Neo-imperialism and the (mis)appropriation of indigenousness

By Makere Harawira

Forthcoming in Pacific world: an international quarterly on peace and ecojustice, Pacific Institute on Resource Management, Wellington.

[published in Pacific World No 54 - October 1999]


Haunani-Kay Trask has defined imperialism as a total system of foreign power wherein another culture, people and way of life penetrate, transform and come to define the colonised society. The primary function of imperialism is exploitation; exploitation not only of the land and resources of the colonised country, but also of its peoples. Thus imperialism is the defining characteristic of colonialism in both its past and present forms. Some might ask what still remains to exploit now that colonisation has done its worst - has raped the land of its minerals, the seabeds of their fishes, the soil of its biodiversity, the peoples of their language and DNA, and long since reduced them to a state of dependence on their colonisers? The answer of course is the exploitation of indigenousness itself, the exploitation, nay even theft of cultural identity, the misappropriation of the essence of indigenous `be'ing. In recent decades, the imperialist practices of global capitalism carried out by certain non-indigenous interest groups not only continue to assert the relative social and economic supremacy of non-indigenous and peasant peoples through market-driven policies and the reification of notions of `economic man' but also appropriate and commodify for their own economic gain indigenous knowledge, sacred sites and traditional practices.

Throughout the world, indigenous peoples whose lands, whose resources, whose ways of life has been destroyed by capitalism and greed, who since the beginning of colonisation have been constructed as an inferior `Other' somewhat less than human, are engaged in a struggle to retain control over the last remaining vestiges of what makes them unique; their traditional spiritual beliefs, practices and knowledge. For too many indigenous peoples, it is already too late. Imperialism which throughout the 18th and 19th centuries legitimated its rape and pillage of both peoples and lands through liberal ideologies of difference which saw civilised man as godly, indigenous peoples as primitive and different and idleness as belonging to the devil, has reclaimed `difference' as a commodifiable asset and appropriated `indigenousness' for economic gain.

From the earliest beginnings of european colonialism, the shamanic knowledge, astrological knowledge, healing and medicinal knowledge as well as the histories of the lands of indigenous peoples, have suffered the misinterpretations and distortions of eurocentric anthropologists and archaeologists who twisted and reconstructed the ancient practices of the peoples to support the ideologies of social darwinism. Today these same forms of indigenous knowledge and practice are being reappropriated and reinvented by new age apologists whose global trade as the harbingers of salvation in a world on the brink of destruction sustains them in a lifestyle derived from spiritual and materialist greed while simultaneously disavowing the materialism of modern capitalism. It is as though, faced with the resurgence and renewal of indigenous communities throughout the world and the reassertion of fundamental indigenous rights and the enshrining of these rights within international treaties and covenants, certain elements within the non-indigenous community at large are impelled to seek new ways of asserting their domination over indigenous peoples.

The disjuncture between indigenous peoples' values and those of the global imperialising interest groups is often most clearly identified in the removal of environmental protections for and the commodification of water, land, flora and fauna. The resurgence and renewal of indigenous communities that began in the 1970s and has continued through into the 90s in the assertion of indigenous peoples' sovereignty over their land and resources has hugely threatened the continuance of global capitalist domination over the resources of the earth. In the free market ideologies of global capitalism, natural resources are seen by governments as a primary means of attracting foreign investment. The natural resources of land, rivers, lakes and seabeds held by indigenous peoples as a sacred treasure to be guarded and cared for as well as the source of their very being and the repository of their identity and histories, represents an important source of potentially enormous profit. Thus the reclaiming of indigenous peoples' symbiotic relationship to the environment through genealogy, the reassertion of their role as guardians of the land and natural resources, their determined stands against the destruction of the environment through logging, mining, dredging and unsustainable fishing practices, has set them at loggerheads with local and national governments as well as powerful business interests.

