Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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River gains personhood

Back in October 2015 I wrote an post regarding the lack of respect fundamentalist Christians have towards Māori culture, and their confusing of cultural beliefs and practices with a direct assault on their “true” religion. What they failed to understand is that what Māori regard as Tapu (not ordinary, often translated as “sacred”)  remains the same regardless of their religion or non-religion. And they forget that the majority of Māori are Christian whereas the Majority of Pākehā are not. Even so, within Māori culture, concepts such as tapu, mana and mauri are an integral part of their world view.

While preparing this post I stumbled upon this conversation regarding the same incident. Lydia’s (the OP) assertion was that Māori had no rights to claim a mountain as sacred, or if they did, and it was legally recognised, then that’s proof of the establishment of a religion and therefore unconstitutional.

Ignoring for the moment that no law passed by the Parliament can ever be declared unconstitutional in Aotearoa New Zealand, most of the comments support Lydia using one of three arguments:

  1. Christianity is the only true religion and therefore has every right to trample over any other belief system.
  2. Places can be sacred, but only if they’re man-made and not in publicly accessible places.
  3. Recognising the values and practices of a minority is tantamount to the establishment of a religion.

Argument 1 is utter nonsense and I don’t consider it warrants further discussion. Arguments 2 and 3 I will take together as it seems many people, Christian and atheist alike, perceive alternative world views as being based in religion instead of being just a different way of perceiving the world around us.

The problem with many people in modern “Western” societies, particularly Anglophones, is that they see their culture, not just as one of many cultures, but as THE standard to which all other cultures will, when they fully mature, become carbon copies of. Just like many people think they don’t have an accent, only people from other regions do, many think the same way about culture. Other people have culture, but they themselves don’t because they do “what comes naturally”. How wrong they are.

Every aspect of our lives is coloured by the culture in which we are immersed. This includes, customs, practices, beliefs and values. If we live in a region which is mono-cultural, or predominantly so, then we are likely to see other cultural practices and beliefs as something added to, or taken away from, the “natural” state of being human. And if those practices and beliefs were to be removed, then we may think that those formerly holding those practices and beliefs would behave and think very much like us. And of course we’d be wrong.

The founding document of Aotearoa New Zealand is the Treaty of Waitangi which has largely been honoured by the crown more in its breach than by following its principles. English legislation and common law, as well as the English constitutional conventions became the laws of New Zealand in 1840 and Māori customary law was for all practical purposes erased, even though the Treaty gives it equal status with English law.

Over the last 3 or 4 decades, Pakeha in general have slowly come to the realisation that they have a world view that is different from, rather than superior to, the world view of Māori. I believe we are made richer by valuing alternative world views and even recognising and embracing such views legally.

Perhaps much of the “modern” concept of ownership is derived from the Abrahamic religions where God granted mankind dominion over all of nature. The result is that resources can become the exclusive property of individuals, communities, and (more recently) corporations, to be exploited for the benefit of the owners and with little regard to how it might affect other parts of nature, including other people.

In traditional Maori culture mankind is part of nature, not apart or above it. All things have a life force and rivers, mountains and forests are viewed as living entities, and are treated and respected as such. Just as one person cannot be owned, living entities cannot be owned. Communities can have guardianship or stewardship over a living entity but not dominionship or ownership of it.

These two differing world views have been at the heart of conflict between Māori and Pakeha for almost two hundred years and until recently no resolution that meets both views has been found. In the case of the Whanganui River, there have been ongoing court battles for more than 130 years.

This 2009 thesis discuses in depth why a resolution has been so difficult and then proposes giving rivers personhood as a possible solution. The author, James Morris suggests that a model based on a proposal by an American law professor, Christopher Stone could be adapted to New Zealand’s situation. Morris suggests that the benefits would be:

  1. because many Māori seek resolution of who owns rivers, affording a river its own legal personality would neutralise these arguments: the river would be its own entity and thus could not be owned
  2. as the river would be its own entity, Māori would have equal authority and control in decision-making with government authorities thus Māori tikanga (culture: including kaitiakitanga  and rangatiratanga aspirations) would have increased recognition.
  3. a river being its own entity under the law would better align the legal framework with the Māori worldview as Māori tikanga (culture) regards rivers as tupuna (ancestors). Tupuna cannot be thought of in fragments as is the case in New Zealand law (for example, the flowing water, the river bed and the river bank). Tupuna must be viewed holistically.
  4. a river having its own legal standing would benefit the health of the river as compensation would have to be applied for the benefit of the river as opposed to remedying a third party’s economic loss.

This model has been adapted here in Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2014 legislation was passed that made what was the Te Urewera National Park into a legal entity in and of itself with all the rights of a person. The purpose was to  protect Te Urewera for its intrinsic worth, its distinctive natural and cultural values, the integrity of those values, and for its national importance.

In March this year the Whanganui River became a legal entity with all the rights of a person. The legislation established a new legal framework for the Whanganui River, known in Maori as Te Awa Tupua, recognising the river as an indivisible and living whole from the mountains to the sea. Te Awa Tupua now has its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person. The  legislation recognises the deep spiritual connection between the Whanganui Iwi (tribe) and the river through their traditions, customs and practise.

I predict that it won’t be too long before Taranaki (the mountain under discussion in the links in the first two paragraphs of this post) will also gain personhood. I’m sure this new way (for Pakeha) of looking at the world will be confirmation by fundamentalist Christians that indeed the official religion of New Zealand is animism. However, most Kiwis, Paheha and Māori see this as a “meeting of the minds” and perhaps creating a new culture out of two older ones. This opinion piece expresses what most Kiwis feel about the forging of new ideas such as personhood of natural entities.

Is the concept of personhood for natural resources a viable option in other parts of the world, to preserve those resources and to respect and protect indigenous cultures? Or is this a case of New Zealand loosing the plot as suggested in this What’s Wrong With The World article.

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Treaty of Waitangi 101

This post is primarily for Kiwis who haven’t bothered to understand the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi. We Pakeha were guilty of ignoring the Treaty for more than a hundred years, and it is only in recent decades that an attempt has been made to redress some of the wrongs committed by the crown over many generations. We still have a long way to go, and it’s often a case of two steps forward and one step back.

Too many Pakeha have made no attempt to understand what the treaty means to Māori and to us as a nation, and in essence, want Māori to “integrate” by abandoning all that is sacred and unique about their culture and become “brown Pakeha”. They don’t want Te Reo (the Māori language) taught in schools, nor the preservation of customary rights, and especially not the partial restoration of land and and the payment of compensation for all that was confiscated from Māori after the Land Wars in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Understanding the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi is not really too difficult – it consists of three articles. Most of us understand understand Articles I and III, but for many Pakeha and for successive governments we have failed to honour Article II. It’s time this was redressed. The video clip below explains the basic principles of the three articles.

Now that wasn’t too difficult was it?