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Working Towards Maori Equality

New Zealand (Aotearoa is the Maori name) proudly displays evidence of its Maori culture, whether it be the dozens of replicas of Maori crafts, carvings, and paintings at the airport, the Maori flag flying alongside the Aotearoa flag, or non-Maori performing the haka, the traditional dance of the Maori peoples.  What’s harder to see is the level of discrimination that the Maori of Aotearoa continue to face despite the country’s pride in its Indigenous population. While relationships between Maori and non-Maori are congenial on a day-to-day level, and friendships and intermarriages between the two communities are common, tensions lie beneath the surface, and inequality between the communities remains a persistent problem. Despite improvements, the Maori continue to experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, incarceration, illness, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and suicide. Although structural and institutional discrimination are a part of the Maori experience in Aotearoa, most people would rather celebrate traditional Maori culture than take the difficult steps to remedy present-day injustices. 

This frustrates Claire Charters, a Maori lawyer and activist who has dedicated her life to protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples. “I find it really hypocritical when a bunch of people who do not think that Maori should have different rights suddenly jump up and do the haka,” she says with a hint of humor. “But,” she adds, “I’m not unsympathetic to how valuable that probably has been for the Maori culture. It keeps the representation positive. And that hasn’t always been the case.”

And Charters would know: Currently working at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, she says the previous generation often viewed  Maori culture as something to avoid rather than celebrate. Born and raised in a small community near Rotorua on the North Island, Charters learned from a young age to cherish her Maori heritage. “I certainly had a strong feeling of where I’m from,” she says. But along with her community’s cultural pride came strong incentives to assimilate. For example, though the local schools Charters attended had Maori populations, the opportunities to study Maori history and language were limited.  “When I was going through school, Maori language was not considered as important as it is today,” Charters says. “My parents thought it would be more beneficial for me to take French or German, and I believed that when I was in my teens. The idea was that it would be easier to achieve and succeed if you were part of the mainstream—that through assimilating you would ultimately get somewhere.”

Both of Charters’ parents were involved in Maori issues: her father, a lawyer, represented the Maori in cases involving historical grievances, and her mother worked to increase the presence of Maori culture at Claire’s school. “Maori rights were always part of the dialogue at home,” Charters says, but that dialogue wasn’t always positive. “If anything,” she says, “my father discouraged me from getting involved in Maori activism work. He thought it was too politically difficult.”

But Charters couldn’t stay away from working toward Maori equality. Once she entered university, she naturally gravitated toward courses in Maori culture, politics, and law. By the time she earned her law degree, Charters says, “Indigenous rights were really the only thing that I was interested in. I wanted to do something that had meaning and that meant something to me as an individual.” Since graduating from university, Charters has made significant contributions to the field of Indigenous activism through her work as an educator, writer, speaker, and barrister. For instance, she has served as a consultant for the Danish Human Rights Institute, the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the International Indian Treaty Council.

Many of Charters’ efforts have involved protecting Maori property and treaty rights, a cause she sees as particularly important because, she says, “Maori lost so much land so quickly.” From 1860 to the early 1900s, “the Maori went from owning basically all of Aotearoa, to less than 5 percent today.” Government refusal to acknowledge Indigenous land claims is a persistent struggle for the Maori community. Such was the case with the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act, which attempted to abrogate Maori claim to the foreshore and seabed, the land area just beyond the beach line, which holds spiritual as well as economic significance for Maori. The act sought both to place this land under the state’s ownership and to abolish the Maori Land Court’s authority to determine customary land claims. Charters’ defense urged the government to resume a dialogue with Maori to lessen the legislation’s discriminatory effects, including through legislative amendment, but the government rejected the proposals. Charters says, “It is persistent discrimination. That seems so obvious to me, but it seems so convoluted to the government.” (No more: As we go to press, the government has announced it will introduce new legislation that recognizes Maori customary title to the foreshore and seabed.)

When asked what her greatest success has been, she points to the passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “I was just one very small cog in that wheel, but it was so thrilling—partly because I was part of a process that had been going on for 25 years.” Despite her success and the recent advancements in Maori civil and political rights, things are seldom easy for the Maori community as a whole.

Largely as a result of the strong assimilation movements of the past, today many non-Maori feel as though racial inequality is a thing of the past, which Charters believes causes more problems. “Everyone is assumed to be the same,” she says, which leads people to assume that “if Maori get privileges, it creates inequality for non-Maori.” Charters maintains that instead of warding off potential inequalities, this attitude only exacerbates existing ones. “It obscures the difference that is actually there: the impact of colonization, the fact that Maori are living in a system that is not theirs, and the assimilation that is required of them to succeed in the mainstream environment.” Most of Aotearoa’s non-Indigenous population does not share the Maori community’s connection to the brutal legacy of colonization. “I think the extent to which Maori do feel different, and not ‘Kiwi,’ is under-appreciated by the non-Maori.”

She also remembers listening to her grandmother tell stories of her own grandparents’ memories of the colonization process. “It’s not like this happened a long time ago,” Charters says. “Talking to my grandmother, who is talking about her grandparents makes it all seem very close.” As a result, Charters has learned when to speak out, and when to just enjoy the company of her non-Maori friends. “There is a part of me that I keep sheltered from people who are really close to me in other senses,” though, she jokes,  “It’s not like I’m undercover.”

Charters believes one of the most important steps toward obtaining equal civil and political rights for the global Indigenous community is through incorporating the international Indigenous human rights dialogue into domestic consciousness. “You have to have a long-term strategy when it comes to international law, and you have to work toward trying to get those norms to permeate socially and politically in the environment in which you work,” she says. “Just keep raising [international norms] in support for whatever other legal or political argument you’re making and try to mainstream them that way.”

So what’s next for Charters? “I’m six months pregnant,” she added excitedly at the tail end of our conversation. And, yes she looks forward to sending her Pepi—the term for “baby” in Te Reo Maori—to Maori language immersion school.

Nora Lawrence was an intern at Cultural Survival during the summer of 2010.

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