Monday, April 24, 2006

Danny Keenan: We came of age on battlefields of New Zealand

The decision of the Maori TV channel to devote extensive coverage to Anzac Day celebrations is really bizarre. When the decision was made public, Maori TV officials couldn't contain themselves - their enthusiasm was palpable.

Anzac Day, after all, is a national icon. This is the day when, in 1915, our boys spilled their blood on the beaches of Gallipoli, when New Zealand "came of age" as a nation, or so the rhetoric goes.

New Zealanders have been sold this idea for generations; that it was some military event, on the far side of the world, that caused us to realise ourselves as one people; that there was a new awareness of New Zealand, forged in the heat of a war in which we had little interest, though it did cost us 160,000 lives.

What direct interest Maori have ever had in this event is never made clear; perhaps Maori TV will spell this out.

As a flagship of sorts for Maori, I wonder how carefully Maori TV thought the issue through before jumping on board the Anzac celebrations.

There is a larger issue here; and it's about Maori fighting alongside or against the Crown, and where this should sit within our national consciousness. For or against the Crown - you can't have it both ways.

The belief that Maori show prowess in battle has always earned Maori a certain grudging respect from Pakeha. It has been even better when that prowess - that energy for killing - has been harnessed by the Crown to do the nation's bidding.

In 1899, James Carroll wanted to take a Maori contingent to Samoa to subdue a Samoan uprising. In 1900, Carroll asked that a native contingent be sent to the Boer War - it was wrong he said that "brown sons of Briton" should be denied their chance to transport their energy to Africa, thereby demonstrating their loyalty to Queen and Empire.

The impediment, as Carroll knew, lay partly in London - Britain was reluctant to allow non-white citizens of the Empire to fight whites.

In New Zealand there was no such reluctance. Maori were permitted to do the Crown's bidding by fighting other Maori, and many did.

In 1914, Maori were initially recruited for garrison duties. But after the losses at Gallipoli, when New Zealand "came of age", Maori were recruited for combat.

At last, said Carroll, Ngata and others, Maori could show themselves to be the equal of the Pakeha, in recruitment, fighting skills, and casualties.

The result was the Pioneer Battalion, all volunteers, which sailed for Egypt and France - Maori prowess harnessed in defence of nation and Empire.

And so Maori unwittingly contributed to the myth of nationhood and Gallipoli; they became a race of subaltern participants in the creation of a national story which, at least as subtext, was also a story of their own demise as a nation.

What the Maori TV channel doesn't seem to understand is that commemorating Anzac Day is, in part, a recognition of the destruction of Maori nationhood. The battle fought at Gallipoli was fought for nation and Empire; it was not fought for Maori.

There were battles, of course where Maori fought for Maori, on our own soil, across a 30-year period after 1840, as the Crown struggled to secure its grip upon the mana whenua of Maori.

The Crown, initially through the use of the British Army, was prepared to seek and destroy Maori who stood against the colonial ideal of establishing a new nation called New Zealand.

The Armed Constabulary was later established to carry the fight to Maori still in the bush, with other Maori recruited in large numbers to do the Crown's destructive bidding.

Those tribes which fought with the Crown in the 1860s later rushed to enlist in the Pioneer Battalion (and the later Maori Battalion). Those tribes which rebelled against the Crown, in defence of what they regarded as a Treaty right, did not.

In 1915, Waikato Maori refused to enlist in the Pioneer Battalion, and were conscripted by way of punishment.

Few Waikato Maori were at Gallipoli in 1915 when blood was tragically spilt. But they were present in numbers at Rangiriri in 1863 when they carried a terrible burden for all Maori by engaging the British Army, in the hope that the planned invasion of the Waikato might be prevented.

But the British Army shelled and shot its way through the Tainui citadel, marching into the Waikato. From this point on, there would be no stopping the Crown from forging a new nation out of the battlefields of New Zealand.

As George Grey had stated years earlier, a New Zealand nation could not exist alongside autonomous Maori. It was one or the other.

New Zealand did not come of age on the beaches of Gallipoli; it came of age on our own battlefields, like Rangiriri. The war that mattered - that forged the nation we are today - was fought on our own soil.

* Dr Danny Keenan is Associate Professor of Maori Studies at Victoria University in Wellington.

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