As a direct consequence, many indigenous peoples and tribal groups have been subjected to blatant and persistent acts of deliberate genocide in which governments of the world and the majority of their citizens have colluded through their silences. For other indigenous groups, the genocidal policies and practices of colonising governments while less overt, are nonetheless equally culpable in their intent. Despite a raft of international instruments enshrining the rights of indigenous peoples to their language, lands, resources and their traditional cultural beliefs and practices, governments and economic interest groups knowingly perpetrate acts which can only be construed as cultural and economic genocide. The displacement of peoples whose identity and survival has depended on their relationship with their lands and their ability to maintain their traditional practices can be seen as nothing less. Aroha Mead cites Hon Justice Michael Kirby's paper to the joint UNESCO and Commission of NZ Jurists Pacific regional seminar on Cultural Rights, October 1998 in which he states that indigenous culture "is a testimony of the past without which the present would have no future" and notes his reference to The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as relevant to the survival of indigenous peoples and their cultures. Many of these governments are signatories to international treaties and covenants that assure to indigenous peoples the protection and practice of their traditional beliefs, customs and places. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which was ratified and entered into international law in 1976, states in Part 111, Article 27:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.

Other international treaties and covenants which protect the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities to the traditional cultural beliefs and practices include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the UNESCO Declaration on the Principles of International Cultural Co-operation (1966) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992). Despite these treaties, the intellectual and cultural knowledge of indigenous peoples continues to be invaded by groups seeking economic gain.

The Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes the right to practice and revitalise cultural traditions and customs, the right to restitution of cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free and informed consent, the right to ensure that indigenous sacred places, including burial sites, be preserved, respected and protected. The struggle of indigenous peoples to have this draft declaration confirmed and ratified by certain governments including the government of Aotearoa is indicative of the ongoing imperialist nature of policies and practices concerning the intellectual, cultural and spiritual property, customs, practices and sacred sites of indigenous peoples.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, attempts to protect indigenous knowledge concerning the uses of indigenous flora and fauna continue to be impeded by a government who has attempted every conceivable manoeuvre to discredit the submissions of those seeking the protection of this traditional knowledge. The fast-tracking of Treaty settlement claims by iwi and hapu who until the 1970s continued to be dispossessed of their lands and resources through the medium of government statutes and policies is clearly identifiable as an attempt to remove the only significant obstacle to the removal of the last remaining vestiges of protection of lands and resources and the total privatisation of resources and services within Aotearoa. Currently, in response to the emergence of Maori as a significant actor within the national and increasingly within the global context, a renewed attack on their traditional cultural survival has emerged in the form of a reinvention of the histories of the first arrivals in Aotearoa. Fuelled by an unpalatable combination of identity crises, messianic fervour, spiritual egoism and new age capitalism, self-appointed new age gurus and pseudo academics are emerging to play their part in the latest form of imperialist exploitation - even rape and pillage - of indigenous epistemologies and ontologies.

The restating and renewal of stories of origin has been an important tool in the resurgence of indigenous communities and culture. For many indigenous peoples these ancient histories are being heard for the first time within several generations. Dislocated from their origins as indigenous peoples, many families and communities became dislocated also from their own knowledge and histories, the recovery of which has been a critical tool in the renewal and resurgence of indigenous families and communities, and in the reclaiming of their identity as peoples. For some communities, several generations of indigenous history and knowledge have been misplaced, even forgotten. In some communities today, three and even four currently living generations are struggling to come to terms with their own histories, with whakapapa that until now has been lost or forgotten. The majority of these people have yet had no opportunity to rediscover or hikoi to those ancient sacred sites whose very soil is imbued with the ancient knowledge of their ancestors.

