Author Interview: Margaret Mutu


The innaugural interview for TCP's author interviews initiative, this conversation with Margaret Mutu was published on TCP's website in January 2020.

MILILANI GANIVET (MG): I don’t know if you’ve kept track, but you are the journal’s longest serving political review writer, having written about Aotearoa/New Zealand since 1995. Over twenty-five years, congratulations! How did you come to write this review? Can you share some of the lessons you’ve learned writing political reviews over the years?

MARGARET MUTU (MM): No, I haven’t kept track, but I have on occasion wondered as I saw the names of other reviewers changing over the years. I find writing the reviews cathartic, so I have been grateful that The Contemporary Pacific (TCP) kept asking me to do it. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to record Māori’s ongoing pain, frustrations, and constant struggles, along with their plans, hopes, and dreams for a better future.

In 1994, the TCP political reviews editor first asked me to provide a review of issues affecting Māori over the past year. Ranginui Walker had provided annual reviews for the journal since its inception in 1989 and wanted to hand it over to me. Ranginui was the chairman of the Auckland District Māori Council at the time I was the secretary during the 1980s. In 1994, he was also head of Māori studies, my department at the University of Auckland. He knew that my kaumātua and kuia (elders) had drawn me back into my whānau (extended family), hapū (grouping of whānau), and iwi (grouping of hapū) in order to find ways of addressing the injustices, oppression, and discrimination that British colonization had been visiting on us for more than one hundred fifty years. They had trained and guided me over many years and were my backbone and shelter as we fought to maintain, uphold, and enhance our mana (paramount power and authority derived from the gods) and tino rangatiratanga (the exercise of ultimate and paramount power and authority, sovereignty). They had also taken me outside of our own iwi territories of Te Hiku o Te Ika (the Far North) and throughout the country to meet and listen to hundreds of our whanaunga (relations) who work tirelessly for their whānau, hapū, and iwi. Ranginui felt I had the necessary background and training to write the annual reviews. Every year since then, the TCP political reviews editor has asked me to provide a review.

At first, I followed Ranginui’s model and identified one or two major issues that had been the subject of extensive discussion among Māori in the reporting period. Every year there were far more issues and events that should have been included. So I expanded the reviews to include those issues I heard being discussed on marae (communal gathering and decision-making place) around the country, in other hui, and in Māori media. Even so, there were still several important issues that I did not cover. The approach I took was to try to capture as best as I could the wide range of thinking expressed by Māori on issues and events affecting us as Māori. While many of the issues and events I reviewed were covered in the Pākehā (White) media, the way they were reported there rarely if ever reflected Māori thought on the matter. Each year I looked out for the bright spots, or the Māori success stories that provide some relief from our depressing state. Pākehā media rarely reports them, or, if they do, they leave out any Māori aspects and claim them as New Zealand successes.

Initially, I did not record the passing of our leaders as consistently or as well as I should have. In terms of our tikanga (laws), they must be acknowledged first, particularly those who brought our people together and were important role models. My recent reviews have corrected that error.

The key lesson I have learned over the twenty-five years of writing these reviews is how important it is to collect data in a systematic way throughout the year. The increasing archival capacity of some Māori media greatly facilitated this work. Government media monitoring services were helpful but tended to cover Māori issues of importance to government rather than Māori.

MG: Having written twenty-five reviews, I wonder how your process of thinking and writing about Aotearoa politics has evolved over time. How do you sort and track significant news over the course a year?

MM: My approach has always been strongly influenced by the teachings of my kaumātua and kuia, and I have largely maintained that approach, adapting it as the thinking of our people moves toward us being more assertive in taking back control of our lives and well-being. Much of what I reviewed dealt with our relationships with Pākehā and the ongoing struggle to free ourselves of their domination, oppression, and discrimination that has resulted in us being dispossessed, impoverished, powerless, and marginalized in our own land. For my kaumātua, the relationship we entered into with the British in the nineteenth century was that set out first in He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni (The Declaration of Sovereignty/Independence) of 1835 and the 1840 Tiriti o Waitangi (the original Māori language treaty signed at Waitangi). Both of those documents made solemn undertakings that our mana and tino rangatiratanga would be upheld and respected by the British Crown if we allowed her subjects to live among us on our lands; in other words, we would continue to have ultimate power and authority over our lives, lands, resources, and country. Our rangatira (leaders) devolved responsibility for the lawless Pākehā who had already arrived and would continue to come to the country to the British Crown. Te Tiriti also guaranteed that the British Crown would guard against Māori being harmed by the lawless behavior of her subjects.

Yet the British Crown has never been able to control her own subjects who came to live in our land, and for far too long they behaved in a manner that severely demeaned not only her mana but also that of her descendants, right down to today. Their illegitimate assumption of power and control over us, our lands, and our resources, and their need to dictate every aspect of our lives, has been the source of tension and conflict for more than one hundred seventy years. For my kaumātua, setting that relationship right was the single most important aim they pursued in respect of our relationships with Pākehā, and they passed that on to my generation to pursue after them. Many of the events and issues I reviewed came about as a result of numerous and repeated violations of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Since the 2000s, I have also drawn on the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a blueprint for implementing Te Tiriti. Each year I tried to find evidence that we were making progress. I looked for examples of Māori taking back control of our lives and resources. It was often a case of one step forward then two steps backward, especially when a new government came into power, made us promises, and then reneged. While Pākehā knowledge of the atrocities they committed against us has improved, and I look for examples of this, they remain reluctant to share power or to return lands and resources they stole from us. They also remain reluctant to recognize and acknowledge the privilege, wealth, and well-being they enjoy as a result of dispossessing us. White supremacy remains a major problem, although there are (and always have been) Pākehā who have fought beside us to stop it. These Pākehā find they have to maintain a low profile, and as such I do not get to report as much of their good work as I would like.

