Reviewed: Rachel Buchanan, Ko Taranaki Te Maunga: Knowledge Beats Shame, BWB Texts, 2019
When I was a child, Taranaki, in the North Island’s south-west, was a magical place. My grandmother lived there, in a small town called Hāwera, right in the middle of the region’s farming heartland. On our yearly trips north from our home in the deep frigid south, her little garden seemed practically tropical: a pervasive, steamy, lush warmth, the air muggy with the sweet smell of yellow gorse. There was a pool in her back yard, an orange tree, and the sound of cows moaning in the neighbouring paddocks behind her boxthorn hedge.
Ours being a family big on day trips, my brother and I were regularly taken to see the local sights—the rhododendron garden at Pukeiti, flowers always drooping under recent rain, the Tawhiti Museum with its old steam train and creepy dioramas, and Te Kohia pa in Waitara, the site of the fortified village where, we were told, ‘the wars started’. On the Waitara trip I was more interested in the elbow-length gloves I found in a box of deadstock at the haberdashery shop than I was in ‘the wars’. We were taught almost nothing about them in my rural Southland primary school. We had never heard of Parihaka, less than an hour from Hāwera.
But we knew ‘Mount Egmont’ (as he was then, to us) was special, something to be marvelled at. In grandma’s house, in her garden, and wherever we went, the mountain was just there, sometimes clouded over, sometimes iridescent with snow. Last week Taranaki Maunga was finally relieved of his Pākehā name, Mount Egmont, ahead of legislation that will affirm his legal personality in New Zealand law. This new status will reflect his ancient standing in tikanga Māori (Māori law) and, through his human representatives, enable him to assert and defend his interests.
Taranaki Maunga once lived with the volcanoes of the North Island’s central plateau, but as the losing combatant in a fight for the love of the mountain Pihanga, he was forced to retreat to the south-west, carving out the Whanganui River valley in his haste. Te Maunga (the mountain) is the centre of the improbably green Taranaki region. The volcanic soils that make Taranaki farmland so fertile are his, and because he now lives alone, the skyline belongs to him as well. When humans first emerged from the land, he presided over their lives, and when the settlers came, he stood witness to some of the worst acts of colonial violence in Aotearoa’s history, among these the senseless sacking of Parihaka. Parihaka is a village on the southern flanks of Te Maunga, a place that in the 1800s provided refuge and spiritual sustenance for displaced Māori from all over New Zealand. It remains today a symbol of Māori fortitude and resistance. Te Maunga’s story is forever entwined with those of his human descendants, who share his grief and whakama (shame), and no doubt also his broken heart.
These human stories of loss and persistence are the focus of Rachel Buchanan’s beautiful book Ko Taranaki Te Maunga. In this book, Buchanan faces her mountain. She turns her attention to the many painful reasons why the most important stories about Taranaki are hard to come by and hard to hear. She wonders if the nine Parihaka apologies offered by the Crown to Taranaki iwi (tribes) do much justice, and whether the latest apology, just now enacted in the Te Pire Haeata ki Parihaka/Parihaka Reconciliation Bill 2019, succeeds in its efforts to improve on the others. She laces the stories of Taranaki together with those of her family and ancestors.
The result is an intricate and generous work that deftly links people and places across Taranaki’s human history. Buchanan points out in innumerable insightful ways that the intimate life of whanau connects Māori to bigger and broader histories in a way that the discipline and the experience of settler history probably does not:
Whakapapa is a web that connects my relatives to a range of local, national, and international stories, affirming and destabilising them. History then, is not just a dialogue between present and past but between the intersections of very small stories (what my great-grandmother did and what her father did, and so on), with very big stories (what the New Zealand Company did, what the British Empire did). (p. 88)
Buchanan takes on the task of stepping around the war crimes committed by settlers, officials and British soldiers against Taranaki iwi, surrounding these events with the letters, conversations and waiata (songs) that she has discovered outside the official records. This may well be Buchanan’s own expression of what she calls a ‘typically oblique Taranaki Māori way’ of thinking, in which what is taken for granted turns out, after a more careful re-reading or rehearing, to have a ‘deeper, hidden meaning’. She sees great promise in this type of reflective investigation. ‘By looking for these other meanings, people can turn around their understandings of past events and gain new perspectives into the process of reconciliation from an indigenous as well as a Crown perspective.’
