02 Nov 2021
Over the past couple of weeks there have been calls for a specific vaccination target for Māori, which begs the question as to exactly who, or what are Māori?
Current Māori population estimates are around 850,500, or just under 17 per cent of our total population.
That is a large group, and while there may be some purposes, such as constitutional status, for which we can consider our ethnic identity as a primary identifier, more often than not a more nuanced approach is required when we talk about “Māori”.
Within that large group are broad differences of social identity and connection to culture, as well as diversity of income, education and inequity.
Māori demographer, Professor Tahu Kukutai has considered the challenges of defining Māori as an ethnic group for the purposes of public policy. The key difficulties are determining who counts as Māori, and considering who should be targeted for any particular initiative. Pinpointing the target group will help determine the “qualifying criteria” because the policy in question may not affect or be relevant to all Māori.
Appropriate identification of the target demographic will then inform the what, where and how of messaging and implementation, and hopefully lead to more efficient and effective policy outcomes. Are we talking about young people? urban or rural people? poor people? reo speakers? people with gang affiliations?
In recent weeks the majority of Covid positive cases have been identified as Māori, prompting John Tamihere, chief executive of the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency which represents a number of Māori health providers, to ask the Government to hand over Māori Covid vaccination data to assist them to lift vaccination rates. Tamihere’s pitch is that failure to do so will result in more Māori Covid infections and deaths.
Governments have long defined indigenous populations and collected data relating to them. There is no single formal legal or policy definition of who or what constitutes a Māori. Unlike some other native peoples around the world, we have not been subject to rigid regimes focused on blood quantum or compulsory registration, although a rarely applied definition of Māori being a person of “half-blood or more” existed across various statutes until 1974.
Since the earliest times of colonial government in Aotearoa, many law and policy frameworks have provided varied definitions of “Māori”. One of the more interesting legal definitions was set out in our early jury law, where “Māori” was defined as “all persons of the Aboriginal New Zealand race, all Aboriginal Polynesian, Melanesian and Australasian natives” as well as half-castes living within a tribal group.
I’ve never discovered whether this provision enabled any of our Aboriginal or Pacific relatives to serve as a Māori jury member.
Most contemporary legislation, including Māori land law and the Māori electoral option, use descent-based criteria, referring to “Māori or the descendant of a Māori”. This seems tautologous, as the classification into two categories implies they are different things, whereas I view the descendant of a Māori as a Māori.
Within Te Ao Māori there is consensus that the fundamental qualifying criteria to be considered Māori is whakapapa – genealogical descent and connection, reflecting the core cultural belief that to belong and be connected is the essence of “Māoriness”.
In this vein, Justice Joe Williams has referred to the whānau as the “glue” of Te Ao Māori, “for without whānau, being Māori is a mere abstraction.” Others, such as Timoti Kāretu, argue that Māori identity is primarily predicated on tribal affiliation, pointing out that the very concept of Māori as a pan-tribal grouping is a colonial construct.
The perceived weaponising of te reo Māori is a particular pain point, with around one in five Māori claiming proficiency in the language. A criterion that has the potential to miss 80 per cent of a population is one that should be used carefully.
Internal Māori race politics include our frequent light-hearted jokes about “Māoriness” being assessed against the ability to sing or play guitar, to dive for and devour kina or pāua, to pick up the tea towel or potato peeler at the marae, or dig the graves or the hāngī pit.
Descent and identification form the two core strands of identity for many contemporary purposes – including access to restricted entry programmes or positions of employment reserved as part of Tiriti policies or diversity and inclusion strategies. In such circumstances, whakapapa alone is necessary but not sufficient – there must be evidence of commitment to that whakapapa.
The elephant in the room is often the place of deprivation and its continuing influence over meaningful connection to and participation in healthy Māori identities. This is not a criticism of the “authenticity” of Māori who might fall within this category, but a reminder that poverty and vulnerability are not part of Māori identity, although the experience of the same restrict and control many Māori lives.
It is also pertinent to remember that not all members of a disadvantaged group consider themselves disadvantaged. As Kukutai has observed, “ethnicity is not a proxy for disadvantage” – Māori is not a socio-economic class.
These are difficult waters in which to tread – navigating the politics of race, which is controversial at the best of times, along with social and cultural factors, including marginalisation that is not part of the original whakapapa, but is arguably now an indelible stain upon it.
For public policy to be constructive and successful it should be underpinned by a nuanced understanding of the people it is trying to reach.
This article first appeared in Stuff.co.nz