Tino rangatiratanga flag on Auckland Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day, 2012. CC SA 3.0

The Treaty of Waitangi granted us tino rangatiratanga – but what is it?

For many Waitangi Day is an opportunity to talk about tino rangatiratanga – Māori sovereignty and self-determination. But does sovereignty mean the same thing to all of us? 

Waitangi Day means many different things to many different people. To some it is a time of reflection on where we are as a country; for others it’s another day at the beach, a chance to enjoy a long weekend basking in the summer sun. For a vocal minority it is an opportunity to decry Māori separatism and push their claims for a ‘truly national day’ to celebrate who we are as a country without the protests. I enjoy the period leading up to Waitangi Day; it provides an opportunity each year to discuss where we are as Māori and reflect on the state of the relationship between Māori and Pākehā. It can be a messy process, but there is nothing wrong with that. We are a nation of many cultures, and many sovereignties. One of the questions to ask ourselves on this day is: how is tino rangatiratanga, guaranteed to us under article two of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, being practiced by Māori as a means of expressing our inherent sovereignty over our whenua, kainga, and taonga?

The idea of tino rangatiratanga is that as Māori we are in charge of our land, our resources, and our aspirations. It is about Māori acting with authority and independence over our own affairs. Tino rangatiratanga is a practice: living according to our tikanga, and striving wherever possible to ensure that the homes, land, and resources guaranteed to us under Te Tiriti o Waitangi are protected for the use and enjoyment of future generations. It is about ensuring that our communities are healthy, well-educated, and can live a good life. Prior to British settlement, rangatiratanga was all encompassing. Rangatira were responsible for the health and wellbeing of their hapū, and had abundant resources to provide this.

Today, however, only six percent of New Zealand remains as Māori land, with confiscations and land purchases of a dubious nature amounting to the gradual transfer of resources from Māori to British settlers. This has been a one way transfer of wealth. It cannot be disputed that our nation’s wealth was built on the back of stolen land and the settlement money paid to Māori – some $2.2 billion over twenty years – is only a fraction of a percent of the value of the loss suffered by Māori. The loss of wealth has destroyed the ability of hapū and iwi to provide for the health and wellbeing of its members.

This is an important point to make because central to the exercise of tino rangatiratanga is the importance of fostering economic development for whānau, hapū, and iwi. Research from the Harvard Project, a research project on indigenous economic development out of Harvard University, has established a clear link between the self-rule or sovereignty of indigenous nations and their economic development. The stronger levels of authority over their own affairs exercised by First Nations in the United States and Canada directly correlates with higher levels of economic development. Furthermore, it is a reinforcing cycle. Higher levels of tino rangatiratanga result in higher levels of economic development, which in turn strengthens the authority and independence of the indigenous nation or iwi.

The right to development is recognised both domestically and internationally. The Waitangi Tribunal has recognised that Māori hold the right to development under Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also includes provisions supporting the exercise of the right to development. This right encompasses the ability of Māori organisations to pursue their economic development both independent of the Crown, and with the active support of the Crown. The loss of land, and the loss of the opportunity to pursue economic development activities on that land, has had very real and very detrimental effects on the ability of Māori to exercise our tino rangatiratanga as guaranteed under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The Tino Rangatiratanga flag flies alongside the New Zealand national flag on the Auckland Harbour Bridge during the Waitangi Day celebrations on February 6, 2010 in Auckland . (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

It’s important to note that tino rangatiratanga isn’t perfectly analogous to sovereignty. Both concepts are grounded in their unique geo-political foundations, but tino rangatiratanga is a distinctly Māori concept whereas the early conceptions of sovereignty can be found in the French Catholicism of the 18th century, later adapted and enhanced by British scholars and imported into New Zealand in the 1840s. The legal concept of sovereignty deals more with soft power than it does with hard law. It is a power that is so often claimed, but incredibly difficult to quantify. Sovereignty is conceptualised by indigenous peoples as an inter-connectedness with the natural universe, communities, and individuals; the core premise of the Western conceptualisation of sovereignty is power and, in its most brutal form, sovereignty is power which can be enforced through coercion and armed conflict. This makes sovereignty not so much a legal concept but instead the coercion of the oppressed by the powerful through brute force.

In fact, the history of sovereignty has nothing to do with law but of conquest, power, subjugation, and the belief in the superiority of one race or class of people over another. In the early days of the settlement of New Zealand by the British the use of force characterised the struggle for sovereignty over these lands. Sovereignty is the reward for winning the war. It is the legal justification for the exercise of power and the subjugation of others. Modern judicial jurisprudence in New Zealand records that the sovereignty of the British Crown in New Zealand is unimpeachable, despite no clear justification for quite how they came to claim such sovereignty

The idea that sovereignty is therefore absolute is a popular opinion held by politicians in New Zealand – a continuation of the English tradition that the king or queen held absolute authority from God to rule as sovereign over Britain.

Te Tiriri o Waitangi demands a more nuanced view of sovereignty and, ultimately, power, in New Zealand. An absolute sovereignty residing in Queen Elizabeth II cannot hold in conjunction with the guarantee to Māori of the continued exercise of tino rangatiratanga following the signing Te Tiriti in 1840. The principle of partnership, a core principle of Te Tiriti, requires that power and authority is shared between Pākehā and Māori. This is not unique to New Zealand. Dual sovereignty models exist around the world. In the United States, a theory of Indigenous Sovereignty has been developed which characterises indigenous sovereignty as occurring along a spectrum of rights from participatory government, co-management, self-management, to full sovereignty.

Examples of each can be found in New Zealand: the Māori electorates; co-management regimes over natural environments such as the Whanganui River and Te Urewera; Whānau Ora and home-based health care programmes delivered to Māori communities by Māori providers; and proposals such as that of Ngāi Tuhoe to assume responsibility for the delivery of welfare services to its community. These are all examples of the exercise of tino rangatiratanga along this spectrum of indigenous sovereignty. You don’t have to look very hard to find Māori assuming responsibility for our aspirations and our development. Tino rangatiratanga demands this of ourselves. It is not for the Crown to provide it for us. It is for us to reclaim it.

Ka whawhai tonu matau – struggle without end. The reclamation of our tino rangatiratanga is a struggle without end. But it needs to be a struggle with a purpose. For Māori this means that the pursuit of sovereignty itself should not be the end goal. Sovereignty is as much about reclaiming power as it is the building of a more prosperous future for Māori. A future which builds towards our economic, social, cultural, and environmental development aspirations.

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