In two weeks, I will be attending the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, to place before them the issue of the 2019 celebrations of Captain Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa (and the Pacific). My objections to this event are anything but news to those that know me, or have read my blog – I’ve published on this numerous times, and spoken at a number of venues regarding the surrounding issues. Naturally – the issues raised by these objections don’t go unchallenged. While there are many of us who object to these proceedings – there are, still, many others who would like to see them go ahead. For those who may read or hear about this in the coming weeks, and feel the need to pose a question or two, I’ve compiled the following FAQ list, with responses.
Oh also, probably a good time to wave out now to my most recent followers from Ministry for Culture and Heritage and let you know that yes – you can expect more resistance. We’re only just getting started.
Ok so here we go – the Cook Celebrations FAQ:
1. Cook was on a science mission though… wasn’t he?
The observation of the transit of Venus was a convenient cover for Britain’s moves to secure trading posts, military stations, and the claiming of lands and resources in the name of the Crown. The 1700s was still well within this period of time known as “The Age of Discovery” – probably better termed from an Indigenous perspective as the Age of Genocide. Driven by the Discovery Doctrine, which arose out of medieval law discourse around the reach of the church and the duties of discovery and conversion, explorers were essentially accorded divine rights for exploration, and claiming of new territories, with any non-christian inhabitants being considered part of the land, and able to be claimed as territory. Converting them to christianity was considered to be doing “god’s work”. By the time the mid 1700s came around there were Spaniards, French, and Dutch “explorers” positioning themselves around the Pacific in their own little imperial race.
When the Royal Navy sent Cook on the Bark Endeavour, they knew that declaring their true intentions could result in others beating them to their goal – and so the cover of a science expedition was handy to position Cook in the South Pacific without betraying their intentions. The Bark Endeavour was a military vessel, captained by a Naval Lieutenant, equipped with 10 four pound cannons and 12 swivel guns, not for science, but for Imperial expansion.
2. It’s commemorations! Not celebrations…
Semantics. You’re basing a year long series of events, and investing millions of dollars, around your own arrival to this land when the people most impacted by that arrival still struggle significantly from those impacts. A year of events and millions of dollars, while our true history still cannot be taught in our schools, and the government fails to address children going to school with no food. A year of events while whānau of Edgecumbe await adequate housing a year after the floods, while whānau all over our country face another approaching winter without adequate housing, or heating. The fact that numerous newspapers, and even our own local council, can’t seem to avoid calling it celebrations exposes the commemoration tag as a thin veneer.
Truth is, as a nation, we are nowhere near being ready to hold this discussion, and to do so leapfrogs the primary discussion of our Indigenous rights. Commemoration, celebration, whatever the hell you want to call it – it’s not appropriate to be spending this much money on an event about your own arrival to our land. You have $15million handy? Give it to us come October 9th, along with an apology, an acknowledgement that this is just the scratch on the surface of what is required, and a commitment to start handing power and lands back and then we can talk. In fact why put off til then what you can do right now.
3. It happened 250 years ago, shouldn’t you be over it by now?
Oh how I’d love for it to have stopped 250 years ago. Maybe if we’d shared some of the qualities of our Hawaiian relations, it would have.
The privilege of an inconsequential past belongs to those who still live off the benefits of how it played out.
For those of us who have survived a consistent, multigenerational experience of racism, from the theft of our lands and displacement of our ancestors, and the imposition of an illegitimate settler government, through to acts of cultural genocide – all of these rights violations have multi-generational impacts, and all of them are rooted in the entitlement assumed under the Doctrine of Discovery. These same rights violations are still relevant and present today. Our government still assumes rights it has never been accorded through our “founding document”. Pull the thread of Britain’s right to be here at all, of their assumption that they provide us with civilisation and protection, of their right to make the decisions about our lands, resources, rights and lives, and the very foundations of our own government begins to unravel. It’s a huge issue, which is why Discovery Doctrine issues are so rarely addressed, and why they still need to be addressed. What Cook did held impacts for our entire nation of Maori, and further afield, held impacts for our relations right across Te Moananui a Kiwa.
4. But he was one of the good guys!
Captain Cook’s voyages around the Pacific have often been characterised as adventures where he engaged in mutually beneficial relationships, admiring the people he encountered, trading hospitably with them – he’s often portrayed as the honourable and fair scientist-cum-explorer. Yet in his own journals he details stealing from Indigenous communities when he comes across their homes unattended – but shooting, killing, and abducting those who would dare to steal from him when he arrives uninvited to their lands and waters (and being the judge jury and executioner when anything went missing). He quite evidently didn’t admire the people of Niue which he named “Savage Island”, and also evidently didn’t admire my own region which he titled “Poverty Bay” – of course these names revolved entirely around what he wasn’t able to get from us rather than any intrinsic value. Here again, we see the erasure of native title simply in the assumption to name a place that already clearly has a name.
