Indigenous Rights Discriminate Against Indigenous People


My sisters and I are pretty fair, do we get to be indigenous?

A note on what you’re about to read.

This piece was written for a debate where the moot was, ‘That indigenous rights discriminate against non-indigenous people.’ Personally I believe that there is validity in indigenous rights. Indigenous rights are no different from the existence of majority group rights, the rights of men, etc etc. However, in this piece I question the validity of our construction of indigenous rights
– Who gets to be indigenous? 

This debate is essentially about rights – who benefits, who doesn’t. The moot posits that indigenous rights discriminate against non-indigenous people. I argue that not only do indigenous rights discriminate against non-indigenous people, but also through the nature of their construction against indigenous themselves.

In discussing indigenous rights I will first highlight the nature of rights claims, also who gets to access them – who actually gets to be indigenous?

 There are many avenues for indigenous people to claim rights. For example, the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples accords indigenous claim rights such as self determination and non-discrimination, but also the right to claim traditional lands and resources and to maintain and strengthen their own distinct institutions.

In New Zealand, Māori as indigenous also have the right to make claims through te Tiriti O Wāitangi. While Te Tiriti hasn’t always acted in our favour, Article Two where Māori were confirmed tino rangatiratanga over their lands, villages and taonga katoa has allowed Māori to claim indigenous rights over customary fishing, te reo Māori and more recently access to the 4G spectrum and rights over water usage.

Indigenous rights, such as I have mentioned above are fundamentally claim rights. That is, rights that obligate other people or groups to ensure that the right holder has access to their claim. These rights are discriminatory as they establish an environment of obligation, where the majority of the population is obligated to serve a privileged minority.

Indigenous rights are therefore anti egalitarian as they value one group over another simply because they got here first. Any assertion that they are necessary as a consequence of post colonial damages is false as they usually are not about remedying post colonial harms, but instead ascribing ethnically motivated privilege.

The privilege does not end there though, if someone has to benefit, someone has to miss out – so who is it who gets to benefit as a consequence? Who in turn misses out? Here’s a hint. It’s not just non-indigenous people.

The question of who can claim indigenous status as a Māori person is difficult. First of all, defining Māori as a single homogenous group is a post colonial construct that fails to recognize the complicated dynamics of Māori culture – it ignores the varying experiences of Māori within iwi and hapu and conversely that of urban Māori. We must admit that it is no longer 1840 and the face of Māori has changed. With intermarriage of races, ethnic mobility  and physical mobility many Māori are no longer simply just Māori.

So with a population abundant in variation – how do you define who has the right to access indigenous rights? Tahu Kukutai in his research on the topic found that there was no definitive criteria for ethnic group membership. 

So what makes someone Māori? Tikanga, Te Reo, Whanaungatanga, Whakapapa I’m sure all quickly pop to mind. But it doesn’t end there – what about things like how brown you are? Questions like, ‘Oh how Māori are you? What percentage?’ Is knowledge of tikanga enough? Is it as simple as a state of mind or just having Māori ancestry?

If that is the case then what would be the situation for someone who has been whangaied? With no Māori ‘blood’ but brought up with a strong sense of Māori identity, whanaungatanga, te reo – can they claim indigenous rights? And if they can’t –  but their whānau can, then how do they fit into the world?

As far as actual measurements used go, blood quantum used to be the way forward, so you’re ¼ Māori? Great you’re a quarter caste. Does this actually have any scientific validity? No, but government officials defended the concept as a meaningful social distinction until 1981, this impacting on how people claimed their identity and voting rights.

Conversely Statistics NZ defines ethnicity as shared elements of culture, ancestry and geographic origins, while the Māori Land Court goes as far as to allow anybody of Māori race and any descendent to be Māori. There has been a suggestion that to simplify things we establish ‘a core Māori population’ as defined by ancestry, ethnicity and tribal affiliation. This is despite the fact that out of an estimated 586,000 Māori in 2001, only 399,941 would be able to be counted under this definition.

As it stands, Māori identity is self identified. Mostly. If you want to access indigenous rights for example in the form of a Māori scholarship then you’re going to need to prove your affiliation, often with the signature of a kaumatua. Which is reasonable until you remember that many Māori no longer live in tribal rohe, the fact that from the end of the second world war into the 1960s that Māori were actively shifted away from their tribal lands into the cities and pepper potted amongst pakeha communities. The fact that many Māori of those generations  were prevented from acknowledging their cultural heritage, a phenomena which has since impacted on their children and grandchildren’s ability to access Te Ao Māori.

This was a direct consequence of government intervention. A situation which actively prevented many Māori from being able to tick boxes like tribal affiliation and knowledge of whanaungatanga. There are countless New Zealanders with Māori ancestry who do not feel like they have a right to claim their Māori identity. Some are sitting in this room right now. So who does get to be Māori?

As we all know, indigenous rights and treaty settlements have allowed for a Māori elite to emerge. Māori who have access to corporations like 2Degrees and millions of government dollars. But has that really changed anything for Māori in this country? No. We’re still hearing about hungry shoeless Māori kids, about Māori unemployment and Māori crime rates. Cartoons of greedy Māori are still being published in the papers.

That’s because indigenous rights only benefit a small group and exclude the rest. They’re fundamentally anti-egalitarian and force us to choose between us and them, between Māori and Māori. This doesn’t help indigenous people. This doesn’t help New Zealanders. Indigenous rights are fundamentally discriminatory.


About madicattt

Curator of The Things That Are Good. Sharing the things that stand out in the worlds of theatre, food, beauty and style.
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3 Responses to Indigenous Rights Discriminate Against Indigenous People

  1. Mahonri Williams says:


  2. keraoregan says:

    Didn’t get a chance to read all of this but just saw it and thought I HAD to skim through before I go! I think you hit the nail on the head with the part about many Maori not living in their ancestral rohe though. Living in cities or not being engaged with their iwi does not make urban Maori any less deserving of reparations due to the suffering of their ancestors which often has some implication for the current generation (ie. if your ancestors had all their land and resources taken and were poor, then it is more likely you will be also because of lack of inherited wealth and opportunities that come from wealth within the western capitalist system). However, a lot of this comes from the fact that Western institutions have enforced certain rules on Maori. For eg. it is the NZ (then predominantly pakeha) govt that structured Maori into the rigid iwi-hapu-whanau dynamic. Previously these were fluid categories, a hapu could become an iwi, and iwi could become a hapu etc. but in order to make claims to the Tribunal etc. iwi were emphasised by the govt. So I think this is something inherently wrong with the way NZ institutions dealing with Maori have been set up. They don’t acknowledge that the Maori world view is fundamentally different from that of the pakeha, and I would argue that at this point I don’t see them as reconcilable as some beliefs blatantly contradict eachother: eg. looking at Maori view of ownership vs Pakeha view. I think this is quite a pervasive issue in NZ: there is a lack of recognition that Maori world view simply can not fit into the pakeha one. It is not simply about appropriating words, planting trees, or whatever. The Maori world view is full of so much history, experience, tikanga etc. just like the pakeha one is in their own way. They just do not fit. And there seems to be a lot of issues coming from NZ institutions trying to fit Maori into their own pakeha view of the world.

    • madicattt says:

      Tautoko!!!!!!!! Fundamentally ‘Māori’ don’t really exist. It’s a dynamic collection of whānau sharing some common ancestry, history and customs but in some cases it’s a bit like saying the Irish are the same as the Brits.

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