Questions to ask the person in the mirror

“What is the crucial work we must be doing as Pākehā to be part of Te Tiriti justice and decolonisation?”  That was the question posed to 14 of us who were invited by the wonderful Emily Beausoleil to contribute to this year’s Joan Cook Memorial Essay, an annual offering set up in memory of Treaty educator Rev Joan Cook, in which invited writers explore “the state of the Pākehā nation.”

Read this year’s essay on the Network Waitangi website here.  As you will see, the 14 contributions are varied, including poetry, stream of consciousness, mini essays and suggestions for resources.  However there are common themes, including recognising our privilege, learning about the harm done through colonisation, acknowledging our direct or indirect role in this, listening more, letting go of power and finding new ways live together in this land.  As Kelly Dorgan put it: “ leave space, to implore our loud to quieten, our powerful to acquiesce...”

My contribution is number 6 of 14, and I’ve copied it below:

For me, the crucial work we as Pākehā should be doing is to look in the mirror and ask ourselves some hard questions. For example:

• What is my family’s arrival story, and by whose authority did we settle here?
• On whose land do I live, and by whose authority do I live here?
• How do I genuinely and meaningfully take action on my answers to these questions?

And it is likely that our answers will be uncomfortable. Perhaps we are a new immigrant, settled here under the policies of the coloniser, rather than the tikanga of Tangata Whenua. Perhaps we have been here for generations and have difficult stories in our history. Perhaps we don’t know much about the journeys of our forebears, unconsciously exercising our privilege to ignore the past. And perhaps we own a property, a business or a farm, and therefore our wealth is built, at least partially, from the dispossession of Māori lands, and enabled through the imposition of a worldview where land is simply a tradable commodity.

So how do we then act on these uncomfortable answers? It is no longer sufficient to outsource our difficult history to the government via the Treaty settlement process. We, as Pākehā living on this land, are not absolved by that Bad Naughty Crown saying sorry and sending some pūtea [money] to Iwi, and nor is meaningful reconciliation achieved.

Instead, our crucial work is both personal and systemic, both reflective and action-oriented, and it is probably a long, tricky, and relatively uncharted journey. But maybe we can start by learning more about our own history. And perhaps from this stories will emerge that need to be acknowledged and put right. Then we can learn more about the land on which we live. And perhaps from this initiatives like pay-the-rent and landback, which are emerging both overseas and here, can be explored. And then we can learn more about the Aotearoa that was envisaged by Māori at the signing of Te Tiriti and hoped for today. And perhaps from this we can support things like Matike Mai Constitutional Transformation and other initiatives which decentre ourselves as Pākehā, and rebalance power and resources.

So let’s do the crucial work of looking in the mirror, let’s ask ourselves hard questions, and then let’s listen to and act on the voices that answer us. Then, together, we can build the Aotearoa of āpōpō [tomorrow].

What I don’t say in the essay above is that these are questions which I have been asking the face I see in the mirror, and it has set me on a path to try to acknowledge and heal some of the uncomfortable colonial history which my family has been involved in.  But that is a story for another day.


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  1. As always I read and find myself challenged to think differently by the questions you raise. I know my own familys history and my migration story colour how I have viewed NZ, the Treaty and Maori. And yes some uncomfortable stuff comes up there. Its easy to bury those feelings, ignore them and carry on like it doesn’t matter and never talk about it; many people do. But it is being challenged in this way that almost gives us permission, to talk about the difficult things, acknowledge them, and find meanimgful resolution for all who live on this wonderful land we call home.

    1. Kia ora Niamh – thank you for your feedback – this is wonderful to hear. And good on you for the work you are doing here. I feel very similar about my history!

  2. This is great Kate. I have been turning ideas similar to this in my head for a while now and this really helped to clarify what I was thinking. I shared with my whole family so we could have the conversation together.

    1. Kia ora Sally – thank you! So glad that this was helpful for clarifying your thinking and good on you.

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