Why I Won’t Give the Cook Celebrations My Brown-ness.

porourangi poutama
So here we are, in the thick of it – 2019. The Cook celebrations are set in train in multiple townships across our country and there is a hearty debate on their impact and value.

From the moment it crossed my attention back in 2014 I have opposed it wholeheartedly. There are many other Māori, however, who have decided to participate. I’m not going to speak to their motives – that is for them to do. One of the most common tactics of the colonizer is to place Natives in front of other Natives to hold the debate about colonial abuse – so that the colonizer can continue on their business.

What I am going to speak to here, however, is my own reasoning why I, as a Ngāti Porou woman from Te Tairāwhiti, have not, and will not, participate in the TUIA250 funded Cook events.

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The “Kia Mau” FB group and Declaration was founded by Robyn Kahukiwa, and is for Indigenous Peoples to state their opposition to TUIA250.

Now, back in 2014 when I first started vocally opposing these events, I was approached by members and associates of “Te Hā Sestercentennial Trust” with various versions of “please be quiet and/or get on the waka”. I have been offered a “River Award”, I have been cajoled, and cried at, and when the attempts to recruit failed – the tactics shifted to publicly discrediting me as a liar, purist, and a hater who “needs to keep her mouth shut”. That’s not so much cause for “woe is me” but rather, it’s interesting to see how determined these attempts have been. I’ve seen them do the same with others who have opposed – with varying results. The conversation themes generally went along the lines of:

“This is your chance to tell your side of the story”
“There’s a lot of money involved, you can make this work for you and your people, get something good out of it”
“You can get some conservation wins out of this”
“We need to start focussing on how to chart a path forward together”

“Look for better or worse, it happened, and we need to acknowledge that”
“Well the events are going ahead anyway, with or without you, so you just need to decide if you want your voice in there or not.”

Now, I can focus on every single one of those arguments but I think it’s more important right now to focus on why brown endorsement of the TUIA250 events is so important.

Of course, if you ask any person involved in these events they will rightfully point out that it is ethically important to “both sides of the story”. Of course we have never required colonial permission or validation to tell our side of the story, we’ve been doing that for a long time – but in all honesty – if this were really about some benevolent intent to make sure I had my side of the story included, then the attempts would never have tipped over into aggression.

So let’s consider, instead, what this would have looked like without any brown endorsement and involvement: Colonial funds, celebrating colonial arrival, telling a colonial story. Colonizing governments spending tens of millions of dollars purely on themselves, while Indigenous peoples remain in poverty.

It would never have gotten past square 1.

For this reason, whenever I hear people talk about how we can use this as “our chance to tell our story” – what I cannot help but consider, is how we are actually being used for the colonizer to center their own story. Indeed, Indigenous participation on the margin is vital to the centering of the colonizer.

Therein is my first reason why I will not lend them my brown-ness: I will not play any role in the colonizer centering of themselves in the story of my land.

Of course it’s vital to get brown endorsement of these events – it sends a signal to ourselves, and the world, that our interests are being represented and supported. In this sense – it doesn’t really matter what is said in our participation – what counts is that we participated. That is what the world will see, and when TUIA250 is critiqued, that is the first defence they have.

Therein lies the second reason I will not lend them my brown-ness: I will not be a tool of defence for our colonial government.

This is a form of exploitation that functions to cloak the white supremacy which sits at the heart of these events. The very articulate Moana Jackson (I know… I quote him a lot) has reflected that:

When many Europeans were still nervously venturing into what Socrates called the “little pond” of the Mediterranean, the peoples of the Pacific were charting the greatest ocean in the world. They mapped its currents, reached for stories in its depths, and established a whakapapa that joined all of its islands together. That is a story worthy of being honoured — but in the Crown commemorations, it is only being told in the shadowed narrative of someone else.

There is what you say in an event, and there is what an event says – just as monuments are a signal of what society deems important enough to embed as a marker of our identity on the landscape – so too are publicly funded nationwide events a statement in and of themselves. They are a monument in time that says THIS date matters, that THIS person matters, and that they matter enough to center our identity on it. In placing our stories within the wake of the colonizer, we give them power to once again be our great benefactor, the center of our success. This is why groups like Robyn Kahukiwa’s “Kia Mau” page, and the accompanying declaration, is so important. It is not just opposing the celebrations – it is DENYING them our participation, as Tangata Whenua.

