Alistair Reese (Photo supplied)

Why don’t more Pākehā support Treaty justice and Māori advancement? One reason for the resistance, suggests Alistair Reese, a Pākehā theologian and historian, is a deep insecurity about identity and belonging — the “Pākehā existential dilemma”.


Discussions abound about the need for reconciliation between Māori and Pākehā. Included in the discussions are proposals for returning land to Māori and for constitutional reform.

These views have met with resistance in some Pākehā quarters, where Treaty reinterpretation is seen as a zero-sum game in which Māori are the winners and later settlers are the losers.

However, another often-overlooked complication to the reconciliation discussion is the quest for Pākehā identity.

The psychological need for a settled identity has been well traversed. For many reasons, people need to know who they are, and how and where they belong.

We live and operate from the understanding of our cultural identity — and that’s a significant factor in social cohesion. Our identity influences the way we relate to each other.

One outcome of cultural confusion is individual or collective insecurity. It’s a malady that may affect our view of others. This insecurity often means that we may feel threatened by the prosperity and progress of another person or group. It’s a form of cultural envy.

I’ve travelled around the motu talking about colonialism and the injustice that Māori have endured — including the loss of land, language and culture.

And I was expecting that Pākehā would respond with a desire to see justice and the losses restored. In other words, a fair go for all.

That does happen to some extent, but surprisingly, what I’ve often heard is Pākehā insecurity about their identity and place of belonging. “Māori know who they are, but who are we?”

So, although Pākehā “enjoy” the political, social, and economic advantages of a dominant people, in the deep area of our identity, we are insecure and somewhat challenged.

Some scholars have termed this the “Pākehā existential dilemma”. Whatever its name, I believe it limits the Pākehā support for Māori advancement and impedes the pursuit of reconciliation.

Why are Pākehā confused about their identity?

To begin to understand this, we need to recap some of our history since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. For many Pākehā, Britain tended to be referred to as “home”. Their view of history and Pākehā identity strongly depended on that connection.

This Eurocentric perspective limited the formation of an identity which might have reflected the new environment.

In addition, the process of colonisation often saw Māori encouraged, by the Crown (and even some Māori leaders), to place their own cultural identity in the background in order to adopt a European persona in terms of language and culture. Their goal being to make “progress” in the new world.

These perspectives began to change around the 1960s. With the formation of the European Economic Community, New Zealand no longer had preferential treatment in trade — and the security of connection to Europe slowly eroded.

The international cultural shifts and civil rights movements of the 1960s set a foundation for what is termed in some quarters as the “Māori renaissance” of the 1970s. This included the increasing awareness that it was good and right for Māori to be Māori. The Treaty emerged again from a period of neglect within the national consciousness, and with it came the associated recognition that Māori are the tangata whenua.

Jettisoned by changes in the “homeland”, and challenged by Māori discontent with, and resistance to, assimilation into a European worldview, Pākehā identity was challenged in a land where they had presumed dominance.

Pākehā began to ask the uncomfortable questions: “Who are we, and how do we belong here?” It was the emergence of an existential ache.

Identity is important — and so are the terms we use. We all know that the old “sticks and stones” aphorism is untrue. Names can hurt.

While the word “Pākehā” seems to be gaining acceptance by those of European ancestry, “tauiwi” is also often used to describe later settlers. This term, in my view, only exacerbates the feeling of being an outsider in the land of one’s birth — and it hinders the progress we’re making in Māori-Pākehā relationships.

Tariana Turia helpfully offered “native New Zealanders” in response to some controversial Pākehā self-identifiers, such as, “We are all New Zealanders” — a disingenuous paraphrase of Hobson’s “He iwi tahi tātou”.

Others, such as the late Michael King, sought tangata whenua status for themselves. Trevor Mallard, when he was the race relations minister, claimed the same privilege with this statement: “I consider myself an indigenous New Zealander.”

The current versions of these positions are echoed by Don Brash and others, and can be heard in the loaded phrase: “I’m simply a Kiwi.”

There are several problems with these attempts to homogenise identities and collapse the difference between Māori and later settlers. Briefly, it’s a challenge to Indigenous rights — and it’s also a possible threat to the integrity of the Treaty of Waitangi. As historian Peter Gibbons has observed: “Colonisation is not just an early morning fog that dissipates midmorning as the bright sun of national identity comes out.”

How can the Treaty help Pākehā to know who they are?

Ironically, it is the Treaty that, while often viewed as a compact that benefits Māori only, also brings a potential identity solution for Pākehā.