Cook also, of course, used deadly force whenever he felt he was under attack, and as was the case in Turanga, his perception of attack may well at times have been a matter of miscommunication – but EVEN IF IT WAS that he was under threat, that is a perfectly predictable and reasonable response to an invader, arriving without invite on other people’s shores with no actual entitlement other than that of his own Crown. It has always been quite within our rights to defend our own territories from invaders so let us never forget who was taking the action out here – Cook was imposing himself upon our territories and had no right to exert deadly force upon us for defending our territories as we saw fit.
But it was not merely within the scope of retribution or miscommunication that Cook took Indigenous lives, in fact he also detailed within his own journals the murder of unarmed Indigenous peoples merely because he desired to get a better look at the vessel they were sailing at the time. In plain terms, he committed piracy. Multiple times.
These particular pirates did not just pillage and plunder but they also infected swathes of Pacific populations with sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea, and in fact was responsible for the introduction of sexually transmitted diseases to Aotearoa, Hawai’i, and many other Pacific nations, by some crewmembers accounts with girls as young as 9. It’s widely known that Cook, himself, died ridden with syphilis. Alongside tuberculosis these diseases were responsible for huge population losses, hence in many places by Indigenous peoples Cook is remembered as a syphilitic pedophile rather than an honourable explorer. Comparing explorers who were all responsible for wiping out Indigenous populations is hardly a yardstick for morality. So who were the good guys? Well – in this context, I’d say the good guys were the ones that stayed at home.
5. But there are Maori taking part – they’re getting to tell their story and celebrate their histories too.
So first of all – Maori participation is not an indicator of justice for Maori – the Ture Whenua Maori Review quite clearly demonstrates that. But secondly – we are not a hive mind. Some value the Treaty, some do not, some see the relevance in the Doctrine of Discovery, others are quite unaware of it. I cannot answer for those who have chosen to participate but I can say that any move to base an event around the arrival of colonization to these lands should NOT be initiated by pākeha, should NOT be led by pākeha, and should not have the pursestrings held by pākeha. So what is the choice here, given that it was initiated by pākeha, with an option for Māori to participate.
The option was participate or be absent.
And this, literally, is how I have had this situation presented to me by well-meaning pakeha involved with these events who had no idea of how absolutely traumatising it is to say to an Indigenous person:
“Well, it’s going to happen – so what would you like to do about it?”
And that, my friends, is the perfect example of the power dynamic that sits behind the Cook events. This is a chance to participate or be erased on your own land.
Can I blame anyone for insisting that their story be included? No. Does that make this a JUST scenario? NO.
There are still others who revel in the fact that this is “shining a light” on the Pacific, on Aotearoa, that it brings with it unprecendented interest in our region and a desire to learn more about us (and even now I cannot write that without sighing deeply).
Let’s be clear about this – we, Indigenous Peoples, Māori, and all Ocean Peoples – do NOT need Cook in order to celebrate ourselves. We have done so, and will continue to do so. Pasifika Festival, Matatini Performing Arts Festival, Te Maori… we don’t need to wait for Cook to come along in order to celebrate who we are. In fact – we should probably all at this point be asking some very important questions: Who is it exactly that is just now showing interest in our region and ourselves? Why now as opposed to any other time? Whose gaze are we courting, and for whose ultimate benefit? No, I’m going to suggest that the heightened interest in this region is the misinterpretation of a greater interest in the colonial narratives of discovering and conquering this region. This, combined with the peddling of Indigenous acceptance makes for a much more palatable version of our history – a story where fragile white settler descendants can feel “safe” to engage in what happened, and is still happening, on these lands. That is what people are engaging in. For Māori – given that we CAN celebrate ourselves any time – why should we be basing any celebration of ourselves around the arrival of the forces that have sought to undo everything we are from that point onwards? Especially when it allows our colonizer to pat himself on the back for “providing the opportunity” and ultimately provides a free pass for our colonizer to leapfrog past restoration of due rights to a pretense of “reconciliation”. When our lands and waters are returned along with the ability to govern ourselves on our lands and waters… then we can begin the discussion of reconciliation. There is no shortcut. Which brings me to the next common line…
6. But this is a great opportunity for us to reconcile our pasts and move on together!
This… THIS is really rich. Like.. that bitter, embattled “HA!” kind of rich, when someone makes a suggestion that is as insulting as it is myopic. Māori have been dragging our Treaty partner back to the table to remind them of their obligations under the document THEY drafted, since before the ink was dry. In each instance, our Treaty partner has sought to curtail our efforts. Opportunities exist for reconciliation every single day in this country, and every single day we still see racism in the media, racism in our council representation, racism in our government, racism in our schools.
Even the incredibly flawed Treaty settlement process sits underneath a Crown power structure which still resists our own historical truths and calls for justice. Every week I go to gatherings that essentially boil down to us dealing with the impacts of colonization and every week our Treaty partner leaves us to deal with that alone. Every one of those gatherings is a missed opportunity for the descendants of colonizers to attend, to hear the impacts, and to consider how they can help to restore justice. You want to reconcile? Come hikoi with us. Support our kura kaupapa and kohanga reo. Learn our reo. Call for the return of our lands. Call for our right to govern ourselves. Call for pākeha to exit their positions of power and hand them over to us, and support us in our journey for the restoration of our rights, and our agency, in our land. But no – you want to ignore those material opportunities and call THIS our opportunity to reconcile. An opportunity that affords you the right to celebrate yourselves, and then us too – because that, apparently, is how to do “bi-cultural”.