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Like I stated above – the colonial story does not hold center stage in my story of Aotearoa. It does not even share center stage. Māori are the center of this nation’s identity, and the colonial story (even that which sits in my own whakapapa) is a much more recent addition to the story of Aotearoa. We are very selective in what counts as history in this country – certainly, the “Māori Land Wars” (probably more aptly called the Colonial Theft Wars) are not deemed important enough to be embedded in the national curriculum. In Aotearoa our history is consistently misrepresented, and indeed even the historians at the very center of the Cook campaign continue to misrepresent the facts of what happened, positioning Cook as benevolent, framing his killing of Native people as a mere character flaw of an otherwise noble renaissance man, and deliberately minimising the murders of brown people that he carried out everywhere he went. Our participation alongside these people implies endorsement of their fictions, and therein lies my third reason I will not participate in these events: I refuse to allow my brown-ness to endorse the continuation of colonial fictions about the killing of my ancestors, and the theft of our lands and waters.

There is also a larger story and issue at play here and that is the global struggle of opposing the impacts of The Doctrine of Discovery. It has played out all around the world, and has been highlighted by the United Nations as the driver of all Indigenous dispossession. As a mindset, the Doctrine of Discovery reiterates an entitlement to conquer for the sake of imperial expansion. That mindset sits at the heart of corporate empires to this very day, and fuels the processes of climate change and ocean pollution which place our very existence at threat. I cannot maintain a position of solidarity with my Indigenous brothers and sisters, or one of care for our Earth Mother, while reinforcing the very mindset which threatens them all. I will not allow my Indigeneity to be used in a process that places the roots of my Indigeneity, and my Indigenous brothers and sisters, at threat.

The Doctrine of Discovery is the bedrock of the colonial structure that sits around us. Like all structures – if left alone, the colonial power structure will soon crumble in on itself. It requires acts of restoration and reinforcement in order to sustain itself. Disguising Indigenous truth with colonial fiction is one such act of reinforcement. These colonial fictions look like:

“We were discovered”
“Our colonial experience is historical”
“Our colonial experience was benevolent and non-violent”
“Our colonial experience was invited”
“Our colonial experience has been overall beneficial”

Capitalising on the ‘benefits’ of a platform for us to tell our side of the story belies two facts, one: that we have already been telling this story without them for 250 years, and have generally been vilified, by our colonizers, for doing so. And two: that if the colonizer was generally interested in our side of the story they could have joined us in this practice at any point over the past 250 years rather than vilifying us, or arguing with us. The entire Waitangi Tribunal process is a harrowing experience of us telling our truths about the colonial experience while the Crown continues to deny or minimize it – and that is going on still, today.

Of course it is hoped that the pockets of Indigenous truth that are allowed through these events will result in some social shift towards justice. This does not, however, allow for the bulk of colonial fiction that is being funded through this event. Those colonial fictions will continue to frustrate my children and mokopuna’s struggle for sovereignty in their own land – because the first step to justice is TRUTH. TUIA250 may not be willing to take responsibility for the colonial mistruths they are facilitating around the country, but I can certainly make them accountable through refusing to lend them my brown-ness.

Most especially – you will not find me anywhere near a welcoming ceremony for the replica of the death ship, Endeavour. To provide welcoming ceremonies for the replica of a ship which killed our people and stole our lands is exactly the kind of endorsement our colonizer requires of us to maintain their false premise of being invited, and welcome, in their role. These kinds of optics are vital for the colonizer – which is why I use the term “brown-ness” because to them it is very much a performative, optical endorsement of their presence and behaviour that they seek – even though within Te Ao Māori these ceremonies, our whakapapa and mana, should mean so much more. This is why it becomes difficult and confusing for whānau and communities who don’t want to welcome the colonizer, but do want to welcome each other, our waka hourua, and our performers, who are walking alongside the colonizer, ushering the colonizer into these opportunities. You see – it is US providing the coloniser with opportunities to tell their story and indeed center it, not the other way around.

Tōku mana Māori, he mana Māori motuhake – a line from the anthem of our tuakana, Te Whānau a Apanui. My mana is a gift of my ancestors, inherited to me by way of whakapapa, genealogy. They have survived 250 years of colonial fictions and oppression. Their marks upon my skin, their name that I carry, their values in my heart, their matauranga in my mind. Regardless of my actual skin colour – everything that the colonizer perceives as my “brown-ness” actually comes from them, it is a sacred part of who I am, my connection to this land and these waters – and that is the most important reason I cannot, and will not, allow it to be used within a systemic legitimisation of colonial crimes.

Nōku tēnei whenua, kei a au te kōrero. Nōku tēnei whenua, ko au te rangatira – Apirana Mahuika

(This is my land, this is my story to tell. This is my land, and I am the authority)

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