“To struggle with another is to give active and proper attention to the other, to relate to the other… one with whom it is worth engaging, someone with whom you have a relationship of struggle.”
If you’re not ‘in’ the art world (I’m not) you might not have known about ST PAUL St’s Curatorial Symposium: It’s as if we were made for each other. But as chance and more crucially, my relationships, would have it, I ended up tagging along for the weekend’s kōrero, some of which was amazing, and some of which felt… off the mark. But focusing on the good. The big hitters of weekend were Te Kawehau Hoskins (Ngāti Hau, Ngāpuhi) and Alison Jones (Pākehā), two researchers from the University of Auckland’s Te Puna Wānanga, their dialogue tracing the relationship and ‘relationality’ between Māori and Pākehā, using their personal experiences as a springboard to talk about Indigenous–settler relationships and both the challenges and opportunities they offer for New Zealand.
Te Kawehau and Alison’s conversation took aim the “plural lines of history that exist together” in Aotearoa, not offering any unity of thought but rather a number of “entangled personal and theoretical trajectories,” each to be navigated in their own way. The key point, set out from the start and echoing that of Moana Jackson, is that relationships aren’t something you can answer or finish. As Te Kawehau said, “There’s no end or arrival; no right best theory to trump them all. What matters is the engagement.”
Te Kawehau began with some personal anecdotes about growing up, and some of the overlaps she had noticed between a famous ancestor of hers, her father and even herself as people “deeply embedded” in relationships with non-Māori, “bridging relationships between Māori and settlers”. These overlaps reminded her of the idea that we are each the living face of our ancestors – with this continuity offering a stark contrast to the framing of modernity and its claim, widely circulated but rarely questioned, that life today is categorically distinct from that prior to industrialisation, as if we weren’t still animal humans, making our way through a social world. Te Kawehau talked about her politicisation and the fundamental Crown-Māori relationship that underlies politics in New Zealand, pointing out that Māori are forced to do and think about relationality in the day to day in a way Pākehā aren’t. Not only is the Māori worldview “fundamentally relational,” but our system is also organised in such a way that Māori constantly have to negotiate their difference from the Pākehā ‘norm’, a set of expectations and ‘social scripts’ so common as to be all but invisible to the majority that they reflect.
Alison then explained some background on her pre-1840 research and how she is always conscious that early settlers were invited by Māori themselves. In contrast, those who came after – including Alison’s own parents, the so-called ‘ten pound poms’ – were invited by the settler government with the explicit aim of developing settler society. This point wasn’t elaborated on, but the implication was that Te Tiriti (and thus the relationship with Māori as tangata whenua) wasn’t given sufficient attention – not surprising when one considers the timing of that period of immigration (1947-1971): Te Tiriti was still considered “a simple nullity” and the wave of Māori activism that was to change its status had yet to break.
Alison unpacked how her and Te Kawehau met, their shared “political interest in Aotearoa and the relationships that sustain this society,” and the critical theory that informs their focus on both power and the role it plays in shaping social structures and personal engagements. Beginning with a focus on feminist and Marxist critiques, Alison’s interactions with Māori such as Te Kawehau and Linda Tuhiwai Smith soon shifted her onto colonisation, Māori–Pākehā relationships, and the ways critical theory can provide a basis for a shared struggle against oppression – in all its forms. These shifts were mirrored globally and led to a large number of non-Indigenous scholars writing about Indigenous struggles and Indigenous people, for example, Alison cited one [unnamed] white theorist who wrote that: “Indigenous people are oppressed colonised persons living in post-colonial situations of injustice.” While acknowledging that such a definition isn’t without its uses [for example, enlightening the white New Zealanders claiming Indigeneity on Ōwairaka…], Alison explained that this sort of framing left her ambivalent, and seemed at odds with her own relationships because of the strange distance over which it was spoken: “you–there, and your situation over there.”
Te Kawehau, too, was influenced by critical theory but explained the importance of maintaining criticality against it. While its language (‘oppressed, oppressor’; ‘colonised, coloniser’) was powerful for enabling people to think and talk about power in a way they hadn’t before, it operates in the same “blocked out binary-kind of ways” that lie at the heart of oppression itself, for example, the divisions promoted by settlers between themselves and ‘natives’. Despite this, Te Kawehau pointed out that language of critical theory has been incredibly useful, enabling Māori to mount attacks on the state and providing the basis for what now exists as Kaupapa Māori theory and practice, a parallel research and education system centred on both Māori people and Māori ways of doing and being.
