Tribal Fundamentalism Versus Pan-Maori Organizations

Jennifer Lee '99 (English 27, Spring '97)

The Taranaki case was a remarkable breakthrough in terms of Maori rights, even if the rulings were violated, because it represented a victory, a restoration of mana, for all Maori. Clearly, though, some tribes benefit more than others from Tribunal decisions, and this raises the highly controversial question of the legitimacy of a pan-Maori movement as opposed to the phenomenon that Levine and Henare call tribal or iwi fundamentalism. According to Levine and Henare, the case of Sealords fishing deal in 1987 is a good example of this trend which they believe is threatening to the solidarity and strength of the modern Maori movement. In this case, Maori fisheries struck a deal with the government in which they would receive half share in the purchase of the Sealords fishing company and 20 percent of the quota on all new species in return for a guarantee that no further commercial claims would be made under the Treaty of Waitangi. Levine and Henare claim that these kinds of settlements have a tendency to undermine Maori solidarity because the result is "tribal jockeying for slices of the pie."

The comments made by Sir Tipene O'Regan of the Ngai Tahu tribe are especially illuminating of this point. The Ngai Tahu is a small Southern Island tribe which stands to gain the most from the Sealords deal - $50 million from 1989 alone. Additionally, the tribe is probably the least Maori in terms of bloodlines, and also the wealthiest. Understandably, then, O'Regan, a leader of the tribe and a member of the Maori Council has a lot at stake in claiming tribal loyalties before any larger ethnic ties. My interest as an individual in Ngai Tahu's assets is there by whakapapa because I belong to a group of people who were the owners and who were deprived of the ownership of their property. That is a property ownership issue. I'm not there because I belong to an ethnic group. To chuck it in a great pot and stir it up in a soup is really to revert solely to some big generic group based solely on race.

In response, Levine and Henare make the argument against such self-interested motivations.

But if, as O'Regan alleges, justice, ownership and descent count regardless of race or ethnicity then why are tribes any more relevant than Maori identity? Why chuck it into a tribal pot if a smaller pot can be found? In any case the number of pots seems to expand as time goes on and Sir Tipene may be hoisted on his own petard as new tribes hive off from his own.

I am spending what may seem to be an inordinate amount of space on this subject because it is one which directly affects Maori relations with the state. According to Levine and Henare, the state is the biggest winner when tribal fundamentalism becomes the norm and bickering between groups becomes more important than a collective effort to change Maori policy handed down by the government. More and more, though, tribes have been discovering that there is money to be made from resource-rich tribal lands. Thus, it should be expected that the tendency will be towards fragmentation rather than unity. Levine and Henare's work warns of the ill effects of such individualism, but they believe that individualism is manifested on the tribal level. Similarly, Ann Sullivan also writes about the sense of individualism that the government has engendered through its policies. The difference, however, is that Sullivan asserts that individualism happens when tribes disintegrate into self-interested actors, rather than tribal groups.

Sullivan maintains that "Tribal identity, whanaungatanga (kinship, collective development, and loyalty), has enabled Maori to survive as a distinct and separate people in spite of the assimilation practices of previous governments and in spite of the loss of their land which is the very essence of Maori identity." Her argument is that the state, through various methods and programs, has managed to undermine the essence of collectivity which defines the Maori people. Indeed, the state's assimilative motives cannot allow the recognition of tribes as the political and social forces that she believes they still are in Maori cultural patterns. In essence, Sullivan supports the line of thinking that Levine and Henare believe leads to tribal fundamentalism; therefore, her theory can be used as a basis for which to argue Levine and Henare's point. Sullivan assumes that "In contemporary times, the strength of the Maori people still lies in the concept of tribal affiliation" , but this is impossible and idealistic. According to Toon van Meijl, "Tribes are frequently represented as immutable remnants of the past, but in contemporary practice they simply denote nominal organizations with a legal status, which are being reconstructed for political reasons." In light of the lowly economic and social status that has befallen a large percentage of Maori in today's society, it is far more likely that Van Mejil paints a more realistic portrait of the situation.

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