In Ko Taranaki Te Maunga, Buchanan gently interlaces her personal experience of research and writing with the official histories now recorded in the public archives kept by the Waitangi Tribunal, the Office of Treaty Settlements and the Māori Land Court. Drawing on the voices she uncovers in her archival research and in talking with her family, she shows us the backdrop and aftermath to the sacking of Parihaka, the whenua raupatu (land confiscations), and the abductions and imprisonments, all calculated to separate Taranaki iwi (tribes, but also ‘bones’) from Taranaki whenua (land, but also ‘placenta’). This dismemberment left the people full of whakama, ashamed and demoralised by their many losses, and by their inability to fulfil their responsibilities to the places they belonged to. The big stories make clear that the Taranaki Wars did indeed begin ‘at Waitara’ in 1863, as I had learnt as a child, although the untaught backdrop was of course settler avarice and violence.
The punishment for the Taranaki Māori who tried to protect their land and people was incalculably cruel. As Buchanan says, the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 that enabled the first confiscations ‘turned Taranaki to ash’. Within a year the settlers arriving on the ‘king tides’ of targeted occupation vastly outnumbered Taranaki Māori. As the land base shrank, people from all over Aotearoa began to regroup in Parihaka, under the leadership of Tohu Kākahi and Te Whiti o Rongomai. In 1865 the Crown doubled down on land confiscations so that ‘even the mountain was taken’ and yet, says Buchanan, ‘with everything gone, the Crown was still not satisfied’. It wanted surrender. It turned its attention to Parihaka. An ultimatum was delivered in late 1881, and shortly afterwards the village was invaded and destroyed by settler constabulary and military troops.
Buchanan’s book is arranged around the behaviour of time. She writes about the ways trauma makes times and places stick together, so that a sequence of events cannot be laid out in a line like the parts of a dismantled car engine (at least this is how my father dismantled a car engine), because they are draped around and across one another. She recounts a conversation with Taranaki elder Mahara Okeroa, during which he draws a koru (a spiral shape important in Māori art) to show how close he is to the old people of Parihaka and the things they experienced. Taranaki Maunga, at the centre of it all, is immortal. He ‘has his own weather and his own time, indifferent’. Buchanan’s archive is likewise timeless, a thing of ‘endless duration’, a ‘collection of documents scooped up from oblivion’ that draws her close and spins her away again:
The past is not an event that can be boxed up, labelled and put away. The past seeps, unfurls, radiates. It is not a straight line, but a loop or a coil, a koru. This sense of open-endedness is especially potent for Parihaka, which was a prophetic community. (p. 76)
Immersion in her archives pulls her in and out of places, so that time folds itself into a concertina. She describes putting together the pieces of her PhD over a period that included her father’s illness and death:
I inhabited all the different time zones at once, the places where my family lived, the phases of my life, the phases of my children’s lives. The clocks ticked inside me. Melbourne time. Wellington time. Berlin time. Childhood time. Teenager time. Middle-age time. Old-age time. Taranaki time. Mountain time. Uncharted territory time. Deep-space time. Catholic time. The dying Dad time. (pp. 13–14)
When questions of time and memory are at stake, as they are crucially in Buchanan’s book, we Pākehā are asked to consider our own institutions and their perpetuity. Buchanan prompts us to wonder who or what the ‘Crown’ is, and to ask how it represents us. The person of the Crown has served a very particular purpose in Pākehā-Māori relations. It has focused our attention on the treaty partners as corporate actors, dealing with one another at arm’s length. It has enabled the New Zealand version of ‘reconciliation’ to proceed without too much expectation that Pākehā New Zealanders should reflect on their attitudes and understanding.