Emerging from the effects of centuries of pain and dispossession to reclaim their histories, to reassert their traditional beliefs and practices, others of these families travel at great personal cost to revisit these ancient sites and to relearn their own histories and practices, only to find their sites desecrated and their stories stolen from out of the mouths of the guardians to whom the knowledge had been entrusted. In the early days of the colonisation western academics and anthropologists rewrote indigenous peoples histories, reinscribed their practices and the resulting distortion has taken centuries to repair. In some cases the damage has been irreparable. With the resurgence of indigenous knowledge and practices that has accompanied indigenous peoples' reassertion of their sovereignty over their knowledge, lands and resources, the misappropriation of indigenous epistemologies and historiographies is a manifestation of new forms of imperialism in which traditional knowledge and practices and highly sacred sites are being exploited for commercial and personal gain.

In Aotearoa, recent examples of exploitation through cultural (mis)appropriation include the publishing of pseudo-indigenous materials which bastardise and reinvent indigenous knowledge, spiritual beliefs and practices, workshops purporting to teach the `wisdom of the ancients', conducting of tours to ancient trails walked by the tipuna (ancestors) and held today as highly sacred sites and the desecration of these ancient sites by rituals, the erection of altars, and littering with rubbish and human excrement. Such is the case with Waitaha today. For centuries the people of Waitaha whose history within Aotearoa dates back some thousands of years and who were characterised by their abhorrence of all forms of warfare were dispossessed through a series of invasions of all that they once held dear. Having been driven further and further south in recent centuries, Waitaha hapu and whanau proliferated throughout Te Waipounamu, welcoming into their own whanau and hapu fugitives from the north who fled south for safety and succour. With the establishment of the colonising system of governance, deals struck between pakeha bureaucrats and certain Maori elites led almost, but not quite, to the complete annihilation of the people of Waitaha. The historical mis-recording of population statistics by government officials, the often deliberate omission of particular whanau and hapu members from the records of the Maori Land Court - a colonial instrument for the dispossession of Maori from their land - and irregular land deals, enormously exacerbated the further dispossession of the peoples of Waitaha.

In a climate of increasing assertions of Maori self-determination, the decision taken in the 1980s by a kaumatua to publish aspects of the histories of the earliest arrivals to Te Waipounamu was impelled by his own experience of the extent to which government strategies of divide and conquer, assisted by `state-owned’ Maori elites were damaging Maoridom. Once again the colonising impulse of state-driven policies were provoking bitter enmities amongst hapu, iwi and whanau. Only too aware of the degree to these mechanisms were bringing about the fragmentation of Maoridom, the vision of this kaumatua was for the healing of both land and peoples. For him, the publication of Song of Waitaha was to be a vehicle for both the reclaiming of the true histories of the earliest arrivals in Te Waipounamu and a conduit for the healing of ancient enmities. For Waitaha whanau and hapu, publication of Song of Waitaha would hold a two-fold benefit. While on one hand it would become a vehicle for the reassertion of their own unique identity, histories, customs and beliefs, it was also seen as a means of promoting indigenous values for ameliorating the increasing crisis of global capitalism manifesting on all levels. Thus the entrusting of oral histories to a pakeha anthropologist and writer chosen by the kaumatua himself and with the assistance of a group also selected by him, charged with the task of scribing aspects of Waitaha histories.

With the wisdom of hindsight perhaps, it can be argued that once again indigenous people were taken in by beguiling declarations of sincerity and integrity or even misplaced good intentions on the part of pakeha academics. Nonetheless for those involved at the time, this man was seen as a trusted friend, one whom they regarded as almost a member of the family. Convinced of his sincerity and understanding and in full support of this vision, Waitaha kaumatua entrusted to this man oral histories which had been held and passed down for generations, allowed him to accompany them during the reopening of ancient trails and included him in karakia and ceremonies. The authoring of the book that would contain some of the histories of the Waitaha people was a task that had clearly delineated boundaries. It had a beginning and an end. It had borders that were not intended to be crossed. Those borders included the definition of who is and is not, indigenous to Aotearoa. They included an understanding of whose knowledge was being represented and that the guardianship of that knowledge would continue to remain with the people of Waitaha. The oral histories would remain the intellectual and cultural property of those who had chosen to share it with the non-indigenous world.

