Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fighting for rights a worldwide struggle

This piece was published in the final issue of Tracker - an amazing publication that ceased operation following the decision of the NSWALC to discontinue it. I am taking the liberty of republishing my piece on my blog to preserve it but also to correct a few typos that I noticed in the text. I apologise to those who have already read the original version.

I often credit going to my first WIPC:E in 2005 in Hamilton, Aotearoa, as being a defining moment in my political development. 

2005 was the first time I had ever been overseas. Whilst New Zealand, at least to the average white Australian, is not considered much of a stretch as far as international travel goes, I found the differences stark, unsettling and deeply confronting.

To go to a land where Maori ceremony precedes most events and is seen as essential rather than an inconvenience; a land where there is a recognised Maori monarchy; where the gubbahs (or Pakeha) speak Maori and are indeed taught it from a young age; where a treaty exists, was eye-opening for me. 

Compared to the situation in Australia, the Maori culture seemed much more central to the everyday lives of the average Kiwi. Whilst I completely acknowledge that I idealise their treaty to an extent because the Maori fight tooth and nail to try and get their government to honour this agreement (Waitangi Day tends to be a day of protest), at least they have an agreement they can hold their government to. 

It makes the current move in Australia for Constitutional Recognition; or us being merely written into a document which was initially developed to specifically exclude us by the colonisers; seem comparatively toothless.

Over the years, more visits to Aotearoa have followed and my perspectives have shifted. More in-depth discussions with colleagues over there have better informed me of the similarities we face with regards to disparities in education, socio-economic status, health, and so forth. 

When we presented a paper at the Hui of the NZ Tertiary Education Union a couple of years ago, our Maori colleagues were similarly distressed but completely unsurprised by the rates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff were experiencing racism, discrimination and lateral violence in the Higher Education system. 

In short, our staff were reporting experiences of racism within the academy at a rate of roughly 80% and our Maori colleagues felt that this reflected their experiences within the sector as well. Certainly, from a political and cultural perspective, in many ways I still find that they are in a better position than what we are, but they still have to fight every step of the way and sharing these experiences across the Tasman Sea benefits us both.

We presented a similar paper to an international Indigenous audience at this year's WIPC:E, which was held in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Hawaiian experience has been a completely different one to what I experienced that very first time in New Zealand. 

I don't think it is possible to replicate that very first wake-up call I received in NZ, and the USA, with its particular brand of “democracy”, adds a completely different context anyway. 

What was replicated though was the responses to our research from this global perspective. 

I saw the nods of assent when we relayed that Indigenous-specific university subjects were seen as “Mickey Mouse courses” by other university staff, or that there always seems to be this racist assumption that we gain our degrees and qualifications on a concessional basis rather than through hard work within a hostile, white-western-patriarchal system. 

There was broad agreement with the idea that our cultural business of importance is seen as an inconvenience in the workplace rather than an integral part of engaging with Indigenous workers and facilitating cultural exchange. 

Simply put, the more time we spend engaging with Indigenous peoples from across the world, the more similarities we can identify with regards to the struggles we face in our homelands.

More than anything though, meeting with Indigenous peoples worldwide provides me with points of comparison as to where we are in our own struggles in a range of fields. I went to a particularly inspiring talk by Mana Party candidate Annette Sykes about the threats that the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) poses to Indigenous peoples. 

Among many poignant points made during this session, Sykes argued that the TPPA was yet another front for colonisation via promise of “economic development” and of particular concern should be our intellectual and cultural property, land rights, resources and development. Additionally, she highlighted how a number of decisions directly affecting our sovereignty are being negotiated in secret. 

Not only did I come away from this session better informed, but I also realised through discussions with fellow Aboriginal people on this topic that when it boils down to it, we are in even worse stead in fighting these threats than the Maori because unlike them, our sovereignty is not recognised nationally via treaty(ies).

Likewise, on attending a session on the Sand Creek massacre and hearing just how long and hard the Cheyenne and Arapaho had to fight to get recognition of the site where this horrific crime took place, it was further highlighted to me the extents in which colonising powers will go to not acknowledge their own history. 

We will continue to have a long and hard fight to gain recognition for the frontier wars, not just of the warriors who fought but also the women who were raped, murdered or taken into slavery. Slowly, we will gain recognition; bit-by-bit rather than for the frontier wars in their entirety; but this will only happen if more of us not only challenge for this recognition, but also enter the education system and have a hand in shaping the opinions of the future generations.

Finally, as if by some twisted irony, whilst I was over there Warren Mundine decided to state that some Aboriginal people are using “cultural obligations” as an excuse to not go to work or get a job. At the very same time, I was hearing some incredibly pleasing examples of educational institutions elsewhere in the world that have embraced the cultural practices of their community. 

Tribal colleges, community colleges and indeed some universities seem to believe that taking into account the life experiences of their Indigenous workers and students leads to better-rounded experiences and higher success and engagement rates. 

It's interesting that here we continue to fight for the smallest of rights ever, such as the right to use language or attend ceremony, whilst some of our own people continue to denigrate these practices to the mainstream for their own advancement. In other places across the world, it is thought that building an inclusive environment creates the best chance for success and exchange. Indeed, when it comes to our right to be recognised, we seem to be going backwards in this country.

So for mine, whilst being engaged in my home country is integral to my very work and my being, engaging on a global scale as Indigenous peoples gives me the opportunity to put things in perspective. To critically analyse and see how our situation relates to the experiences of other Indigenous peoples. It also creates the opportunity for solidarity, particularly when we are fighting battles on a regional and global scale. 

The feeling of isolation that many Indigenous people feel, including myself, on a daily basis when struggling to make things better is lessened through knowing that others are fighting the same battles across the world as first peoples. 

Through collaboration, we may even beat them.


  1. Maori don't have sovereignty. :/ the state uses Maori culture whenever they want a bit of decoration to cover up colonization because our culture is their property, it belongs to them like 95% of our land. White nzers learn to speak te reo if they want to pretend they have an identity, most Maori don't have access. Maori academics make a career for themselves but 50% boys leave school with no qualifications & a lot of our kids don't even learn to read English. I really don't think you should take maori as a model unless you want an assimilated bourgeoise & an abandoned underclass with no access to culture.

    The treaty was a scam to steal our land. You still have a lot of land, Australia is still actively trying to steal it. Its like the frontier era over there. It's better in nz because we already lost, the war is over we have nothing left to steal. Don't make the same mistakes & don't believe elite Maori academics represent the people, most of them are frauds.

    1. Hey Anonymous (although I have asked people to not post under that name!),

      You are of course right, and we have seen a bourgeoisie already here. So strong that they encourage funding cuts to sweeten their own deals with the government. And Te Tiriti o Waitangi is more a learning base for us. We have much to draw from your experiences across the ditch and your expertise in dealing with government over the years serves as a handy reminder, at least to me, on why they cannot be trusted.

      One thing I will pick you up on: we don't have any land here. We have "Native Title" which is a far cry from land rights. Perhaps as big a scam as what you describe your treaty to be.

      Big respect - CL