Living as I do in Australia, I have long thought that the New Zealand way in matters of state–Indigenous relations is somehow ‘better’, in both method and substance. To New Zealanders it may seem obvious that the Crown could and should lead the ‘electorate’ and fulfil its treaty-based responsibilities as a form of external relations, as duties owed by one nation or polity to another. Just as parliaments do not negotiate or undertake treaty-making in international law, we could be forgiven for thinking that matters related to the Treaty should not be determined by the people in their legislature. Some of our parliamentary conventions reflect this fact—Treaty-settlement deeds are implemented in legislation but the terms of the agreement are not to be altered by parliament.
I worked for ‘the Crown’, and I know the abstraction is important and useful. Not least because it assists to protect Māori as a minority from the excesses of majoritarian politics. I’m not sure Treaty settlements would be possible without this idea. But Buchanan’s work has made me think hard about what this attenuated relationship between settlers and the Crown looks like to Māori. While our institutions engage one another as treaty partners, what are we Pākehā up to?
Buchanan reminds us that the costs of reconciliation and the labour required to keep it moving are not evenly distributed. Indigenous people do most of the work:
Taranaki people have worked to flip the script and turn around the pain of historical events by acts of determined, creative and provocative remembrance … [and] how this local, intimate whanau-centered work provides some exacting possibilities for new kinds of historical scholarship but also illuminates a significant problem with Crown apologies. Namely there is a disconnect between what the Crown says about the past, supposedly on behalf of the nation, and what non-Māori people say about it inside their homes. (p. 57)
This seems to me to be exactly right. Buchanan explains that in 1992, when Treaty settlement minister Doug Graham offered a personal apology for the invasion of Parihaka, he directed it to ‘the ancestors of Parihaka’, obscuring both the currency of the loss carried by Taranaki Māori and the significance of the Parihaka desecration for all Māori. She says that in aggregate the nine Parihaka apologies
have tended to magnif[y] rather than mitigate grievance at Parihaka. They have done little to aid either local or national remembrance and understandings of what Parihaka is all about, and what the Taranaki Wars meant and continue to mean for Taranaki Māori … Serious wrongdoing and loss generate an enormous amount of shame, anger and sorrow that flows down through generations. But how is this same distributed? Who feels it most? (p. 56)
Buchanan believes, and persuasively explains, that ‘The burden, shame and exhaustion wrought by Taranaki’s past is carried, overwhelmingly, by Māori’. It is ‘Māori, not Pākehā, who have been burdened by shame as a result of invasion, plunder and confiscation. How do apologies figure in all of this?’. She points out that when the New Zealand Crown apologises to iwi, the requirement that rights and responsibilities are to be determined and formalised is in tension with the expectation that an apology will deliver redemption on a human level.
In Australia, I venture to suggest, settlers as individuals are positioned at the front and centre of reconciliation, and how we feel is at least as important as what is done on our behalf. I further suggest that this focus on the personal and on effect may be precisely what has slowed us down. In May 1997, on my first visit to Melbourne, I stood in the overflow room of the Australian Reconciliation Convention and heard John Howard say that ‘Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control.’ In his view:
Many [Reconciliation] meetings have focussed on what people in their own communities can do to advance the cause of reconciliation. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of true reconciliation. Governments and leaders alone cannot make reconciliation happen simply through legislation, decrees, declarations or rhetoric. True reconciliation must come from the hearts and minds of the Australian people.
Ten years later, prime minister Kevin Rudd’s famous 2008 apology was heralded as announcing a sea-change in the history wars. But this apology was made on behalf of ‘the Parliament of Australia’ and addressed ‘the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments’. This is not an apology by a continuous legal person for its own acts. As a result, it is a strange sort of apology.
All this to say it seems that the person of the Crown, in the continuous institution that is always ‘the same’, however populated, is, in some important respects, missing here in Australia. It makes fleeting appearances only in native title jurisprudence, in references to the ‘Crowns in rights of the states’. This is in contrast to the Commonwealth, which does not have its own ‘Crown’, but instead possesses a markedly less personal ‘executive’. It is the Australian Crowns of the colonies that inherited the British Imperial Crown’s sovereign powers to acquire and allocate land, powers still (mostly) within the purview of the states’ jurisdiction today.