The outcome is, as they say, history. It is but one representation of the tensions and contradictions with which indigenous peoples are constantly faced, more especially at this time when knowledge is judged in terms of its economic value, and cultural difference has become a commodifiable asset. While on the one hand the publishing of Song of Waitaha restated the original habitation of the land and the unifying features of its historiographies, it has also seen cultural appropriation by non-indigenous people being taken to new heights. Enticed by the evident prestige in which pakeha readers held him, Barry Brailsford, scribe of Song of Waitaha, succumbed to an apparently irresistible urge to seek even greater prestige amongst non-indigenous groups searching for identity and for new meaning to their existence. Having appropriated to himself the vision behind the publication of this work, he launched himself upon the world as the latest in a series of new age gurus whose lifestyle is maintained through the appropriation, re-interpretation and commodification of the knowledge, value systems, cultural and spiritual beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples within whose customs resides a key to the survival of the planet and the successful cohabitation of all its peoples.

In keeping with a need to maintain his self-appointed position as the authoritative interpreter of ancient knowledge, Brailsford launched a series of workshops and publications by Stoneprint Press under the theme of `Journeys into Ancient Wisdom'. Partially acknowledged as works of fiction but purported to have a basis in `ancient knowledge’, these books are but one example of the contemporary misrepresentations and misappropriation of indigenous knowledge and histories found within current new age literature. Another series of books that will be "set in the world of the Ancients and will tell the story of the Star Nations" is foreseen by the author. Oncemore selected aspects of indigenous oral histories will be appropriated and misrepresented for economic gain by those to whom those histories and stories of origin do not belong.

A central feature of the workshops conducted by Stoneprint Press are trails to and the holding of pseudo-sacred ceremonies within the ancient places of the first peoples to this land. Maps giving directions to the Kohanga, one of the most sacred of sites in Te Waipounamu are currently being made available to acolytes of this new age movement. The dislocation and dispossession of generations of the descendants of those ancestors whose sites are being desecrated has meant that many today have not yet had the opportunity to visit these sites. In some whanau there are three and four living generations just now emerging to reclaim their identity and their histories. For these people some of whom are grandmothers and great-grandmothers, the knowledge that these sites which contain critical elements of their genealogies have been appropriated and their heritage desecrated, adds immeasurably to their pain. The refusal of farmers to allow access to these sites through their properties, the denial of the right of access by iwi, and pleas by the holders of manawhenua over these sites to desist from desecrating these ancient places are arrogantly disregarded. The litter, stone altars and human excrement left from these gatherings bear eloquent testimony to the extent to which human beings will knowingly trample the beliefs and customs of others.

Recently, the apparently lucrative career as holder and purveyor of `ancient wisdom' has taken a direction which gives fresh meaning to the phrase "killing two birds with one stone". Capitalising simultaneously on the embedded racism within some elements of pakeha society and the search for cultural identity by others, Brailsford and his colleagues are promulgating fresh disinformation designed to displace the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa through fanciful claims of the earlier arrival of white-skinned tribal groups from northern Europe and elsewhere thousands of years before the ancestors of modern-day Maori. Recent concession applications lodged with DOC to run spiritual tours to certain places within all of the South Island conservancies include each and every one of the sites which Brailsford, named in the concession application as a referee for Paradise Spirit Ventures, had been privileged to visit during the period of the scribing of Song of Waitaha. Noteworthy in this application is the fact that the tangata whenua (from whom permission had been sought and which is currently declined) and the people whose ancestors the tour guides intended to honour with appropriate rituals (my italics) are clearly not seen as one and the same. For the price of approx $2,900 (for a 14 day tour) and approx $3,500 (for a 20 day tour) clients will have the opportunity to partake in the further desecration of the sacred sites of Waitaha. In conjunction with pseudo-anthropologist colleagues’ misinterpretation of ancient artifacts including the Kaimanawa stone wall and other sites within both islands of Aotearoa, the promulgation of this brand of disinformation does a number of things.

