“I am the river and the river is me”: How New Zealand is defending Maori worldviews.

Perhaps one of the greatest struggles in indigenous communities today is the laws that oversee their affairs but do not incorporate their own intrinsic values.  Western society has become so accustomed to a worldview developed through sets of values such as Christianity that it becomes difficult to separate these perspectives from our every day lives.  But not all peoples hold the same values, including the Maori in New Zealand.

Recently, New Zealand attorney general Chris Finlayson worked on agreements between the New Zealand government and various Maori groups to enable a swath of land or entire body of water to be granted personhood in the eyes of New Zealand law.

“In [the Maori] worldview,” stated Finlayson,”‘I am the river and the river is me’.  Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”

This idea seems foreign to those who view “personhood” as something that belongs only to a human being.  But in a worldview that sees spirituality and what constitutes as living in a different light than what many Westerners see, this definition applies to traditional lands is completely logical.

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The former national park, Te Urewera, existed from 1954 to 2015 and consisted of 821 square miles of North Island.  Recently, the Te Urewera Act took effect so that the government abandoned its formal ownership and the land became its own legal entity, including having “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person” per the statute that was passed.  In other words, the park was granted personhood; a river system is expected to receive the same designation soon, once it passes Parliament.

This classifications seem like “unusual designations” for those accustomed to non-Maori worldview, yet the legal status is similar to that of corporations who are also not an individual human being.  The decision to grant personhood was a “profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world,” according to Pita Sharples, the minister of Maori affairs when the law passed.  The settlement resolved the ongoing argument between New Zealand government and Maori groups over the guardianship of natural features within the country.

One great advantage to passing this law for the sake of conservation is the power it gives to the land itself.  Lawsuits to protect the land can be brought on behalf of the land itself without any need to demonstrate how a human being is impacted while defending the land’s protection.

The river set to receive similar status is the Whanganui River, the third longest river in New Zealand.  To the Maori, it is “an invisible and living whole, comprising the river and all tributaries from the mountains to the sea – and that’s what we are giving effect to through this settlement,” according to Mr. Finalyson.

These new designations do not mean people cannot still enjoy Te Urewera like when it was a national park; it simply means special permits for activities like hunting must be issued through a new board that represents the river.  This board will consist of both government and Maori representatives.

The hope now is that this landmark decision will set precedent for other indigenous communities around the world whose worldviews and cultural paradigms are not being incorporated into the laws that govern their traditional and sacred sites.  Finlayon has already began discussions with Canada’s new attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, on how these concepts can be written into Canadian law.

Will Canada be next?

civilization and measuring wealth.

I’m reading The Rights of Indians and Tribes (4th Ed.) by Stephen L. Pevar.  It’s incredible to read chapter 1 and see, in brief, the hypocritical and genocidal patterns of the US Federal Government between 1789 and the present.  It seems like, time and time again, the native populations in America were labeled as one group of uncivilized, needy people.  Act after Act was passed by Congress in the efforts to “improve” the economic development of tribes which was really just a fancy way of saying “ethnic cleansing”.  The cycle began with the settlers’ push westward, greedy for land and safety from Indian attacks.  It induced action to be taken against tribes which was justified by the settlers’ mentality that their Christian, “modernized” ways were superior and that they were doing the Indians a favor.  Any governmental actions were completely two-faced, though, since their underlying motives were – until recent history – to undermine tribal systems and assimilate Indians into non-Indian culture.  (I’m definitely picturing Uncle Sam with a Hitler mustache these days.)

I still can’t get over this two-facedness.  And I think part of why I feel that way is the inherent irony of the circumstances: Settlers thought they were modern and that Indians were the uncivilized ones.

[Those powdered wigs definitely don’t shout “civilized and modern” anymore.  Nor does slavery.  Or taming horses to pull carts when you can just drive a car.]

Yet it’s not just the materialistic things – it’s the values.  These settlers imposed their civilized ways on native cultures, and modern society continues to hold biases.  If it doesn’t align with “modern thinking”, it’s radical and unacceptable.  Like traditional medicine.  Or nomadic lifestyles when we’ve developed agricultural techniques.

It’s just so ironic, that “native ways of life” are outdated – that assimilation would bring wealth to native communities.  It’s so ironic because I think it’s the complete opposite.  All you have to do is look at the health of the planet and you can see that it’s health has declined aggressively over the last century.  And what has also changed over the last century?  “Civilization”.

Civilized – 1. having advanced agricultural and social development; 2. refined in tastes.

To be “civilized” is to be advanced.  Or, by the second definition, kind of arrogant and picky.  But what is advancement?  I think it has come full-circle.

For the last couple of centuries, we’ve seen dramatic advancements in technology.  We’ve been able to learn and manipulate things we couldn’t have imagined just generations before.  But how does this gain of knowledge help us in the long run?  Certainly it has increased our laziness, thereby causing higher energy usages that deplete resources and consequently harm the planet – our forever home.  Certainly it has increased our life expectancies when not ailed by obesity or diabetes or cancer, for example, but that has increased our population and shed light on the possibility of a carrying capacity to the planet – our forever home.  Certainly it has made the quality of life better in some arenas, but it has also caused new problems and threats to our lives as a side effect.  How are those advancements?

The Paleo Diet.  All of the health advancements we’ve been allegedly making, yet people are reverting back to traditional diets, avoiding manufactured foods, and seeking more natural herbal remedies.  They have been thinking more of what we are and the origin of our medical advancements and rediscovering ancient knowledge.

Many are longing for simpler lives.  The communication systems we have are impressive, but stressing.  We are so interconnected it becomes dangerous.  It’s not uncommon for those in “civilized lifestyles” to long for something less, something more like “what it used to be”.  Or, as Miranda Lambert sings, for the time “before everything was automatic”.

