A Story of Reparations and Healing From New Zealand (SSIR)
(Illustration courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)
Before taking my seat, I stood in line to greet the ceremony’s other attendees. As I approached each person—tribal elders, community leaders, politicians—we pressed our noses and foreheads together for several seconds to perform the hongi, a customary greeting of the Māori people, the Indigenous Polynesians of mainland New Zealand. According to Māori tradition, the greeting meant I was no longer manuhiri, a visitor, but tangata whenua, a person of the land. This meaning was fitting for the event. Hundreds of us gathered to acknowledge how the Crown—as New Zealand’s government is still known colloquially today, as the successor to British colonial rule—unlawfully confiscated the Ngāti Maru (a Māori tribe) land more than 150 years ago.
Beginning in the 1860s, European settlers declared large areas of tribal land “confiscation districts.” Against the will of many Ngāti Maru members, countless acres were opened for British settlement, which rendered the tribe nearly landless, led to generations of economic, cultural, social, and spiritual hardship. Now, two centuries later, the Crown was there to apologize, and I was there, all the way from the United States, to witness what happens when a colonizer admits wrongdoing to the ancestors of those it colonized.
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Ngāti Maru members welcomed the Crown with a series of full-throated hakas or ceremonial dances.
“The Crown acknowledges that Ngāti Maru’s relationship with the Crown has been one characterized by loss of land, of identity, and of autonomy. For Ngāti Maru, this loss has left a legacy of dislocation and dispossession,” Andrew Little, New Zealand’s minister of health and minister of the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, told the audience. “For those [Crown] actions which rendered your iwi almost completely landless, severed your connection to your whenua [land], and inflicted economic hardship and suffering on generations of your people, the Crown sincerely apologizes.”
Little also read a lengthy list of historical harms: The Taranaki region wars of the 1860s brought on by the government were “an injustice” and violated the Treaty of Waitangi, the landmark 1840 agreement between Māori and British settlers; rampant land theft “divided the tribe” and deprived it of traditional food sources and sites of ancestral significance; the fragmentation of the land led to the “erosion of tribal structures”; the Crown’s imprisonment of Ngāti Maru members for their participation in peaceful resistance campaigns inflicted “unwarranted damage” and represented a denial of human rights and Māori sovereignty; the government “grossly polluted” the Waitara River, a resource Ngāti Maru members consider an ancestor, and degraded the environment.
Little announced that the government would also deliver a settlement or reparations. Little listed all of the ways the Crown sought to compensate Ngāti Maru, from the return of land (16 sites of cultural significance) and financial redress ($30 million plus interest) to cultural revitalization (a fund of $1,023,454) and greater land rights (the right to purchase the Te Wera Crown Forest).
As I watched Ngāti Maru elders hug the toddlers and teenagers at the ceremony, with tears of joy streaming from their eyes, I felt a rush of possibility. If Māori could fight for reparations and win, surely more US leaders could at least begin to take the conversation about compensation for historic abuses seriously as part of a strategy to rectify disparities in health, education, housing, wealth, and more.
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When I asked Māori activists about getting the Crown to acknowledge their injustices, they weren’t shy about the level of organizing and sacrificing it took, in the face of racism and pushback from pākehā, their white counterparts.
“They thought we were a dying race,” Māori activist and artist Tame Iti, told me.
Iti’s full-face moko (traditional tattoo), and his decades of activism, make him one of the most recognizable faces in New Zealand. Fighting racism put him in the spotlight. As a child growing up in the 1950s, the myth that New Zealand had great race relations prevailed despite the fact that land theft and war in the previous century made disparities between Māori and pākehā glaringly apparent. By the mid-20th century, Māori had poorer health, education, and housing, and were more likely to face incarceration and poverty. But youth activists, including Iti, moved to the cities and joined forces with Māori elders, including activist Whina Cooper in the early 1970s, to lead mass resistance efforts. At the Land March of 1975, a watershed moment in Māori activism, protesters who marched for miles to Wellington, the nation’s capital, chanted, “Not one more acre.”
