Who is indigenous? The coming question

New Zealand's support for the Declaration of Indigenous Rights ends one debate for Maori. But it begins another, one which strikes at heart of what it means to belong to this country

Indigenous. It's a word that has been used a lot this week after Dr Pita Sharples popped up unexpectedly at the United Nations to offer New Zealand's endorsement of the Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples. And it's a word that I think must become key to our identity politics in the next generation.

For the Maori Party, April 20 was a special day when some fundamental beliefs – beliefs that are shared by a distinct minority of Pakeha, I suspect – were validated on the world stage.

On one level the Declaration is mom and apple pie. Its essential message is that discrimination and racism are bad, as is inequality, forced migration and genocide.

But in its specifics lie the spark for endless division.

  • Article 4 promises "the right to autonomy or self-government"
  • Article 18 offers the right to "indigenous decision-making institutions"
  • Article 21 commits, without limit, to "improvement of their economic and social conditions, including, inter alia, in the areas of housing, education, employment, vocational training..."
  • Article 23 guarantees the right to administer health, housing and other services "through their own institutions"
  • Article 26 says indigenous peoples "have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired"

You get my drift. This is the controversial heart of every race relations issue in history. Forget access to the beaches, this is the whole territorial enchilada.

The 'get out of jail' card is Article 46, which says nothing in the Declaration amounts to dismembering or impairing the integrity and unity of a sovereign state. In other words, this is a blueprint for separate self government... but it also isn't.

It's a fascinating exercise in reconciling two incompatible ideas in one document. Of course, New Zealand added its own coda protecting its own consitutional framework. So we're doubly covered.

The Prime Minister explained it all away by describing the Declaration as aspirational, which seems an odd word to choose. I'm assuming he doesn't aspire to Maori self government, nor does he assume that it is the hope a majority of New Zealanders. So I can only take it that he defines 'aspirational' as, "over my dead body".

Is this all so much theatre, then? Politically, pretty much. Constitutionally however, it raises some interesting questions, the most fascinating of which to me is, who's indigenous?

Interestingly, the United Nations has decided it can't define the word. There are too many cultural versions around the world to fit under a single definition. The closest it has got is one offered by Jose R. Martinez Cobo, the Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities:

“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system." (It goes on even longer, but that's the guts of it).

For me, that's a terribly 20th century definition, and one that's not sustainable, if not now, then by the end of this century or soon after. Colonisation cannot stand as the pivotal point of history forever; for one, Euro-centric culture will not dominate forever, and for another, how do you handle unjust counter-colonisations, as in Zimbabwe? And what about future colonisations, be they by migrants, money or culture? Aren't we somewhat colonised by American culture even now?

And I don't think the simpler definition of "first peoples" can last much longer either, as second peoples and others develop attachments to lands and states that date back generations and even centuries.

New indigenous peoples are appearing that are also deserving of the word.

The simple fact of time means that questions of indigeneity are changing and will continue to change. In this country, that means the evolution of an indigenous Pakeha culture, one that is "distinct" and which some will be "determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations".

I'd argue you can see it here already. I can see it in myself.

I'm patient. We've got historical grievances to clear up before we go muddying the indigenous waters. But a tipping point is inevitable, when a Pakeha New Zealander, who is not of Europe or any northern hemisphere motherland, demands recognition under that Declaration.

I don't see that as something to fear or a reason for new race tensions. I suspect it could be useful as we figure out post-Waitangi Tribunal race relations.

To use the local language, Maori New Zealanders will always remain tangata whenua in this land, and there will be a status that goes with that. But Pakeha New Zealanders, of which I am one, are also unique to this land and we have to work out how to recognise that.

Do I need affirmation under a UN declaration? No? Do I and mine need the focused attention of government to overcome by poor social statistics? No. I am not a minority, neither do I carry the burden of historical crimes. My rights are respected and the law has not and does not discriminate against me.

But I am indigenous to this country. I am from here and nowhere else. I belong here. I have historical continuity in these few isles. My life has been spent trying to figure out the trick of standing upright here, and I'm sure will continue to be.

When we come to debate the rights and responsibilities of indigenous people in this country, that's a simple fact we're going to have to face one day.

I'll write more on this, I'm sure. But in finishing I'll add that I hope it's a fact we start to face in this year's constitutional review.