Key Points:

In 1990 Professor Ranginui Walker published a collection of essays that sought to provide a Maori perspective on Maori history and society. Its title, Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End, took a phrase attributed to the chief Rewi Maniapoto when in 1864 he led a resistance against the invasion of the Waikato by government troops. When called on by the troops to surrender, Rewi is said to have retorted: "Ka whawhai tonu matou, ake ake ake" - "we will fight on against you for ever and ever".

If Rewi did in fact utter these words, he was likely referring to armed, violent struggle against invaders. Walker, for his part, and notwithstanding the anxieties his title might have provoked in 1990, invoked a slightly different meaning. He used the phrase to refer to the struggle of Maori to engage independently, positively and successfully with what Maori experience as a difficult, dismissive and dominating Pakeha world. This struggle, Walker suggests, is interminable - without end: ake ake ake.

For many Pakeha, Maori struggle is misunderstood simply as Maori perversely refusing the comforting ideal of "we are all New Zealanders". And the idea that Maori and Pakeha are locked in endless struggle is an alarming one. It suggests that there is inevitably a conflict, and that there is to be no resolution, no happy ending, "no getting over it".

But an endless struggle may be a positive ideal. A "good"struggle is engagement, not disengagement; being endless means that one side does not win out. Such a struggle requires at least two strong sides, each taken seriously; it does not impose or comprehend only one side as Pakeha tend to do in relation to Maori. If it is to be constructive, the struggle needs to be positively embraced by Pakeha, rather than suppressed or avoided.

A story from our past is a useful illustration of positive engagement not taken up by Pakeha, despite their good intentions. In December 1814, the missionary Samuel Marsden arrived at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands with the first group of Pakeha settlers. The new arrivals were provided with a bit of "entertainment" in the form of a "mock battle"on the beach, involving several hundred people. Marsden and others referred in their journals to this "sham fight" which they found electrifying.

The next day, Marsden delivered a sermon to three or four hundred people. Marsden could not speak in Maori, and the audience could not understand English. We know from Marsden's journal that translation was provided by a local chief, Ruatara, who could speak reasonably good English (he had experience as a sailor on European ships and had lived with Marsden in Australia ).

At the end of proceedings, the people rose in a great haka - in joyful gratitude, the visitors concluded, for "the solemn spectacle they had witnessed". Marsden recorded that the first sermon had been preached on New Zealand soil, and this is how many remember the event today.

But to the Maori there that day, there was no sham fight. There was no sermon. There were no missionaries. What happened on the beach was most likely a powhiri or waka taki, an event in which the people of the area greeted and established a relationship with the new arrivals, and the chiefs began to signal the place of the settlers among the people. The powhiri took the arrivals into the hapu, to be protected and developed as allies and friends.

What Marsden called a sermon was no sermon. It was a political meeting, again organised and choreographed by the leading chiefs of the area, within which Ruatara got to speak about the strangers now coming to live permanently - at his behest - in this place. Marsden preached from St Luke, but we do not know what Ruatara said.

It is likely that he made a heartfelt speech: why he had brought these people here; what he had seen in Australia; how the new arrivals were a source of good things, including horses and wheat. He would have insisted that the people must be good to the new arrivals. Rather than Ruatara simply helping Marsden, we can see Marsden as Ruatara's unwitting assistant, as Ruatara persuaded the people to accept his plans.

If we examine these different accounts of the events closely, we find not just difference but a deep incompatibility in the meanings of the events. Indeed, we have entirely contrary accounts of what is going on, who is present, who is making decisions and who has authority.

A sham fight is a performance that indicates the power and authority of the newcomers who are being gratified by entertainment. A powhiri, on the other hand, is a vigorous manifestation of the people's and chiefs' authority and mana.

The flow of power runs through all the people present as they establish their new relationship, which encompasses them all.

In the same way, a sermon is the word of God delivered by missionaries and the haka at the end of it is a signal it has been appreciated. But a speech at a hui is an assertion of the word and authority of a man, his ancestry and position. A responsive haka is a manifestation of his influence and the significance of the situation. There are no missionaries here at the hui. The main Pakeha speaker - in this case, Marsden - merely represents the people who have arrived and who, through a relationship between their group and the tangata whenua, will provide better access to the modern world which they had seen on the ships coming to their shores.

The differences between the stories are significant in what they say about the big picture of the relationship between Maori and Pakeha, and the Maori struggle to engage. The fight/sermon (Pakeha) story reinforces the idea that assimilation and colonisation of Maori have started, and that Pakeha authority is recognised, even accepted, and becoming established. The powhiri/hui (Maori) story suggests quite the contrary: that Maori authority is beginning to be imposed upon the new arrivals, and that assimilation of Pakeha into Maori society has started.

The "Pakeha" story assumes that Maori welcome Pakeha authority, the "Maori"story signals that a struggle to engage with Pakeha has begun.

The two accounts cannot be reconciled or blended together in a unified, "we are one people" tale about what happened. The two stories are destined to sit in interminable, but productive, tension with each other. And in the tension between contradictory realities is the ake ake ake, the endless struggle - to know, to read, to understand, to work with, to engage with, others.

Is it possible to ask, almost two hundred years after the fight/powhiri and the hui/sermon: are Maori still waiting for a positive response from Pakeha to that first powhiri, to the invitation for ongoing engagement in a reciprocal relationship? Or are Pakeha still largely unable to see or to understand the powhiri, or to participate in it properly and positively?

We might say that Ruatara and the other chiefs and their people (from the groups now called Ngapuhi, Ngati Rehia, Ngati Hine) were struggling towards a relationship with Pakeha on that first day, and that Maori have been engaged in that rather one-sided struggle ever since.

Pakeha have largely refused a relationship of positive, real, engagement, being busy instead with forms of colonisation, and with "being entertained" by, and "doing good things" for, Maori.

The Pakeha refusal is dramatically illustrated by the fact that one side of the relationship is missing from our history - the sermon and the sham fight can be found in the records, but the powhiri and the hui cannot. The journal-keepers did not experience those things, nor consider them.

Should we (Pakeha and Maori) merely continue to assume the great Pakeha story of arrival and subsequent colonisation, a story that includes the sham fight and the sermon? Or might we consider more positively the implications of an interminable struggle as the basis of Maori engagement with Pakeha, a story that foregrounds the powhiri and the hui?

* Professor Alison Jones is from the School of Maori Education, University of Auckland, and Professor Kuni Jenkins is from Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, in Whakatane.
* This is an edited version of Professor Jones' inaugural lecture at the University of Auckland last month.