Are the Maori separate and equal?

Integration is one solution to a history of oppression. New Zealand's churches tried another.
October 19, 2016
Saint Mary's Maori Church in Tikitiki, New Zealand. Thinkstock.

If New Zealand registers at all in the American consciousness, it is as an in­credibly beautiful landscape associated with cinematic hobbits and orcs. But the country also has a surprising religious history, as major churches have made some daring at­tempts to rectify the historical injustices of colonialism.

When Europeans encountered the islands in the late 18th century, the Maori in­hab­itants possessed a tribal culture with splendid visual arts and an elaborate mythological system akin to that of Polynesia. After long wars, in 1840 the British and the Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi. New Zealand be­came a British possession, while Maori land rights were acknowledged. Soon, though, British settlers flooded in, and by 1900 the Maori made up only 6 percent of the population. British settlers hugely expanded their lands, usually at the expense of Maori rights. By this point, some observers were forecasting the extinction of the Maori, at least as a separate culture.

From the 1920s onward, though, Maori voices began to be heard once more, partly because of their foothold in the churches. Although Maori people did not abandon their traditional beliefs, the vast majority converted to one or another of the major denominations, especially the Angli­can and Catholic churches. Today, virtually no Maori de­scribe themselves as full-time followers of traditional religion, although most draw on those older folkways. Maori clergy and ministers were appointed, and there were distinctively Maori centers for learning and theological training. In 1928, the Anglican Church appointed its first Maori bishop.

During the 1960s, New Zea­land experienced the kind of social revolutions that swept most of the West, with intense questioning about bygone acts of oppression and exploitation. White New Zea­landers, the pakeha, be­came deeply aware of their Maori neighbors, who today make up about 14 percent of the population, some 600,000 people. Successive governments have made re­para­tions for past land grabs and treaty violations. The goal has been to create a society with a full role for all its member groups, whether Mao­ri, pakeha, or Pacific Islander. All belong to a common New Zea­land, that is equally Aotearoa, the Maori term for the islands.

The churches have played a vanguard role in these struggles, and liberation theology made its impact among both Anglicans and Catholics. Dur­ing the 1960s, Anglican thinkers explored ways of inculturating the gospel into local languages and ways of thinking, beginning a lengthy series of experimental liturgies. That process culminated in the New Zealand Prayer Book of 1989, a version of the Book of Common Prayer, but designed for a society and landscape radically different from the foggy islands that first heard the dignified words from 1662. Although so much of the book cries out for quotation, we might especially look at the Thanksgiving for Cre­ation and Redemption, the Benedicite Aotearoa, which urges, “Dolphins and kahawai, sea lion and crab, coral, anem­one, pipi and shrimp: give to our God your thanks and praise. . . . You Maori and Pakeha, women and men, all who inhabit the long white cloud: give to our God your thanks and praise.”

The year after the Prayer Book came out, that once staid Angli­can Church was associated with some controversial ac­tivism during Queen Eliza­beth’s visit to the country. During a Waitangi Day ceremony, and in the queen’s presence, Maori bishop Whaka­huihui Vercoe delivered an incendiary speech complaining about violations of the 1840 treaty and de­manding justice for his people. In 1992, the church made the dramatic decision to form three separate sections for its diverse communities or tikanga—for Maori, Pakeha, and Polyne­si­ans, each under its own head. Vercoe headed the Maori tikanga, in what is now titled the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia.

That tripartite division points to a controversial theme in many modern struggles for justice, and one very familiar in an American context. If a race or community has been op­pressed historically, can that best be remedied by full inclusion into the larger society or by some form of separate cultural development, with separate institutional structures? New Zea­land has strongly opted for the latter solution in the form of biculturalism and not just in the Anglican context. Cath­olics too set up a separate Maori Catholic council in the 1980s.

But the problems with such a situation are many, not least in formalizing segregation. That is doubly difficult in the New Zealand context, where so many people have mixed ancestry, including Vercoe himself. Much depends on self-identification. The church asserts “the right of every person to choose any particular cultural expression of the faith.”

Issues of identity politics remain alive, but the scale of the resulting revolution is evident. In 2004, Vercoe became the Anglican primate of the whole province, and today that primacy is shared be­tween three bishops, one of whom is Maori.

A version of this article appears in the October 26 print edition under the title “The Maori: separate and equal?”