For me, a Pakeha art historian working in a New Zealand museum, Te Tiriti o Waitangi isn't primarily or most interestingly a process of redress between the Crown and Maori.

Auckland Museum has been profoundly shaped by the history of museums and cultural institutions grappling with the changing expectations of Maori when it comes to their taonga.

This might be called the "Te Maori effect", after the 1984 exhibition of Maori art that toured the United States.

From the start, Maori permission and cultural practice were central to the organisation and management of this exhibition; and afterwards, this way of working began to infiltrate the museum and cultural sector, changing how things are done.


This moment has become a kind of shorthand for a series of shifts in how Maori expect to interact with museums, and how Pakeha institutions understand what they do -- precisely because the limits of Pakeha authority have been clearly articulated, and are increasingly being enforced in a variety of ways.

I see the traces of both of these histories in more personal, less institutionally sanctioned experiences, such as a 20-minute conversation I had near the start of my time at the Auckland Museum, with a Pakeha colleague, in awkward te reo Maori, about whether the tupuna in the Maori natural history gallery mind us taking food in sealed containers through their space on our way to the staffroom.

This is a conversation that only became possible within the past 30 years; it is a personal manifestation of the larger shift in awareness triggered by the need to take te Tiriti seriously, and underwritten by the work of the Waitangi Tribunal in articulating the contemporary principles of the Treaty.

As an art historian working outside the Auckland Museum, I brush up against te Tiriti whenever I encounter and talk about the politicisation of cultural dynamics in Aotearoa.

Cross-cultural borrowing, such as Pakeha artists using patterns and designs from Maori art, is not easily or willingly separated from a larger history of Pakeha helping themselves to land and other resources, and the Crown's refusal to acknowledge Maori customary rights.

One bleeds into the other, as it does in Article 2 of te Tiriti itself, with its guarantee that Maori will have "unqualified exercise of their chieftainship over their lands, villages and all their treasures".

Damian Skinner. Photo / NZPA
Damian Skinner. Photo / NZPA

I live in a household where it feels as though te Tiriti is at work in a number of different ways. I see its echo in conversations about whether the kids are Maori and Pakeha, or Maori with Pakeha whakapapa. (That dinner ended with a furious argument about blood quantum in United States law.)

I see its impact in conversations about what it means to pursue decolonisation in our domestic environment. (Sometimes this is practical, like not washing the tea towels with the undies. Sometimes it is more intangible, about the words we use, or don't use - to take one example, the way we describe earthquakes or the weather as the actions of Atua Maori.)

I also see te Tiriti in the necessity for Pakeha to support te reo Maori in the home, as the first language of the kids, even when you don't speak it well enough, which means not being able to say certain things that are in your heart and mind to the ones you love the most.

In our household, there is a Pakeha ex-local body councillor, so we talk about how councils behave, and how they continue to actively resist the aspirations of Maori.

There is a Maori early childhood education teacher, so we talk about how the education system fails the needs of Maori children, and the ways in which kohanga reo and puna reo can bridge this gap.

And there is a Pakeha art historian, so we talk about how art history operates and what it can mean for a Pakeha art historian to say he is committed to te Tiriti and to continue to write about Maori art.

I see te Tiriti in all the endless tensions and domestic politics of a Pakeha living with a Maori whanau, in a predominantly Maori community that - being mostly state housing for the labour requirements of the local freezing works and Wattie's cannery - is a geographic and social reminder of the legacy of Treaty breaches. In a little over 50 years, Maori land was turned into Pakeha land.

It used to be called Turanganui-a-Kiwa; now it is called Gisborne.

Here is an anecdote that I find interesting.

A Maori woman says to her Pakeha colleague, who is sitting on a table, "You can't do that, it's a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi".

For me, the key to this anecdote's power is its awkwardness and sense of confusion (does te Tiriti really proscribe sitting on tables?), which in turn points to the messy and expansive role that te Tiriti plays for most of us, Maori or Pakeha, in Aotearoa.

