There is, in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, one very surprising omission. Nowhere is there any definition of who or what exactly an indigenous person is. It would surely not be unreasonable to expect a definition. One is not needed in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, because it deals with all human beings, and we know what they are. But who is indigenous?
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that someone or something indigenous is ’born or produced naturally in a land or region; native to that soil, region, c’. In that sense, all native-born New Zealanders are indigenous. We may speak a language and have a culture that developed elsewhere; but so did the first Maori when they arrived from the Hawaiki they still remember. (In any case, we could well argue, as Michael King does [*Being Pakeha] that since colonisation we have developed a distinctive ‘pakeha culture’ here which exists nowhere else.)
On the other hand, if ‘indigenous’ is used to refer to a people whose ancestors have lived in a place from time immemorial, then New Zealand has no indigenous inhabitants.
According to the dictionaries, those are the only two things this English word can mean; being born somewhere, or, having ancestors who have been there forever. The word simply does not mean anything else. Yet it is clear that the framers of this Declaration take it to mean ’having ancestors who arrived somewhere first’. Thoughtful defenders of the oppressed tell us that the Lapps, or Sami as they tend to be known now, are the only indigenous people in Europe. No other Europeans are indigenous to the lands they may have occupied for thousands of years. Not only are the Anglo-Saxons not indigenous; neither are the Gaels of the Celtic fringe, descendants of the ancient Britons driven to the westerly edges by the invading Anglo-Saxons. In Japan, only a few thousand Ainu, an ancient people, are said to be indigenous; other Japanese, despite 5,000 years of residence, are not.
But if Japanese and Britons, despite thousands of years of occupation, are not indigenous, how can Maori be indigenous after a mere 800 years in New Zealand?
By what part of the law of nature, too, does arriving somewhere before someone else confer a completely new and extra set of inherent and indefeasible human rights? There might be many descendants of our European pioneers who would rather like the idea that, because their ancestors arrived here some generations ago, they had more rights than do recent immigrants. There will be no prizes for guessing the reaction of human rights advocates to that suggestion. But if the descendants of those who arrived by sailing ship may not have special rights, why should the descendants of those who arrived by canoe enjoy them?
Should Sir Edmund Hillary own Mt Everest because he was there first? Should the United States of America own the moon because its men landed there first?
But we know the reason why descendants of ancient European settlers have no special rights. It is, as I say, that ‘indigenous rights’ are part of a political programme. The United Nations Special Rapporteur to the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities defines indigenous peoples as ‘those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies now prevailing in those territories…They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples….’[*The Rights of Indigenous Peoples, University of Minnesota Human Rights Centre]
In other words, ‘indigenous’ peoples are pre-colonial, primitive and oppressed. That might well be the case. The best way to remedy that oppression, though, is surely by respecting basic principles of non-discrimination and agreed human rights, rather than by inventing an entire catalogue of completely new rights which inhere only in a completely nebulous category of indigenous persons.
In our own country, who is indigenous? Who is a ‘Maori’? Virtually all Maoris are of course of mixed Maori and European descent. We hear of the alleged ‘browning’ of New Zealand; it would be just as accurate to speak of its whitening, as the races continue to intermarry and become one people. Statutes such as the Electoral Act and Maori Land Act say that a Maori is ‘a person of the Maori race of New Zealand; and includes any descendant of such a person’. Many of Maori ancestry choose not to enrol on the Maori roll, but anyone with any Maori blood can enrol as a Maori. The proportion of Maori blood is immaterial, as it is in Treaty claims and sharing in Treaty settlements. Ngai Tahu, for example, has among its enrolled members and beneficiaries someone who is genetically only one 256th part Ngai Tahu.
But people who are even only one eighth or one sixteenth Maori cannot in any meaningful sense be described as Maori. Genetically they are not, and it is highly unlikely that they will ever have experienced any racial prejudice. Their cultural milieu is unlikely to be Maori. If such people make claims to the Waitangi Tribunal, they are in fact claiming for a wrong done to one or two of their ancestors (Maori) by many other of their ancestors (European). Any injustice suffered by their Maori ancestors may very well be balanced by the benefit accruing to their European ancestors. In any reasonable system for righting wrongs it should be a question of fact in each case whether a Waitangi Tribunal claimant has actually suffered injustice. The mere fact that one of a claimant’s great-great-ancestors suffered a wrong is no proof at all that this claimant has ever suffered in his or her own life. It is actually an injustice to the rest of the community to give special benefits to those who have not suffered injustices.
Unfortunately this is not the approach taken by the Waitangi Tribunal. When asked about degrees of blood and the identity of Maoris, Treaty activists are usually evasive. The standard reply is that this question ‘is one for Maoris to decide’. Even leaving aside the begging of the question in that answer, it simply cannot be considered adequate. If, in our own private lives, we wish to identify with only one of the strains of our ancestry, and forget the others, that is our own business. But the situation is different when one comes to Treaty claims and to special rights as an ‘indigenous person’. Here, claims are made to special political and legal status and special rights to public resources. Such claims must be justified. It is not enough for someone with only a fraction of ‘indigenous’ blood , brought up pretty much like everyone else, now to hang a fish-hook around his neck and claim that we owe him. We are entitled to demand evidence that he deserves this special treatment. If he is to claim the rights of an indigenous person under a United Nations declaration, then it is not enough merely that he be able to trace his descent from, inter multos alios, a remote ancestor who was one.
A definition is not impossible. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act 1971, for example, imposes a test of at least ‘one-fourth degree or more Alaskan Indian, Eskimo or Aleut blood’, or, in the absence of proof of a minimum blood quantum, anyone ‘regarded as a native by the Native village or group of which he claims to be a member and whose father or mother is…regarded as native..’ Villages and groups are defined also. Membership of them must be vital and living, not a mere matter of tracing descent from a tribal person.