Te Tiriti o Waitangi: The Question of Culture and Nationhood

Kelly-Anne Panapa

Tuesday, 04 Feb 2020

By Toi Ohomai Expert:

Kelly-Anne Panapa, Head of Māori Success



Culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language. Why do I say this? Because, whether conscious or unconscious it encompasses and influences every aspect of human life.

It’s definitely not a straight forward task and culture can be found in infinite forms. Most people live their daily lives at the intersection of multiple cultures whether through sport, professional, art, rock, religious, pop, ethnic, familial, gender - the list goes on. 

A quick Google search throws up many definitions. A couple that I will dwell on with you are: “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organisation” (Merriam-Webster.com).

And: “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations”  (Merriam-Webster.com)

By definition, culture shapes everything we care about, do and identify with but interestingly what we often forget is the role culture plays, as highlighted by the second definition, in what we know, how we seek and share knowledge, particularly with our successors. In New Zealand, this is not well observed. 

We have become really good at forgetting that our institutions, public spaces and many private places are products of a cultural world view. I’ll be political and add, a world view that is not from this land. We have become really adept at believing, and behaving like, these products are culturally benign, universal even. The consequence of course is that this is the ‘universally appropriate norm’ and products from alternative cultural world views are less relevant, applicable or useful. I’ll leave that with you for a moment to ponder, and return to it later.

This is the time of year in Aotearoa when discussions about culture are plentiful as we enter into our annual celebrations of, arguably, the founding of our nation, or at least the signing of our nation’s founding document – Te Tiriti o Waitangi. I will show some restraint now by not boring you with all the details around how the Treaty of Waitangi came to be in 1840, suffice to say a narrative based on the notion of a ‘bicultural’ nation has ensued.

There are countless positions taken today by the common Kiwi on the topic of biculturalism. From its empty promise and disappointment in its inability to assure and ensure genuine partnership with Māori to its irrelevance in the wake of an ever-growing multicultural or global New Zealand society. The reality is, however, that biculturalism influences our ideas of identity and nationhood and is commonplace in New Zealand public policy. 

What does it mean? Are we there yet? And how would we know? I refer you back to my earlier point about the complexities of culture and might I suggest the exacerbated complexities of biculturalism.

But, what does it mean? The esteemed professor Ranginui Walker (1986) in the height of his career and academic activism asserted the importance of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in determining bicultural aspirations and claimed: “Te Tiriti o Waitangi can be interpreted as a charter for biculturalism” 

To follow his lead, by definition, biculturalism would see that our “attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterise our institutions and organisations” are equally shaped by both treaty partners? Traditionally, this is Tangata Whenua and the British Crown. Today the British Crown is commonly accepted to be represented by the New Zealand Government and they represent all New Zealanders who are afforded citizenship as defined by them. 

Are we there yet? Many, or should I say “middle”, New Zealanders would respond with an emphatic “yes!” and would rattle off a list of examples as evidence. Indeed, Māori culture and our pristine lands and waterways are our defining features abroad. The exercise of Māori ceremonial customs are common place in national and many local events of significance. Te reo Māori is receiving great press, never before have we seen such commitment by our national media platforms to proliferate Māori language and attend to accurate pronunciation. Our national anthem is routinely sung in te reo Māori as well as English. Most kids will be familiar with at least one haka and/or waiata and would usually be expected to be able to count to 10 in Māori. But, are we there yet? 

How would we know? Well, are Māori cultural patterns of knowledge, belief, and behaviour as normal aspects of everyday life as for products of our British cultural heritage? Is Māori culture entrenched in our nation’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations? Are Māori attitudes, values and goals embedded in the strategic and economic infrastructure of our institutions and organisations? Are Māori culture and identities naturally and unsurprisingly modern and dynamic while also being steeped in history and tradition? Do Māori sensibilities shape and intertwine with every aspect of or our daily architecture and do New Zealanders comfortably converse freely and fluently in English and te reo Māori whether we are a citizen by Māori whakapapa or by Te Tiriti?

These are all questions we are engaging with at Toi Ohomai. We are embarking on a ‘critical bicultural’ journey. It is a journey that asks us to stretch ourselves beyond our current levels of comfort to learn more about our part in nurturing an authentic and meaningful biculturalism. We are choosing to extend ourselves beyond our current bicultural knowledge and capability and are doing this because we know and understand that we are yet to harness the infinite value of the contributions Māori culture and world view has to offer us, our staff, our institution, our learners and our communities.

As Waitangi Day approaches we are reminded about the promises made by our ancestors to work together to negotiate a bright future for their collective descendants. This brings us to the task we have of fulfilling the vision of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. 

Our journey at Toi Ohomai is guided by a mana ōrite (equal mana), indigenous-settler relationship. We are learning more and more about what this means and the role we have as an organisation and as individuals. We are learning that a mana ōrite relationship is the kind of relationship that is fraught with tension and sometimes conflict but one that is enduring, reciprocal and rewarding. If we can find the courage to stay engaged through discomfort we know the experience will teach us something and provide us with growth and reward us with a sum much greater than its parts.

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