Last week some of the world’s brightest indigenous minds converged in Waikato for NAISA 2019. Te Nia Matthews reported from the frontline of the revolution.
During the lunch break on the second day of NAISA I sat in a theatre with about 70 other people at a screening of Hepi Mita’s documentary Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen. During the documentary Merata Mita says this: “The revolution isn’t just running out with a gun, it’s the arts as well. And if a film I make causes Māori people to feel stronger about themselves, I’m achieving something worthwhile for the revolution.”
I don’t think anyone could have explained the spirit of NAISA more accurately. The conference felt like an explosion of indigeneity and people taking back control of their indigenous practices and how they express them in the world. It had the power to make this young indigenous academic hopeful for the future of our peoples and practices.
NAISA 2019 saw nearly 2000 indigenous academics from across the globe gather in Hamilton (the first time NAISA was hosted outside of America). With names like Margaret Mutu, Kalei Nu’uhiwa, and Joann Archibald it was hard not to get swept up in the excitement, and I was running between presentations like a fan at a music festival.
Adding to the festival-like atmosphere, quotes like “we carry with us the mana of our ancestors whilst simultaneously paving the way for our descendants” and “our ocean does not divide us it’s what unites us” were getting huge cheers from audiences, plus hundreds of others that elevated the wairua of every session across the three days. But this wasn’t a conference purely made up of one-liners. NAISA showed young academics like myself who were privileged to be there that indigenous communities and nations across the globe are looking to revitalise the traditions of their ancestors – not simply for nostalgia, but as part of a movement to reinstate the indigenous world into the contemporary. It felt like a second coming of the Māori renaissance period of the 1970s.
A key component for making the revitalisation of indigenous knowledge systems possible is outlining the ongoing legacy that colonisation left for indigenous peoples and exposing colonialism as a structure and not a singular event. By reintroducing knowledge such as indigenous astronomical practices or indigenous storywork we can challenge the dominance of the settler state and provide indigenous perspectives on governance. These then allow self-determination to exist in 2019.
NAISA showed me that an indigenous revolution is possible. That is the most hopeful thing I ever have written. This hopeful feeling can be summarised by a single quote from the NAISA conference: “Our sovereignty is the strongest when we are our strongest together.”
Now that I've had some time to reflect, I think the most important thing #NAISA2019 did for me as a scholar early in my career(?) was create a space (of like, THOUSANDS of people) where I could witness unabashed, radical, proud, powerful sharing of Indigenous knowledge. (1/2)
— Mercedes Peters (@mercedesmpeters) June 30, 2019
I don’t want to only focus on the high points of NAISA 2019, though. There are still a lot of hills to climb for indigenous peoples globally, and these challenges were the focus of most presentations. Despite NAISA sometimes feeling like a quiet revolution, it was painfully clear that the half a billion indigenous people represented at the conference are dealing with many of the same settler state-created injustices.
In New Zealand none are more prevalent and pressing than the removal of children by the state. In indigenous Canada the removal of children by the state during the 1960s is referred to as ‘the sixties scoop’; indigenous Australians know it as ‘the stolen generation’; and in North America it is ‘split feathers’. This injustice was explored twice over the four days, once with a session made up of indigenous speakers from America, Canada and New Zealand, the other an emergency session chaired by Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Leonie Pihama on ending the removal of indigenous children from families.
— NAISA 2019 (@NAISA2019) June 29, 2019
Both these sessions outlined the systemic ways that indigenous relationships face ongoing assault by the settler state, and how the removal of indigenous children by state authorities has ultimately undermined and weakened indigenous families and wider communities. These sessions purposefully and rightfully described the removal of children by the state as “stealing” babies as opposed to the Oranga Tamariki-approved term “uplifting”. The phrase “uplifting children” was heavily criticised by the panel, who argued that it euphemistically conjured up ideas like happiness and hope. When indigenous children are taken by the state they die at disproportionately higher rates than non-indigenous children, Canadian research has found – what better evidence can there be for not mincing words when speaking truth to power? This call was echoed in sessions about the murder and rape of indigenous women in America. Despite the overwhelming pressure on indigenous peoples, they remain committed to ensuring indigenous systems of connection continue to protect their people from the terror being maintained by the state.
Despite all the good currently happening there are still systemic issues that need dismantling so that all indigenous peoples can prosper – not just those of us who are lucky enough to be in these academic spaces. In the end both Hepi Mita’s documentary and NAISA 2019 as a whole left me with an overwhelming sense of hope. But it also served as a reminder of what we owe those who fought before us so that we could have something like NAISA. We must do our absolute best to widen the door to these kinds of conferences, to encourage and welcome in those who aren’t already aware they can occupy these spaces, to make them even better than they already are.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.