“There’s no end or arrival; no right best theory to trump them all. What matters is the engagement.”Te Kawehau Hoskins
Kaupapa Māori research has, in Te Kawehau’s words, become hegemonic and influences the national conversation in a number of realms. In this sense, it has been a successful political strategy, but now faces “some difficult questions about the uptake of critical theory categories.” As Te Kawehau explained, Kaupapa Māori isn’t just a political strategy, but also “theoretical and analytical and methodological and ontological.” In these spaces, Te Kawehau feels there is some responsibility for those who work in the field to “critique and utilise different theoretical approaches.” However, such work is difficult and risky for a range of reasons, including the politics of holding and growing space for more Māori-centred practice. As a result of these factors, Te Kawehau has seen a reticence to develop new theoretical critiques, producing a political orthodoxy in the Kaupapa Māori space that seems “to unwittingly confirm the kind of binary logic that Kaupapa Māori actually would seek to criticise.” In her opinion, centring Māori ways of doing and being encourages a relationality that goes beyond the blunt logic of binary oppositions and into a “lively and rich” space of engagement. Te Kawehau pointed out that this space exists on the ground for Māori every day, both in their relationships with each other, and in the context of Māori–Pākehā encounters too: “Engagement is everything, even risky engagement. In general terms Māori always have and still do favour engagement over disengagement.”
For Alison, this preference continues to surprise her, as do the levels of generosity expressed by Māori towards Pākehā, from early contact to the efforts to educate and engage with Pākehā today. Alison continued Te Kawehau’s exploration of the limits of critical theory, explaining how – despite their historical utility in “getting people riled up” – binary descriptions of power led to fixed moral positions of right and wrong that made it hard to progress. While “exhilarating” for those on high ground, in the context of colonial relations, Pākehā were on the wrong side. Those educated in critical theory could use its language to “stand bravely on the moral high ground” and be “outraged” at the status quo while supporting Māori – as Alison joked, “Down with colonisatio–we’re the colonisers, but down with colonisation! And we’ll cuddle up to you and we’ll all be fighting against colonisation together” – but at the same time, Māori were developing a Māori-only space, leaving Pākehā unsure of how to progress. Where should they go? [Reader, please note: I’m writing as if this is distinct from me. Rest assured it is not. So accurate were the following takes that I felt myself grow visibly hot, the sweat of being known, of being so predictable as to be clichéd… but such steps are, perhaps, necessary. There is no answer to engagement but showing up. Gritting one’s teeth. Washing the sweat from your shirt.]
In Alison’s experience, there are two routes most Pākehā took (or take) in response to efforts to create Māori-only spaces. The first is to try even harder to identify possible engagement strategies, for example, increasing equality, reducing difference, ‘bringing us together’. This could include learning te reo Māori, inviting Māori to collaborate on existing projects etc. However, this strategy to diminish difference was “doomed for many.” Despite the aspirational rhetoric, it was a practical failure, imposing a ‘we’/’us’ that erased difference in a way aimed to soothe Pākehā ego, causing Māori to close down and eventually stop responding. That there were valid reasons for this withdrawal was (and continues to be) lost on many Pākehā who respond in turn with either abandonment [‘you can’t say I didn’t try’] or increased demands, as if more coercion might save the day.
The second approach, Alison explained, was/is to respect difference and attempt to be culturally responsive. For example: ‘we need to learn from you’; ‘I’m sorry for my ignorance’; ‘I have no right to speak here, what should we do?’ Such replies remain problematic for the obligation they put on Māori and their focus on getting Pākehā off the hook, for assuming that ‘off’ is even a good place to be. [Ask: What would it take for a relationship like this to be ‘done’? Where would that leave us?] Despite being driven by an earnest desire, this kowtowing reflects what Alison described as “our insatiable need for redemption”, capturing an anxiety born from the fact that we Pākehā don’t quite know how to redeem ourselves. As the logic goes, if we are vulnerable and open, we will be taught. Being taught is to be loved; to be loved is to belong. But, as Alison pointed out, a demand to be taught is still a demand. A re-wording of the coloniser’s claim: not ‘we know you’, but let us know you. Pākehā still remain the centre, the axis around which action turns, even while asking that the centre be changed…
In lieu of these routes, Alison challenged Pākehā to have the courage to show up, to abandon thoughts of a centre and endings and to instead embrace the space between, being open to the full scope of what an engaged presence can teach. In Alison’s words, “I learn through a way that is not through my head.” Such engagement is always situational and contingent, never predictable, often fleeting. The desire for ‘solutions’ and ‘finality’ must be faced, and the riskiness of relationality engaged. Risk lies in the unknown, the potential for an unpredictable encounter. Meetings are, in this sense, always contingent, the relationships made and remade. It’s not the beginning that counts, but return. Alison describes this state of affairs as an ‘interminable struggle’, one with – in the alleged words of Rewi Maniapoto – no end. Ka whawhai tonu mātau, ake ake ake. In order to navigate this space, so different from all we’ve been taught to expect, Alison challenges other Pākehā to increase their tolerance for discomfort, to give up any hero-like expectations of ‘solving’ colonisation and all the hand-wringing and naval-gazing that goes with it. As was later pointed out, the name Pākehā is itself a gift from Māori, a relational term and a key point of difference for those seeking to answer the placelessness of modernity. To be Pākehā is to belong to New Zealand by virtue of Te Tiriti and the relationship established with Māori. Te Tiriti provides the rules of engagement. If we uphold them, we access our right to belong.