First and foremost, it reveals an ignorance of and total inability to comprehend or interpret either the oral information with which he was once entrusted or the whakapapa within the land. Secondly, it reveals a depth of embedded racism which stands in stark contrast to his purported understanding and knowledge of indigenous histories and traditional practices. Thirdly it demonstrates the continuing propensity of anthropologists and historians to profit from the traditional knowledge and cultures of others. Fourthly, it represents the theft of the defining attribute of the tangata whenua of Aotearoa, that of indigenousness.As such, it can be seen as nothing less than an act of blatant cultural genocide.

The author's ascribing to himself of a Waitaha whakapapa and the highly imaginative re-interpretations of the events surrounding the writing of Song of Waitaha in the subsequently published Song of the Stone, have all become useful weapons in the hands of others wishing to discredit the whanau and hapu of Waitaha. In the context of a government-orchestrated lolly-scramble contestation for rapidly diminishing resources, the misappropriation of Waitaha histories and identity has been wielded as a tool to construct the continuance of the people of Waitaha into the present day as pure fabrication. In the hands of authors such as Brailsford and his colleagues, the indigenous tribes of Aotearoa are now being displaced through fanciful reconstructions that place immigrant groups from Europe and elsewhere beyond the Pacific as the earliest arrivals in Aotearoa. Numerous articles such as those by Gary Cook in Rainbow Network magazine promote an interpretation of ancient mounds and stone walls which attempts to support their claim of an earlier migration of non-Polynesian antecedents.

Attempts to displace the tangata whenua of Aotearoa and assert a previous migration of the ancestors of Europeans flies in the face of all the international treaties and conventions within which the protection of indigenous cultures and minorities is clearly delineated. Likewise, the appropriation of traditional indigenous knowledge for personal and commercial gain breaches indigenous rights that are enshrined within international law. Further, it is a complete breach of the rights to the tino rangatiratanga (complete sovereignty) over all their prized possessions guaranteed to Maori in Articles II and IV of te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi).

There are no doubt many lessons to be learned in this experience. Not the least is a reminder of the inherent dangers of entrusting sacred indigenous knowledge to those ill-equipped or unable to respect either its intention or its application. As Mead points out, it is not the case that indigenous peoples do not wish to share their knowledge, it is simply that the right to do so and the circumstances of that choice must remain with the traditional owners. In the current environment of the assertion of new forms of global capitalism, the struggle for control over intellectual and cultural property is being most bitterly contested by the proponents of the commodification of knowledge. Opposed to the notion that any economic gain that accrues from the use and application of this knowledge must be used for the benefit of those traditional owners, powerful business interests use their collective power to insert their own ideologies in the application of indigenous knowledge.

Neo-imperialism is multi-layered and multi-faceted. In a time of rampant global capitalism gone mad, there is nothing on, above or beneath the planet that is protected against the blatant theft, exploitation and misuse of knowledge and resources. Whether it be within the bowels of the earth or in space above, the economic interests of insanely greedy business interests and power-hungry war mongers ride roughshod over any form of moral, ethical, spiritual, social or environmental accountability. Human rights are blatantly ignored and indigenous peoples are used as objects in the nuclear experimentation of imperialism gone berserk. Even the right to clean water, so scarce and so precious in lands thronged with the poor and dispossessed has become reinvented as a source of economic gain for those whose wealth would feed the hungry of the earth many times over. Alongside the culpability of the purveyors of this rampant greed and materialism can be ranged those whose search for power and recognition leads them to appropriate and exploit the final remaining identifier of indigenous peoples - their identity as indigenous peoples, as first peoples, as tangata whenua, as peoples of the land. What greater violence can there be?