I draw on a number of resources to sort and track significant news over the year. First, I attend a large number of hui both at home in the Far North and throughout the country. This included hui of National Māori Congress in the early years and then National Iwi Chairs Forum since 2005, which I attend as the representative of my iwi, Ngāti Kahu. I also watch Māori Television and listen to Māori radio, especially their news and current events programs. That helps me identify the major issues and indicates how Māori are viewing them. With this knowledge, I trawl through a number of databases that I accumulate during the year, making notes on the major issues they report. I always end up with many pages of notes that I arrange under the themes that emerge for each year. The Māori Law Review is a monthly publication that provides information on important cases affecting Māori before the courts (most of which still do not rule in our favor) and the Waitangi Tribunal, as well as commentary on the implementation of legislation that purports to protect our rights (but rarely does).

Over the years, there have been a number of reports prepared for government on issues affecting Māori, many of which are very good. These include reports from the Waitangi Tribunal (with the exception of some recent ones refusing to make orders that are binding on the Crown) and from UN bodies. Although I collect and draw on these, the government usually ignores them or implements very few of their recommendations. For many years, the Ministry of Māori Development issued a daily roundup of news items relating to Māori from media sources across the country, and this was helpful. However, it often eschewed items that challenged the government and Parliament’s legitimacy and required constitutional remedies that Māori have agitated for over many decades. Mana magazine and Māori Party press releases (when they were in Parliament) were helpful, as are Māori radio and Radio New Zealand archives. E-Tangata is a more recent online magazine (which replaced Mana) that has some very good commentary.

The exercise of trawling through these databases takes several weeks and always provides notes on many more issues and events than I can include in a review. At this point, I have to choose which have been most important for Māori, a choice that is often difficult. What I choose often depends on the quality and reliability of the information I have on each issue.

MG: Unlike other political reviews that provide an analysis of a country or territory, I have noticed that yours has consistently focused on Māori issues instead of New Zealand as a whole. I wonder if you could elaborate on how this re-centers Indigenous issues, which might otherwise be marginalized.

MM: One of the reasons I agreed to undertake these reviews was to ensure that there is a record of the issues and events that are important to Māori and that Māori views on them are recorded. My primary aim is to make a small contribution toward empowering Māori to take back control of our lives from Pākehā. It also aims to let Pākehā academics know that Māori do not see the world and what is happening to them in same way that Pākehā in general do. Little is taught in schools or universities about Māori history and worldviews, and, where it is, it is often presented inaccurately from a Pākehā point of view. New Zealand media is almost entirely Pākehā, as is government. Pākehā, who make up more than 70 percent of the population (Māori are 16.5 percent), do not generally participate in Māori events and gatherings. So the general population rarely hears or sees anything from a Māori point of view. We are truly marginalized.

MG: Most of us do not train to write political reviews. Do you have any tips for neophytes or future political reviewers? What are the necessary ingredients to write a good political review?

MM: Listen carefully to the people whose issues you are reviewing—you will hear what is important to them and how they see it. That determines the approach and content of your review. Colonizers’ views will always dominate, especially in the media, so you have to access your information from reliable Indigenous sources. Take care in how you report on issues. Again, it comes down to having good and a wide range of Indigenous sources. Colonizers’ reports of Indigenous issues and events are often distorted and unreliable. Draw from as many databases and other sources as you can in order to get the best coverage of an issue. Go to the original source when you can. Set aside time to trawl through your databases and to write the review carefully. I try to set aside six weeks, but my whānau, hapū and iwi responsibilities invariably interrupt, and it always ends up taking longer. Keep the review clear and simple.

MG: I have noticed that you managed to publish a book out of the reviews you have written for the journal over the years. How did you work that out? Can you tell us more about it?

MM: Colleagues who knew of my reviews, especially those in Hawai‘i, suggested that I gather them together and publish them in a book to make sure that Māori in particular had access to them. The TCP editors were happy for me to do it, and Huia Publishers was very enthusiastic. The book covered the years 1995 to 2009. I went back through each review, and I expanded and annotated them for a general rather than an academic audience. To make them more relevant, I searched out photographs of the people and events I reported on. The book is The State of Māori Rights (2011). I am planning a second edition that will provide an update of my reviews.

MG: Teaching Māori studies at the University of Auckland while simultaneously writing for a Pacific studies–focused journal, do you have any reflections on the relationships between Māori and Pacific studies?

MM: For those of us in Māori studies at Auckland, our closest colleagues have always been our relations from the Pacific. Māori studies as a subject was established in the 1950s; Pacific studies was established three decades later. We defined and agreed on our relationship within the University of Auckland in formal Māori ceremonies in the 1980s. Māori studies was tuakana (elder sibling), who would take the lead and would look after our teina (younger sibling), Pacific studies. We would both respect each other’s mana and avoid Pākehā attempts to divide and rule us. When the Faculty of Arts was being restructured in 2012 from more than twenty departments into three schools, Māori studies insisted that the only school we were prepared to be included in was one with Pacific studies. We flatly refused to be subsumed into a school with our colonizers. In the 1980s, the Department of Māori Studies was given the Māori name, Te Wānanga o Waipapa. Today Te Wānanga o Waipapa is the School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies. We have also maintained strong relationships with our Hawaiian colleagues at the University of Hawai‘i over many decades. Through our Pacific studies colleagues, we also have relationships with colleagues at the University of the South Pacific.