How warring egos are hobbling Māori land trusts

Why is Māori land rife with conflict and challenges that impede land aspirations? A new study reveals that big egos are in the driving seat of many Māori land trusts. Researcher Kiri Dell (Ngāti Porou) looks at the causes, consequences and ways forward.

This is part of a series on Māori land and housing.

Some might consider Māori land to be in a state of serious decay. Government have labelled Māori land as 80% unproductive. But before you say, ‘Useless Māori, why can’t you get your shit together and get your land working for you’, it’s important to comprehend the land system Māori have inherited. Historically, Māori land legislation was a series of deliberate actions to stop Māori from owning their land. Māori were forced from a collective model to an individualistic one. The system was designed to get those Māori off that land as quickly and as cheaply as possible. And it worked. The bits and pieces that are left are actually the wreckage – a tiny leftover remnant, set up in such a way that owning it can be almost impossible. And that land system is in such a mess that it’s actually hard to sensibly own your land as a whānau or a hapū. Inheriting a $2 share can trivialise a Māori connection to land. And if you haven’t lived on the land for three or four generations because the mahi is in South or West Auckland, it’s very hard to make that asset have more than a whimsical meaning for you.

Today, Māori land covers 1.47 million hectares – 5.5% of New Zealand – and is represented by 27,308 titles and 2.7 million individual ownership interests. Over half is held and governed by whānau trusts, rather than at the iwi level. A significant resource.

Māori land experienced a long process which sought to break down systems of traditional ownership customs. Problems that can break out now would never have broken out 150 years ago. Individualising the title removed the collective ethic. Māori began to think “me”, not “us”, in a way that they never could before. Before that, being an individual was never an option because if you didn’t belong, you didn’t own. Access to the wealth of that whenua was through access to that whānau and that hapū. Once that was removed and you became an individual owner with a share that you can commodify, attitudes changed. This change took a long time to bear its bitter fruit, but by the end of the 20th century people were thinking more as shareholders rather than hapū members. Many Māori landowners have embraced the shareholder/dividend system that was designed to fragment us. The land also lost its cohesion. Once Māori could partition and sell land, the whenua became a patchwork quilt of Māori interests interspersed with other non-Māori interests. Much of this land lacks the scale to carry the cohesion that it used to. This is an important historical reality.

Before I delve into the nitty gritty of Māori land trust egos, it is important to pause and recognise that the dice are heavily loaded against effective whānau ownership and management of lands. And I also don’t want to minimise all the great work being done out there with many whānau and their whenua projects – there is a great energy and momentum growing. However, big egos are still a major barrier for some whānau who want to advance their dreams.

My research found egos operating in a myriad of ways with Māori land trusts: sabotage, fearful of decisions, inciting anger to show self-importance, projecting hostility to control, intimidation, splitting and dividing the group, spurring gossip, back-biting the leadership, rousing people to form cliquey groups, entitlement behaviour, provoking unhealthy conflict and at its worst violence and physical clashes. Egos block progress and create stifling environments.

So where does a big ego come from? Basically, it’s a type of defensiveness or inner fear residing within a person. The ego cultivates itself to hide a person’s weakness, especially when they think that weakness might be exposed. Everybody’s source of fear has its story formed in the past. The study I conducted points to historical reasons from which this land fear is generated, colonisation (as previously highlighted) being the main culprit. So many Pākehā are sick of Māori blaming colonisation. “Why can’t they move on and get over it?” My answer to that – to understand your present you need to understand the past from which you were formed. Only delving into the past will provide the answers to that. The past provides the answers, but the work and transformation is done in the present. And quite frankly, if Pākehā are sick of colonisation, think how sick Māori are of it!

Colonisation disregards people for who they are and what is important to them. This is a collective trauma. Trauma and ego often go hand in hand. Big egos develop as a way of coping with the trauma. This can leave whole communities with defensive temperaments or aggressive dispositions or maybe even worse, people who give up. So colonised spaces become a breeding ground for big egos to manifest. I also don’t want to suggest that traditionally Māori came from an ego-less society. But what does need to be acknowledged from the outset is that colonisation removed our cultural processes and systems that kept a lid on overt individualistic behaviour.

So what have big egos done to our whānau and whenua relationships? Big egos are hurting our whānau relationships. Much of the language used by my interviewees to describe land meetings and hui settings was brutal. Participants described themselves as; being punching bags, having negative arrows being shot into their back, being threatened, having verbal bullets being fired at them, being ripped to shreds in meetings, and having the knives come at them. Māori land spaces are combative. Those who found it too hard walked away, taking with them their passion, energy and aroha for the whenua.

So what should land trusts and corporations do if they are being plagued by big ego personalities? We need more self-reflection in these spaces. I developed a framework called Whenua BEINGS – the six capacities for thriving whānau and whenua: Belonging, Emotions, Influencing, Nourishing, Guardian, and Spiritual. These are designed to help whānau identify where gaps might be in the make-up of their relationship with their whenua. Some of the analytical tools are still being developed. If we are to work towards helping more whānau realise their land aspirations, we must address the ego in the room.

Dr. Kiri Dell teaches Māori Land issues at the University of Auckland.

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