Cultural Notes : Unease in the land of the long white cloud

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The Independent Culture
THE MAORI language was an oral language, its history and cultural traditions passed down through generations of orators and scholars. The long, thin islands at the bottom of the world, their stories tell, began to be inhabited by Maori in the 10th century. They travelled through the Pacific Ocean in canoes with sails, covering thousands of miles using the stars and the tides and the wind to guide them until, between the blue of the sky and the green of the sea, a change in the light appeared, a white mist: land. They called it "Aotearoa" - the land of the long white cloud.

Here, by the 14th century, different tribes from their mythical homeland, Hawaiki, had settled. They cultivated and fished, and fought each other in violent battles over land, and women, for many generations, owning the discovered land communally not individually, maintaining a close spiritual relationship with the earth that sustained them. And then the Dutch and the British and the French, with their missionaries and muskets and soldiers, discovered New Zealand.

During all the early uncertainty, comprehending that if it wasn't the British it would be the French, most of the Maori chiefs signed, in 1840, a document called the Treaty of Waitangi. They agreed to accept the new British settlers and their institutions: in exchange they would retain rights over their land and their forests and their fishing waters under protection from Queen Victoria. Shiploads of British settlers began to arrive: a hazardous, six-month, 12,000-mile journey. Just like the Maori travellers centuries before them, they had heard of a new country, they wanted a new life. For many it was a chance, at last, to live untainted by class and privilege. In London and New Zealand entrepreneurs set up companies to sell the new settlers millions of acres of land.

Terrible battles followed. The Maori lost most of their land, their population was decimated, by war and by the new European diseases. The remains of the once-proud warrior race lived mostly in sad, squalid communities. They were educated into a white Anglo-Saxon culture: they learnt Shakespeare and Tennyson; all over the country, teachers strapped Maori children if they heard them speaking the naughty native language. By the 1940s and 1950s the prisons were disproportionately full of Maori people: the dispossessed, the alcoholic, lost in an abyss with no culture and no language to hold them upright. The Treaty of Waitangi was a quaint historical footnote.

In the 1950s some early Maori university graduates understood that, if they could save their dying language, they might, just, save their people. The oral tradition had passed down the information as surely as if it had been written in stone: over a number of years, through education and protest, as Maori themselves became lawyers and business people, it became clear not just to Maori but to most New Zealanders that a treaty had been violated. A legal body, the Waitangi Commission, was set up in 1975: slowly and painfully it is giving back the land, or reparations for the land, looking meticulously at each of the many claims put before it.

Initially there was much support from the New Zealand population in general for the righting of historical wrongs. Private land is exempt from the Waitangi Commission's activities, so people aren't being dragged screaming from their homes and land and farms.

Nevertheless many white New Zealanders are now uneasy. It is not just the millions of acres returned to tribes that once owned them, the millions of dollars paid. City centres, railway stations, tourist attractions, rugby parks, mountains and lakes are changing landlords. People say that Maori are getting "greedy" and "above themselves", that race relations are deteriorating "because all Maoris are doing is jumping on the Treaty bandwagon and smoking marijuana". The Tribunal process is slow and not nearly over.

Barbara Ewing is the author of `A Dangerous Vine' (Little, Brown, pounds 9.99)