There are so many ways you can enter into the discussion of reconciliation.
But centering an event around the day that your lot arrived here, initiatied by you, with options for us to participate – that’s not it.
7. What’s this got to do with the environment?
If we’re talking about Cook – well, when Cook returned to Europe, and even during his travels, as he spread word of the resources he encountered in various lands it unfailingly led to intrusions from further traders, or military invasions and theft, and subsequent resource depletion and in some cases, the wiping out of food systems and staple stocks for Indigenous communities. Of course this fault lies not only with Cook but also with those that followed after him – and in both cases, again, we see this imperial entitlement, this socialised, normalised philosophy of entitlement to Non-christian territories and resources encapsulated by the Discovery Doctrine, that persists to this day. So the answer is: Everything. The Doctrine of Discovery has EVERYTHING to do with the environment. It was developed with the dispossession of Indigenous lands and resources in mind. The Discovery Doctrine facilitated the rechannelling of resources and wealth to European empires. From that point on, the claiming of lands, which was necessary in order to set up settler governments, removed power from the people who lived in an interdependent relationship with those lands and waters, and placed that power in a central location that could reap the benefits of its use without being subject to the impacts of its degradation. And that is how governments continue to operate today – in a centralised fashion, viscerally dissociated from the harm they cause, re-channelling power and resources to a core group. The empires they serve were once monarchies, and are now corporations – who operate under the very same entitlement to impact upon our lands, waters and even our own children and bodies as if we were simply a part of the booty that they stole. Our government stole ten thousand hectares of land from Maori hands through the Foreshore and Seabed Act NOT because the Treaty allowed it to do so, but because the Doctrine of Discovery empowered it to do so. Oil industries plunder our seabed and lands not because of a Treaty-led government – but because of a Doctrine of Discovery led government. Our waterways are dying not because of a government that honours Te Tiriti, but because of colonial entitlement that erases Indigenous presence and voices, as per the Doctrine of Discovery. If the Treaty was the tenancy agreement of the Crown to remain in Aotearoa – then it begs the question why can it still remain after so many breaches? The answer is The Discovery Doctrine.
8. But… why the United Nations?
The Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues sits within the UN, under the ECOSOC council, to hear specific issues pertaining to Indigenous peoples around the world. Where governments fail to recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples, or in the instance where issues supercede one government and impact upon the broader Indigenous community, the Permanent Forum is there for these issues to be recorded in the global accounts. Upon occassion, recommendations may be elevated to General Assembly, or rapporteurs may be appointed to investigate an issue. The Doctrine of Discovery may not be that well discussed in Aotearoa – but in the Permanent Forum it’s recognised as the underpinning theme for Indigenous dispossession. So much, so, in fact, that a special session was held around the Doctrine of Discovery, and the resulting report from the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues reaffirmed that “all doctrines, including the doctrine of discovery, that advocate superiority on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust and should be repudiated in word and action.”
So while the NZ government might not realise the rights transgressions of an event which does anything less than completely repudiate Cook’s acts as vile and immoral – the UN Permanent Forum certainly does, and that’s where this needs to be presented, as a record of NZ’s response to the recommendations of 2014. In addition to this – we already know of instances overseas that seek to use these celebrations as a template for their own celebrations. Our brothers and sisters of Australia will also be subjected to a government imposing Cook celebrations upon them, will also be told that it will be in their own best interests, will also have government-sponsored participation from members of their communities, in spite of Cook’s declaration of “Terra Nullius” – unoccupied land, which led to subsequently being subjected to horrific abuses and murder. Other Indigneous nations are also facing re-enactments of the arrival of colonizers – this issue of governments celebrating the arrival of the colonizer is a huge, unnecessary sap of energy and resources that could so much more effectively be spent on simply getting on with the business of reclaiming our freedom.
9. What do you hope to achieve/What do you want to see happen?
First and foremost – for the records to show that this did not go unchallenged. Secondly, for those that have spent so many years working to elevate social consciousness around the Doctrine of Discovery to have their work acknowledged and built upon, as a legacy for future Indigenous generations to carry on with.
To be honest – I would like to wake up in 2019 and have this be another year where we progress as Indigenous people towards our sovereign rights, not some other shifted goal of “celebrated dual heritage”. Let Cook rest in the shadows of history as the murderous, thieving, kidnapping, diseased pirate that he was, and let the rest of us just get on with elevating our own Indigenous stories on our own terms and timeframes.
Koina noiho. That’s why I’m going. If you’d like to contribute towards the trip – here’s the crowdfunding page. MCH – feel free to fund me! It’s be a nice step towards reconciliation 😉