Activist and artist Tāme Iti speaks to Fabiola Cineas at his art studio. (Photo courtesy of Fabiola Cineas)
A year after the march, the government established a tribunal to investigate modern Māori grievances. In 1985, the government amended the tribunal’s jurisdiction, giving it the power to investigate Māori grievances going back to 1840, the year Māori and the British signed a key sovereignty agreement. This opened the door to settlements with the nearly 150 Māori tribes across New Zealand. The very first settlement was filed by the Ngāi Tahu tribe in 1986 and finalized in 1998. The tribe received an apology signed by Queen Elizabeth herself, $170 million in compensation, and the return of the sacred mountain Aoraki, or Mount Cook, among other settlement wins.
“It certainly was a courageous move on the part of the government at that time to find a way through to heal once and for all the grievances of Māori,” Iti said. “You’re talking about more than a century of concerns, festering grievances that had been around for a long, long time.”
By mid-2018, the New Zealand government had signed 73 settlements into law, valuing $2.24 billion. Māori tribes have used the money to rebuild, from constructing schools and launching intra-tribal health care initiatives to restoring land and building infrastructure for businesses. The compensation has allowed Māori to build wealth for future generations and the apologies have helped them move forward. The settlements have already made some
But Māori are quick to highlight the downsides of the settlement process, a heads-up to observers.
“At the time, I celebrated our settlement, because we were too poor to not make a change,” activist Taitimu Maipi, a member of Ngai Tahu, said. “We lost language. We lost land. We lost our way of life. Everything was taken from us. Even the air we breathe, the river, the lakes, the land, the mountains, the coal, the sands. So when I think about it now, the settlement money is only a drop in the bucket.”
Other problems presented themselves throughout decades of negotiations between Māori and the Crown. For one, the settlements take years. Next, Crown ministers determine financial redress, leaving negotiations vulnerable to politics and the government of the day. This has divided tribes. And some New Zealanders perceived this as apartheid, arguing that Māori are undemocratically getting special treatment.
Inequalities remain despite efforts to close gaps in various life outcomes. The New Zealand Herald recently reported that some health disparities between Māori and pākehā haven’t changed in over 100 years. Māori are still more likely to develop deadlier cancers (there’s a 30 percent disparity in lung cancer survival rates between Māori and pākehā that’s persisted for 20 years), have cardiovascular disease, suffer a stroke, and require treatment for mental health disorders including schizophrenia. As a result, Māori are calling for the establishment of an independent health authority led by Māori to target their specific needs.
I didn’t talk to a single activist or tribe member who believed that any settlement could ever fully compensate Indigenous people for the grave losses they suffered.
When I think back to the United States, the arguments lobbed against reparations are aplenty: Slavery and Native American displacement took place so long ago; reparations would create more animosity between the races; the average American shouldn’t be expected to foot the bill; marginalized groups already receive reparations through welfare and social programs; reparations for Blacks or Native Americans would ignore the plight of poor whites; it would be impossible to gain a diverse coalition of support; it would be impossible to determine how much various groups and individuals should receive. What the Māori showed me was that obstacles were present, but the weight of the debt owed guided the nation. Finding a way through the resistance and doubt was worthwhile.
In the United States, health disparities between white Americans and Black and Native Americans are one area where a commitment to reparations and related policy change could begin to solve long-standing challenges. The Indian Health Service remains underfunded, leaving Native Americans to die 5.5 years earlier than all other groups in the United States, and Black Americans have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension when compared to most other groups.
Ultimately, the settlement process has given Māori tribes the chance to move forward. Future generations will avoid having the same fights their ancestors did. The settlements have also helped Māori become self-reliant, moving beyond grievances to a space where they have the resources to build for themselves.
The greatest catharsis of all was being able to tell their stories, crafting historical accounts that celebrated the bravery of their ancestors, their fears, and hopes. “We were carrying the load of these stories within our communities. We didn’t want to do that for another hundred years. We were able to let go of some of it,” Iti said.
As the ceremony concluded with outbursts of song, tears, and laughter, I thought again about how we could achieve this joy at home. In the United States, the national conversation about reparations for slavery and the pillaging of Native American land has mostly stalled. On the campaign trail, President Biden promised to launch a commission to study reparations, but he hasn’t uttered the word since taking office. The national bill to establish a federal reparations taskforce, H.R. 40, first introduced in the late 1980s, has gained more support than ever, but not enough to pass through Congress. And though locales and institutions, including the entire state of California; Evanston, Illinois; and Georgetown University, have launched efforts to examine reparations, public support among Americans for the idea remains low. Despite these circumstances and the many clear differences between the United States and New Zealand, I couldn’t help but make connections in my mind about all the ways we stood to learn from the island nation.
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