In Alison’s words, the Pākehā anxiety about relationships with Māori “needs to be got over.” To enter into relationship is about “being authentically yourself… bringing your best being into engagement.”
Te Kawehau continued this thread. Solidarity is about being ready for a commitment “that will be for your life.” Māori have had enough fair-weather friends. Talk is cheap. So is showing up once. Te Kawehau explained that good political relationships are underpinned by good personal relationships, and used the process of pōwhiri to explain one way in which these relationships can be primed. The wero seeks a reason: why have you come? What is your intention? The karanga works to call the ancestors, “all those social and historical relationships and forces that are you,” providing a space to state the reasons for coming. In the whaikōrero, language and relationships are woven, establishing a shared ground of engagement, acknowledging both the difference between parties and your own mana. Te Kawehau pointed out that this isn’t assimilation or an attempt at unity, but a bringing together of distinct threads, allowing each party to present themselves as they are, a way “to approach the difference of others that acknowledges they are not knowable.” In the hariru/hongi, difference is brought together physically, not in a single unity, but as a binding for a specific purpose. Te Kawehau acknowledged Eddie Durie and the work he has done in this space, and emphasised that pōwhiri isn’t ritual alone, but the “building blocks of relating well and personally.” Engagements can be peaceful or in anger; they are a process that turn on acknowledging the autonomy of the other, the fact that they cannot be compelled. To this end, it was pointed out that Pākehā may not find the ‘redemption’ they expect – and so the question turns to response again. Are Pākehā willing to keep turning up?
There is a huge amount to reflect on here, and not just in a Māori-Pākehā space. As Te Kawehau pointed out, “everything we do requires a level of relationship with others.” This gels with the broader theme of the symposium – “being in relation” – moving away from the alienation, inequality and extraction so present in social life today and instead seeking to build spaces of solidarity, communion and mutual aid.
At a theoretical level, there are clear overlaps with James Carson’s notion of infinite games and the work Niki Harré has done exploring this in New Zealand. While finite games are all about endings, winners and losers, the goal of an infinite game is to go on, for all players to stay in the game. Ka whawhai tonu mātau, ake ake ake. Similarly, in Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber makes the point that owing people for things is in fact a way to keep communities bound together. To pay a debt off in full is to end the relationship, an economic logic ‘perfect’ for the exploitations of global capitalism, but one that has come to influence our day-to-day lives in increasingly negative ways. Just as Pākehā want solutions to the problem of colonisation, seeking to ‘solve’ it for once and for all, so too do those concerned about the environment scramble for ‘answers’, as if wind farms and self-driving cars might stand as substitute for what is at its core a problem of relationship with the earth, each other, our home. What is it we wish to sustain?
As Te Kawehau explained at the end, Māori-Pākehā relationships play out over a terrain that is shot through with existing power dynamics: dominant, subordinate; oppressor and oppressed. To interrupt these dynamics and engage is to create the opportunity for new ways of being to spark, to take us on new and creative pathways. Such a task isn’t one we can finish or outsource, but an endless play, the relationships and exchange, the presence, respect and soft trust, the movements that give us our life.
Ngā mihi nui ki a Te Kawehau rāua ko Alison mō to rāua kōrero me ēnei whakaaro nui; ngā mihi hoki ki a Balamohan Shingade rāua ko Taarati Taiaroa me ngā kaimahi katoa o AUT – tēnā koutou katoa x Many thanks to Te Kawehau and Alison for their conversation and these thoughts; thanks too to Balamohan Shingade, Taarati Taiaroa and all the workers at AUT – we see and acknowledge you all x