Sir Edward Taihukurei Durie made this point in 1989 at Waitangi, when he said: “We [Māori] must not forget that the Treaty is not just a Bill of Rights for Māori. It is a Bill of Rights for Pākehā too. It is the Treaty that gives Pākehā the right to be here. Without the Treaty there would be no lawful authority for the Pākehā presence in this part of the South Pacific . . . We must remember that, if we are the tangata whenua, the original people, then the Pākehā are the tangata Tiriti, those who belong to the land by right of that Treaty.”

On this basis, the Treaty affords Pākehā an identity — and as that statement implies, it’s also provides a pathway to belong to the land at a deeper level. I’d also add that the Treaty is not only an identifier for Pākehā, but for all other settlers who choose to enter this land.

Pākehā Treaty responsibilities

The Treaty, however, is not only about rights. It’s also about responsibilities. A relevant question then is: How can Pākehā understand the responsibilities of Treaty identity and Treaty partnership?

The Treaty articles are important. And the principles are important. But engagement at a heart level is the key because the Treaty at its core is about a relationship. As Bishop Manuhuia Bennett stated: “The Treaty is a sacred covenant entered into by the Crown and Māori, based on the promises of two people to take the best possible care they can of each other. Both parties have a common moral duty to abide by the Christian and traditional Māori values it embodies.”

This sounds a lot like another covenantal arrangement. Marriage.

Metaphors are helpful in illuminating concepts — and the marriage metaphor is worth exploring when we’re talking about the Treaty relationship.

Of course, it’s only an analogy, but it can help us to understand some of the potential. I’m not the first to draw on the marriage example to demonstrate various relationships in Aotearoa.

Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki applied the marriage metaphor to this land in the 1880s, and Professor Paul Moon and others have compared the Treaty to a marriage. How then can this analogy help us?

In relating this metaphor to the Treaty, I acknowledge that the agreement is partly about rights — but it’s more than rights. From 1840 onwards, Māori (Hōne Heke in 1840) and the Crown (Governor Gore Browne in 1860) have talked about the Treaty as a covenant.

This elevates the Treaty to more than rights talk, and it acknowledges that the Treaty is primarily about a relationship.

Returning to the metaphor, in a marriage, each person has certain rights and  responsibilities. But rights and responsibilities are not the heart of a marriage. The heart of a marriage is a loving commitment that leads to intimacy, the true knowing of each other.

One pathway to this way of relating is the honouring of the other, the desire to see the other prosper. This is genuine aroha. So, in seeking this relationship, as Pākehā, we might ask: “What is best for Māori?” And we would want to see Māori flourish culturally, politically, and economically.

As Pākehā, my response then is to honour tangata whenua, not because Māori are superior to me but because that’s how covenantal relationships are meant to work — via preferential love.

As Henry Williams explained to gathered rangatira in 1840, this ethic was the foundational pou promised by Queen Victoria in offering the Treaty. It was “her act of love to Māori”.

This contrasts with the way we Pākehā have traditionally operated in this land and is certainly a challenge to our dominant cultural position.

Relationship: Tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti

Identity configurations are complex, and of course more nuanced than the above generalised discussion has allowed.

However, given that, I conclude that discussions of what it means to be a Pākehā New Zealander in the 21st century are important. The adoption of careless identifiers will only repeat some of the colonising tendencies of the past and threaten the fragile and precious relationships which were formalised and consecrated in 1840.

Pākehā are gifted an identity in the Treaty, along with associated rights and responsibilities. Māori identity is affirmed in the Treaty, as are their rights and responsibilities.

These are detailed in the articles. But, before we work on translations and interpretations, we need to be sitting at the table together, and sometimes even arguing — but getting to know each other, by listening, and hearing.

There will be difficulties, including the challenge of negotiating our different worldviews. However, the beauty of the covenant is that we’re committed to working through our issues with an understanding that there can be unity without the loss of identity. From there, we’re then able to unpack the details of the Treaty.

The appropriate time for this is when we know something of the heart of the other. Otherwise, we’ll be talking in loaded political terms that are attempts to out-argue each other.

It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about these complex aspects, but we must understand our identity in the Treaty first. Then it’s not a zero-sum game, but a win-win for both parties.


(Note: “Treaty” refers to both the English version of the Treaty and the Māori version, Te Tiriti.)

Dr Alistair Reese is a Pākehā theologian and historian with a particular focus on social reconciliation, seeking to strengthen the relationship between Māori and Pākehā in Aotearoa. He is also a farmer in the district of Tapuika, Bay of Plenty.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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