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Māori in Australia: standing whose ground?

If you are reading this on Friday morning (22 May 2014) Ngāti Toa, Porirua City Council and Blacktown City Council and the local Blacktown community will be celebrating the erection of two pou in the New Zealand South Pacific Garden in the Nurragingy Reserve, in Blacktown, west of Sydney, on land that is part of the Darug people’s heritage. http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/te-manu-korihi/244960/maori-pou-to-be-erected-in-nsw

This news caught my attention because my father and most of my Aussie whānau lived in Blacktown until very recently so I have spent a bit of time there, conscious of the lack of physical reminders of the local people in the Blacktown cityscape. This is a town originally named for the old Native Institute, the settlement that grew up around it, and the road leading to it (“the Blacks’ Town” becoming known as “Blacktown” by the 1860s). In the years I visited Blacktown I was always struck by the prominence of the Blacktown Workers Club sign being (it seemed to my ignorant eyes) the most obvious allusion to any indigenous history of the area in an area with the largest concentrated Aboriginal population anywhere in New South Wales. And yes, apparently there is a vibrant arts, culture, and heritage scene in Blacktown, just not much civic visibility of the Aboriginal heritage. At all.

BlackTownWorkers

Of course, quite apart from the Ngāti Toa/Porirua City Council initiative, there have been political infighting and funding scraps over the public installation of a sculpture of Nurrngingy himself (a Darug elder who received one of the first land grants to Aboriginal individuals in Australia, from Governor Macquarie in 1816). The sculpture languishes, waiting for $80,000 needed for bronze casting that Blacktown doesn’t want to pay for. (http://www.blacktownsun.com.au/story/240937/calls-for-two-of-blacktowns-aboriginal-heros-to-be-honoured/)

This sculpture was made by a Hungarian sculptor and so doubtless there may be ambivalence from local Aboriginal people as to the priority to be put upon funding it, but in the relative absence of civic recognition of Aboriginal heritage, the fact that Māori culture and heritage gets civic engagement and civic involvement from two city councils is interesting.

The road to that engagement has not been entirely smooth. You might recall the trans-Tasman stoush that happened over the original plan to have these pou erected at the gateway to the Reserve. A Darug elder Sandra Lee left us in no doubt as to her opinion on the proposed erection:

“Would the Maoris like me to go over to New Zealand and hang ring-tail possums all over the place? Or kangaroos? No they wouldn’t, I know they wouldn’t, so why are they doing it to us?” she said

Ms Lee said situating the poles at the front gate would diminish the Aboriginal symbolism of Nurragingy and continue the ongoing genocide of her people.

“I’ll stand there and I’ll burn them down if I have to,” she said. “They can put them anywhere inside, no worries – but not at the gate.”

(http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/02/11/aboriginal-elders-object-maori-poles-blacktown)

Māori leaders, including Taku Pārai from Ngāti Toa, upon learning of the objections, called for consultation to be carried out before endorsing the installation, and now the matters apparently have been resolved. I don’t wish to decry the installation of these pou. It’s a wonderful thing I’m sure, for Ngāti Toa and the Porirua District Council to see these pou erected within the Nurragingy Reserve, in partnership with the Blacktown City Council to commemorate 30 years of the sister-city relationship. This will clearly be something to celebrate.

Māori wardens will be involved, as will representatives of the local community, and I hope, the Darug people. The event though raises a few broader questions.

The Māori presence in Australia in truly impressive, and just a little bit mind-boggling. Ever increasing numbers of Māori now live across the Tasman, as at the last Australian census, 128,434 at least (not counting the many Māori who don’t report their ethnicity in census date). For more info see Paul Hamer’s fascinating updated research on the Māori population in Australia (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2167613). Obviously there is a migration of Māori ideas as well as people to our West Island, and this is hardly a new thing. But with an estimated 1 in 6 Māori now living in Australia there are obviously long term implications for the growth and evolution of the ways of being Māori. For one thing, there is a growing number of competent reo speakers who have now taken their language skills across the Tasman. There are now fantastic Waitangi Day celebrations. There are growing numbers of Māori organisations (Māori Wardens, kapa haka teams, Māori radio shows on Radio Koori just to name a few) and the establishment of permanent marae is not far away, judging by current initiatives in Melbourne (https://www.facebook.com/MaraeMelbourne) and Sydney (https://www.facebook.com/sydneymaraeappeal) at least.

Part of me wonders whether there may be a cost to Aboriginal peoples at some point of this Māori cultural burgeoning. Sure there have been some perhaps unsurprising accounts of ethnic tensions between Māori and Aboriginal populations in recent years (http://nzh.tw/10491857). I know of several Māori who have headed to Australia to work with Aboriginal communities at least partly on the basis of a shared indigenous experience of colonisation. I’m also interested in the extent to which Māori may, by the establishment of Mārae and pou in the indigenous soil of Australia, end up claiming a portion of Australian civic identity. By this I mean that Māori seeking to create spaces of belonging that are not only private spaces, but also form part of the civic, public narrative. The new pou definitely provide a way of creating a public Māori presence and the planned marae, no matter how they are funded, will be, to some degree, public entities, with a visual imprint upon the civic landscape. I’m not for a moment seeking to dissuade Māori from creating and establishing marae in Australia. And it is hardly a new thing for migrant communities in Australia to create spaces within which to celebrate their own culture. Māori cultural spaces will barely raise a ripple, I’m sure. I just hope that those developments are carried out with consideration and consultation with the local Aboriginal peoples. If it is right to value the freedom of a people to decide to create/affirm civic identity and civic space, that freedom ought to belong first and foremost to Aboriginal voices and Aboriginal stories. I just hope we remember this truth in our understandable rush to create our own whānau ora narrative in Australia.

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About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

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