A lot of the things I have described relating to my personal encounter with Te Tiriti o Waitangi would be, for many people, nothing to do with te Tiriti at all.

But that is only true if you allow the Crown - Maori relationship to suck up all the oxygen in the discussion.

The cover of The Treaty On The Ground.
The cover of The Treaty On The Ground.

These other things make up the totality of what I mean when I say on my curriculum vitae that I am committed to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and to working out what it means to be a Pakeha partner in the Treaty process. In all of these places and encounters and conversations, I get closest to what I think it means to talk about 'the Treaty on the ground'.

Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn't discard the idea of te Tiriti to properly acknowledge these other dimensions.

But then I remember that holding onto the Treaty connects us to history - to a series of signings in 1840, but also to a shamefully large number of breaches and instances of Pakeha behaving badly, and more hopefully to new principles generated over the past few decades, which in turn point to an interesting future.

All of this specificity guarantees the urgency and irrevocability of the process. To decolonise ourselves, Pakeha need two things: a patient Maori to explain how things really are, and a reason to look at history. Te Tiriti brings both to the table.

A big part of decolonisation for me is linking one's own personal history to the breaches of te Tiriti - tracking family connections to a process in which Aotearoa starts off as Maori land and ends up as New Zealand, a quarter-acre paradise for Pakeha. This doesn't make sense without reference to te Tiriti and the discussion that has emerged around it, especially as this is essentially an analysis that describes the engine that produces Pakeha privilege, and shows it in action over two centuries.

But I also want more when it comes to the visibility of Pakeha within the Treaty process.

There isn't a lot of room for Pakeha like me in te Tiriti if we are talking mostly about a negotiation between the Crown and Maori.

There isn't a lot of room for this process to be personal and important and a driver for my own decolonisation.

There is a mostly untold history of Pakeha who have, in different ways, lived a history of taking te Tiriti seriously, wrestling with its implications privately and publicly.

I would like to hear more about that. Indeed, I think it is imperative that we do hear more about it, especially in discussions like the one in this book that have something to say about te Tiriti beyond the typical frames of Treaty analysis.

We need to find a way to challenge the idea that te Tiriti is primarily a Maori issue, and not a Pakeha one; or the idea that biculturalism, its flawed and fascinating fruit, is a Maori problem and not something that Pakeha need to worry about.


Don't get me wrong. I don't think Pakeha can expect a pat on the head and a gold star for our contribution. There's no "A for effort" here.

But we need to find a way to challenge the idea that te Tiriti is primarily a Maori issue, and not a Pakeha one; or the idea that biculturalism, its flawed and fascinating fruit, is a Maori problem and not something that Pakeha need to worry about.

I see the limits of this approach when all of the Pakeha cultural institutions I have ever encountered are filled with Maori staff who are responsible for articulating what biculturalism means and how it will be achieved, and running the cultural sensitivity training that will bring their Pakeha colleagues up to scratch.

Ultimately, I think this lets Pakeha off the hook. Maybe we should be taking the lead in articulating how we need to change in order to meet our side of the partnership? I am not talking here about Pakeha telling Maori what to do, but Pakeha articulating to and on behalf of other Pakeha what should happen next.

To really see the Treaty on the ground is going to require Pakeha to step up and shrug off the invisibility cloak of white privilege.

April Bennett, one of the speakers in the Treaty on the Ground conference held at Auckland Museum in July 2015, was asked a question about the role of Pakeha in all this.

Her answer? "Kia kaha, e hoa ma. Go forth and gather together the resources that already exist, the people who are already committed, and start having a Pakeha conversation."

As I was told once, around the dinner table, the biggest problem facing Maori is Pakeha. So what are you going to do about that?

Learning more about Pakeha responses to te Tiriti, and understanding that not only is there already Pakeha Treaty practice but there needs to be more of it, seem like good places to start.

Extract from The Treaty on the Ground: Where we are headed, and why it matters, edited by Rachael Bell, Margaret Kawharu, Kerry Taylor, Michael Belgrave and Peter Meihana. Published by Massey University Press, April 3, 2017, $39.99.