Wednesday, May 28, 2008

MTV (Maori Television)

[Updated May 30th to sort out cut&paste problems in first paragraph]

When you switch on the telly for the first time in New Zealand, you'll find that one of your viewing choices will be in a language that you have probably only heard before on the rugby pitch, when the All-Blacks perform their famous haka. The Maori language is like nothing I've ever heard before, and strange to a European ear. But when James Cook (there he is again) made contact with the people of New Zealand in 1769, he had on board somebody who could understand these men, and could make himself understood. That man was called Tupaia, a Tahitian chief picked up during the first part of the Endeavour's voyage. The reason that Tupaia understood the Maori is because the Maori, like Tahitians, are Polynesians, and speak languages that come from the same sub-family of Austronesian. The Polynesian people swept eastwards across the Pacific from 1200BC until 1000AD, starting from Taiwan and inhabiting island after empty island, eventually doubling back to find Earth's last big true Terra Nullius, New Zealand. And they did it a good six to eight hundred years before Cook passed by.

When you first enter the country, even at the airport, you see the Maori language all around you. Like Ireland, official signage is always bilingual. Like Ireland, certain terms in the one language have found their way into the other. Most white Kiwis will know what mana is or what whakapapa means - not just words but even Maori concepts form part of New Zealand's shared vocabulary. The cross-fertilization works both ways. After Cook had moved on, and traders and whalers moved in, the Maori needed to expand their own language to deal with things they had never seen before, and they used transliterations, just like we've heard in the Chinese language a few months ago. For example hipi renders the idea of the then-unknown sheep and pata sounds like the foodstuff that the Maori had never know, due to the lack of large mammals on the islands: butter. (I have no idea where Lake Wanaka got it's name...)

Take all these things together - Maori Television, a single Maori language respected with dual signage, a keen sense from white New Zealanders (Pakeha) of Maori culture - and you get an outsider's feel for the difference between the situation of the Australian aboriginal and the New Zealand Maori. The Maori suffered under colonization, make no mistake. At one stage during the late 1800s most whites believed - many with regret - that this was a people doomed to extinction. But they survived conquest better than the Australian peoples, and adjusted with greater ease into an essentially European political framework.

Why?

At the moment, I'm reading another, older Jared Diamond book called Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond offers an explanation for what he describes as the "broad pattern of history": how Europeans (or at least Eurasians) came to conquer the rest of the planet, rather than Africans, Native Americans, or Australians. I'll wait till I finish the book before trying to summarize it on this blog, why the fates of the Maori and the Australian First Owners have differed so much.

For now, let's look at another related New Zealand story that Guns, Germs, and Steel relates. The book starts with a discussion on the spread of the Polynesians across the Pacific. This is because that movement serves as a kind of Human History in a Nutshell, a small isolated example of what happened globally when anatomically modern Man spread from Africa to almost every corner of Earth. The islands that they conquered or filled varied enormously in climate, size, isolation and domesticatable plants and animals. Over the two millennia of exploration, the inhabitants of each of these islands tended to lose their cultural memory, forgetting where they had come from and simply adapting to conditions on each of the islands. The starkest lesson that can be gleaned from these adaptations lies in the story of the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands.

When they settled in New Zealand, the people who came to be known as the Maori brought with them some domesticated crops (the earliest Polynesians were already farmers). Some of the crops they had didn't thrive in the colder climate even on the North Island, but others did and the Maori people came to depend on agriculture more and more, especially after they hunted the larger flightless birds on New Zealand to extinction (the Moa being the most well-known example). By the time New Zealand was fully colonized by the Maori, they were organized into territorial tribes. At any moment in time, some tribes were at war with each other, while others cooperated (a perfectly normal state of human affairs). Some time before 1500, a group of Maori left NZ and settled the Chatham Islands, 800km East of where I'm sitting now in Christchurch. Life on the Chathams was not the same as where they had come from - it was too cold even for the few crops that remained to the Maori. But it was abundant in seafood. The Chatham Islanders reverted to a hunter-gatherer way of life and while this was the right choice (indeed their only choice) for survival in these conditions, it was the wrong choice geopolitically and it sealed the Moriori's fate.

In order to survive on an island that could support no more than 2000 people, they developed a strategy for dealing with conflict that excluded outright war. It wasn't strictly pacifist - you could still take a stick to your neighbour in a ritual fight. But once you drew blood, that was as far as you were allowed to go. There was no food surplus, nor way of storing it, that would in any case have provided for maintaining even temporary armies. There were precious few natural resources that could have provided for weapons. If the Chatham Islanders had kept up their Maori ways, they would have wasted what the islands had to offer, and died out.

When contact was next made with the Moriori people, by whaling and sealing ships around 1800, the word was brought back to the Maori in New Zealand of islands that were bountiful and inhabited only by a group of people who had no concept of weapons or war, and simply no idea how to defend themselves against outside aggression. A total of around 800 Maori chartered a European ship, and went to settle the Chathams. Those of the unfortunate Moriori who escaped slaughter tried repeatedly to negotiate their way to peace (it was all they knew) but merely ended up as the slaves of the Maori. The consequent genocide was practically complete in 1933 when the last full-blooded Moriori died.

By recounting this story I am not criticizing the Maori - what they did was in complete accordance with what they would have expected to suffer if they were defeated in war themselves. Nor am I saying that the Moriori are to be commended for their pacifism - their lack of defence was not a principled stand as such, but simply due to the fact that as a people they had forgotten how to fight. The real tragedy as I read it, is the fact that neither side understood that they were brothers, separated by just a few hundred years. And the immediate lesson that I take from it is that, if you extrapolate out the 2000 years of Polynesian colonization to the 40,000 years of the movement of modern Man, you are left with the similar conclusion that every one of the current wars raging on the planet right now is a war between brothers. That is not a liberal, bleeding-heart opinion. It is, to steal a phrase from Stephen Jay Gould, a contingent fact of history.

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