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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Animism is the established religion of Aotearoa New Zealand. Really?

New Zealand, along with all nations, is acutely religious. But, more than most Western countries, the dominant religion is now the Established Religion. We are using “established” in the historical sense of a religion prescribed and protected, so that all citizens must respect and honour that particular religion’s beliefs and practices. Established religion is the religion buttressed and proscribed by the law of the land and funded by tax money.

The established religion in New Zealand is Maori animism. In historical terms it is a pagan and primitive religion, riddled with superstition and idolatry. It is an offence and provocation to the Living God. But none who want official and public respect in New Zealand dare criticise the Establishment. Those, however, who fear God more than man are prepared to call it for what it is: stale hokey pokey–a thoroughly sour, ignorant and stupefying batch of mouldy ice-cream. Every Christian who understands what the Bible says about idolatry and false gods has no hesitation in flatly rejecting Maori animism. In so doing, we have become the new dissenters.

The above paragraphs are the first two of a guest blog by John Tertullian on MandM. I believe that it would be difficult to find a more ignorant, bigoted, piece of Christocentric, Eurocentric nonsense anywhere. Perhaps part of his statement on his About page explains it: “he finds the Scriptures to be more profound and instructive than a million books.”

Although the post is rather old, it is still relevant today, as there is a small section of Christianity in Aotearoa New Zealand that still holds the same view. He, as does those of a similar persuasion confuse religion and culture, which, while they are interrelated, are not the same thing,

The purpose of Tertullian’s post was to criticise a group of young Christians who apologised for offending the local iwi (tribe). In his view apologising was an affront to God. I’ve got news for him: his God was offended not one iota.

This TangataWhenua.com article and a somewhat sensationalised Stuff article, which includes a video clip of the event, give a background of what happened. Essentially, A group of young Christians climbed Mt Taranaki and had a barbecue on the summit. Sounds innocent enough you might think, but to Taranaki iwi the mountain is tapu. In English tapu is often translated a sacred, but perhaps a better translation might be not ordinary.

To Taranaki Māori, Mt Taranaki is their symbolic (not literal) ancestor, and as such, it is tapu. The summit of the mountain represents the ancestor’s head, In Māori culture, the head is the most tapu part of the body, and the top of the head even more so. By having a cook-up on the summit they offended against the tapu, and hence the local iwi.

In That Guy’s tongue in cheek article on the subject, he makes the observation: A basic rule of thumb in New Zealand is: If in doubt, just assume that it is tapu. This has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with respecting the cultural values of the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tertian tries to equate the reverence local iwi hold for Mt Taranaki with worship of the mountain as a god. He is way off the mark. Genealogy and reverence of ancestors is an important part of Māori culture, and as the mountain is is the “primary” ancestor, it deserves due respect.

It is important to note that the iwi made no claim that the barbecue offended any god, deity, or supernatural being. The offence was against the iwi itself. As Mr Mohi said in the Stuff article, he was disappointed by the actions of the Christians, and that they discourage such activities. There was no demand that the group should change their religious beliefs, or that they should be banned from using the mountain. All that was being asked is respect of Māori culture. Is that too much to ask? After all, Māori make up almost twenty percent of the population, and are Tangata whenua, People of the Land.

One important fact that Mr Tertian forgets is that while only about forty percent of all New Zealanders claim any Christian affiliation, however tenuous, around eighty percent of Māori are practising Christians. They have no issue with accommodating traditional practices within their faith, and as far as I know, their Christian God has shown no objection. If God okay with the concept of tapu, why can’t Mr Tertian?

As for his claim that animism being the established religion of Aotearoa New Zealand, once again he fails to differentiate between religion and culture. Aspects of Māori culture are making their way into the wider New Zealand setting. Take, for example the haka. This is now a part of the spiritual fabric of what it is to be a New Zealander, and yet there is a small minority that sees it as no more more than a primitive war dance of a stone age people that has no place in a modern society. I firmly believe we are all the more richer as a society by being able to express ourselves through haka.

Likewise, karakia has made its way into the wider community. The karakia can be thought of as a prayer, blessing or incantation and there is barely a public occasion, such as the opening of a meeting or public building or the departure of an official delegation overseas where it won’t be performed. Karakia tend to contain a blend of Christian and traditional influence, but are not required to. They can be completely secular. They use especially poetic language which means that a literal translation into English isn’t always possible, Even to a non-Māori speaker such as myself, the beauty and majesty of a karakia is undeniable. One doesn’t need to be religious a appreciate it, and in fact, when it has been attacked by religious extremists, I notice atheists come to its defence just as often as liberal Christians.

The video clip below is a karakia performed at the opening of Whales: Giants of the Deep exhibition presented by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa at the American Museum of Natural History.

Powhiri (welcome ceremony) is also now part of NZ custom, having made to transition from a Māori only custom. It is full of meaning for those who care to understand, and a belief in deities is not required to appreciate it. It’s good manners brought to the level of ceremony. One person in the clip below will be familiar to all Americans. As an aside, notice the number of US Security Service personnel accompanying her, and compare that to how many minders our Prime Minister and two senior members of the Cabinet have. Some of US security staff look extremely nervous. I hope they had been briefed on what a powhiri entails.

Hillary makes a brave attempt at the hongi (the touching of forehead and nose), although she is clearly uncomfortable in performing it. Good on her for trying. I doubt her God was in any way offended by the action. Mr Tertian’s assertion that these practices are examples of animism having become the established religion of Aotearoa New Zealand are just plain nonsense in my view.

By the way, the Neoclassical building into which the official party enters at the end of the clip is Parliament House. Although it appears to be clad in stone, it’s actually a wooden structure – even the pillars. Appearances can be deceiving.