Since the practices of the Indians have been widely replaced by the practices of “modern civilization”, America has lost nearly all of its topsoil.  It’s polluted and ravished by pesticides and other chemicals.  Bison populations were obliterated (intentionally), and other animals that have thrived for as long as humanity knows are suddenly finding themselves scarce and suffering.  No more “three sisters” planting – now everything is mono-crop, industrial-size, motorized, artificial…And, just like with the Dawes Act, all anyone can do is take more, more, more, more, and more…and think they’re entitled to the rest.

What is civilization?  Modern civilization hardly seems civilized to me.  It’s destroying this land and it was brought here by people who accused other cultures of being “uncivilized”, the same other cultures who lived here for thousands of years in peace with the planet.

Being civilized should encompass acknowledging that advancements are only made if a part of that advancement is preservation of the planet.  Because, seriously, can you imagine living in a world without it?  It sounds stupid to try to imagine it because you can’t.  Yet people are living like that, taking what they want as they can because they feel entitled to do so.  Not obligated to respect and pass up opportunities that are wrong.

And what is wealth?  Because I don’t think it’s having all of these silly, materialistic things.  I think it’s knowledge, wisdom gained by experience, giving and thus receiving respect, and – most importantly – finding happiness in next to nothing.  They always say you can never be happy with someone else until you’re happy alone, and I think that’s true of any kind of wealth.

Oh, just my rant for the day.

Unadulterated Freedom of Speech in America

Last night I watched a DVD of the movie Margaret.  It’s about a girl having to deal with traumatic stress from causing an accident in which a stranger was killed.  The movie was mostly about the girl’s problems with or without the accident.  Not all of it though.  Maybe it’s because the movie takes place in NYC, but there just seemed to be a lot deep material, including political viewpoints.  One particular non-gloomy scene which stuck out at me was when the girl is in some kind of discussion or debate class and Terrorism becomes the focal point:

The main character, Lisa, gets into a heated argument with a Syrian-American student who chose to defend her Syrian family.  Lisa gets in a tizzy because the girl suggests that Americans are hypocrites and terrorists themselves.  The argument goes around the room until, finally, another student speaks up and says she thinks the Syrian student deserves an apology because she was only speaking her opinion.  Lisa seems appalled by the suggestion and continually fails to grasp any point-of-view but her own, thereby somewhat rationalizing the other’s student’s points.

One mentioning of this “US Policy in the Middle East” scene (http://www.justpressplay.net/reviews/9614-margaret.html) describes it with the following: “Lisa’s own confusion regarding the ultimate morality of her actions (i.e.  whether initiating a lawsuit will actually make anything better) is doubtlessly  meant to reflect the spiritual confusion that followed the century’s most  notable terrorist attack, but given how incompletely New York is evoked on a  visual level, the parallel is less effective than it might otherwise be.”

Morality.  What is good and what is bad.  How do we define morality?  This is the center of the argument in Margaret’s debate scene, reflecting Lisa’s constant confliction in defining what is the moral thing to do and what isn’t.  But morality is, for lack of a better word, merely an opinion.  It’s just an important opinion.  Whether we base it off of personal decision, experience, religion or other influence, our morals become the foundation under our feet as we move forward in life.  From this podium, we may voice our personal opinion – an opinion structure around these morals.  This is the American concept of Freedom of Speech.  But what happens when our structures differ so greatly?

As with Lisa failing to see how Americans entering the Middle East could draw hypocritical parallels to the terroism that drew us there, we fail to see another perspective through these enormous, underlying disparages.  When we are so bent on one opinion and one way of life, we close our minds to the true definition of Freedom of Speech, to the fact that it is a given right in America to preach things that might morally offend the rest of the world.  You have the right because you believe it.  It is morality, not the truth of the world.  It is belief, not the science that keeps the planet spinning.

This entire topic reminds me of my First Amendment debate class in sophomore year of college.  Our discussions would be arguments of whether or not, e.g., Nazis could demonstrate by peaceful marching down the streets of Beechwood (a heavily-Jewish community in Cleveland).  Our papers were briefs in which we had to write from either assigned perspectives of cases centered around the First Amendment.  It was interesting to see how this one Jewish girl in my class could not grasp how Nazis peacefully marching anywhere in Cleveland should not be allowed.  But the point comes right back to this: Opinion, beliefs, morals, and the right to peacefully demonstrate these things.

Perspectives aren’t right or wrong.  They might not agree with the majority, but they are not right or wrong.  Honestly, I feel like this is part of why I haven’t gone to law school, although I have to admit I initially looked at environmental law.  Now my focus has become Indian Reservations and rights.  But as long as it’s a constitutional battle, I do believe in what the Constitution holds, I agree to it and thus I still live here in this country accepting it without challenge, and I will continue to grit my teeth because I know allowing other opinions should not affect my safety whilst in this country.  Yes, there are Nazis who believe in a superior race, but how do we know that isn’t false?  (Harsh concepts, I know, but be fair.)  The same goes for the KKK.  For those radical church goers who picket everything under the sun.  I could go on forever, but let’s close this up…

My point is (going back to Margaret), Lisa, you’re wrong.  As an American taking advantage of American freedoms, you should apologize and realize that you’ve agreed to the full terms of Freedom of Speech.  You’ve agreed to accept that someone might think Americans are terrorists.  Christ, you’ve even agreed to accepting that someone felt 9/11 was justified because America is corrupt.  It’s the harsh reality and, while my personal beliefs and morals don’t line up with such “sadistic” concepts (that was an opinon there, did you see it?), it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.

Suck it up, my friends, for to each, his own.