But reconciliation in Australia is still largely understood as a meeting of races, which is to be facilitated by, but not led by, our elected representatives. This leads me to wonder: whatever ‘the Crown’ enables Pākehā to ignore, is it not better that it nonetheless settles claims, by negotiated agreement, and that these questions of ‘responsibility and right’ are not put to the electorate? Is not the risk more pressing, not less, in Australia where Indigenous people are outnumbered 35 to 1 by their settler neighbours?
All of this is acutely relevant in Victoria, where ‘we the people’ are contemplating the negotiation of treaties between Victorian traditional owners and Victoria ‘the state’. Is such a treaty a compact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Victorians? Or is it an agreement concluded between the abstract corporate entities of the state, on the one hand, and traditional owner communities on the other? The newly constituted Assembly of Victoria’s First Peoples met for the first time in December 2019. One of its tasks is to negotiate a treaty framework, which will identify the Indigenous parties to treaties in Victoria. While this work of Indigenous organisation and mandate gets underway, important questions about the identity of the non-Indigenous party to treaties remain to be debated. For the non-Indigenous state, the division of labour between the executive and legislative branches of government is again directly and crucially at stake.
The issue of continuity looms large. For very good reasons, Aboriginal Victorians are preoccupied by the possibility that treaty negotiations, however advanced, will be scuttled by a change of government. The fear is not an abstract one. Victoria’s Treaty Advancement legislation, establishing the institutions that will design our treaty-making process, identifies the non-Indigenous party as ‘the Victorian state’. During the passage of the act, however, the Victorian Liberal Party leadership made it clear that their party would repeal the act if and when they regained power. The prospect of a South Australian treaty proposed in 2018 was dashed within a year by the election of a Liberal government.
Victoria’s Treaty Advancement legislation is designed to secure a modest measure of continuity in the face of a change of government (parliament cannot commit its successors after all), but it is notable that mandating or authorising legislation is not a feature of treaty-making and treaty-settlement negotiations in New Zealand or in British Columbia, presumably because continuity is thought to be secured by commitments of the ‘artificial person’ of the Crown, an entity not synonymous with ‘government’ or ‘parliament’. In Australia, it seems, the success or failure of treaty-making processes appears to be closely associated in the public and political debates with the perceived likelihood of securing ‘buy-in’ from settler Australians, expressed through the passage of legislation.
Pragmatically this seems sensible, given the political climate and the posturing of opposition governments, but it also points to a lack of political leadership and reflects the idea that in Australia, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples relate as populations, not polities. The constitutional issues are complex, but at their core they pivot on the same questions that Buchanan asks in her book, about whether and how the conduct of the Indigenous–state relationship can relieve settlers of the need to interrogate the ways they benefit from and perpetuate historic injustice. The question I ask myself is whether such an interrogation will benefit Indigenous people. I suppose I conclude that this kind of soul-searching will probably not make a Victorian treaty more likely, and that if this is true, the idea that legislation is needed to empower the executive to make a treaty is a feature of the treaty process that is in need of serious consideration.
In my reading, then, Buchanan is pointing out the abstraction that most of us Pākehā prefer not to think too much about: who is the Crown speaking for when it decides what it is sorry for? What are ‘we the people’ sorry for? Do we even know enough of the history to apologise properly? Buchanan reveals that the prophet Te Whiti o Rongomai also addressed this question. In 1879, while Parihaka was still thriving, but Taranaki iwi were being rapidly dispossessed, he explained to Buchanan’s ancestor Koro Charles that:
I do not think the people have any power over Government; the Government rule the people. We do not complain of the people, but of the Government. I am quite sure that if the people had the power we would have justice done.
Buchanan asks of us, Pākehā New Zealanders, whose Crown has now apologised nine times in our name for what it did at Parihaka, and more obliquely and frequently, for everything that happened to Taranaki, this question: ‘Will the people step up now and take the time to learn, know and feel the history of the places they call home?’ It’s an apt question for Australians as well. •
Kirsty Gover has lived on Wurundjeri land since 2009. At Melbourne Law School she teaches and writes about settler law affecting indigenous peoples in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United States.