the Pacific and elsewhere.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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