For all of the focus on misinformation and disinformation campaigns in the past year, there is a startling gap in the conversation that I have tried, numerous times, to fill. I’m very grateful for the feedback and uptake on last year’s article “The Rise of Māori MAGA”… but looking around at the way that people continue to erase the colonial context of misinformation, even when they themselves exist within a colonial context, speaks to just how deep down the colonial rabbithole many New Zealanders, even those who claim to be aligned with truth and integrity, really are.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am just as concerned about misinformation as the next person and its implications for public health, Māori health, and the health of our taiao is a huge worry for me. But if you think that conspiracy theories started with 1080 and 5G, think again. Māori have been subjected to disinformation campaigns since the day the Endeavour showed up on an Imperial expansion mission dressed up as a science expedition and started killing us then reporting it as an unfortunate misunderstanding (another snippet of disinformation that not only persists but is supported by the NZ government). The list of misinformation that colonial descendants have ignored, continue to ignore, and ask us to ignore is LONG – and while no doubt many of you reading this will think yourself above conspiracy theories, the fact is that most of you are playing along with at least one of the following list, right now.
So let’s go – for brevity’s sake, I’ve just grabbed what I consider to be the top 5 colonial conspiracy theories.
- “The Warrior Race”
It bears saying, from the outset, that anyone who can survive the multigenerational genocidal intent of European imperialism can only be described as having a fighting spirit – but the myth of the “Warrior Race” is something quite different, and bears little attention to the culpability of colonizers.
The notion of Indigenous people being savage warriors is not exclusive to the Aotearoa/Maori experience. Walter Raleigh famously reported back to Queen Elizabeth the first that it was a “savage and primitive race” which prevented him from bringing riches back to her from the non-existent “El Dorado” (because telling the truth, that he couldn’t find it, would mean his death). The myth of Native peoples being savage warriors both legitimized “explorer” requests for military resources as well as providing the rationale for colonization in the first place as a noble act of civilizing the globe. We’ll get further into that soon. The application of the warrior race myth to Māori is probably one of the most extreme cases, however. It is a particular fascination that relegates us to being edgy, primal curiosities whose value sits roughly equivalent to a barbaric gladiator. Hence colonial haka-fetish.
The warrior-myth was perpetrated by the colonial government to justify continued military invasions of Māori communities which were later termed the “Land Wars” but are more accurately termed as “Land Theft Wars”. Truth is, all cultures are deeply complex and multifaceted, but racist colonizers reduce native groupings into caricatures that suit their fantasies and legitimize their Imperial agenda. For Hawai’i this resulted in the fetishizing of hula, for Aotearoa it has resulted in the fetishizing of haka. The warrior-myth has become so ingrained in Aotearoa psyche that many Māori also believe it of ourselves, and in a classic trauma cycle, begin to manifest the very behaviour that we are taught belongs to us as a measure of being “authentically Māori”.
SO, in this framework, Māori are fighters, rugby players, manual labourers, bouncers, and thugs. Not scientists, horticulturalists, diplomats or designers.
This idea, once entered into a system of media, research and policy that shapes public perception and legislative responses, results in Māori being framed as poor, violent parents, incapable of even self-preservation without state oversight. It results in lower scholastic expectations and lower employment potential. It results in being many times more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, having our children removed and everything that comes with that (such as state sexual abuse, physical and psychological harm).
This is not a historical practice – the concept of Māori as a warrior race persists in current media, social discourse, policy and scientific research. Māori, of course, are well aware of our own scientific, horticultural, oratorial, artistic traditions. We are aware of the amazing birthing and child rearing traditions.
We are aware of the deep importance of hospitality, and communal awareness, and love for our land and waters – and so we have watched this particular colonial misinformation play out while the Crown disproportionately overlooks the pākeha and Crown record of child abuse and theft for over 250 years, with no concern whatsoever by our Treaty partners about its harm and lack of integrity.
One of the most common (and persisting) colonial conspiracy theories is that “Maori arrived and killed all of the Moriori”. This of course, is news to the Moriori who are still very much present and quite tired of being told they are extinct. In the words of Moriori legal scholar and leader Maui Solomon, the mythmaking about Moriori was deliberate and slanderous.
“According to that story, Moriori arrived on mainland Aotearoa before Māori but were pushed out to the Chathams by later and more dominant Māori migrants arriving from Polynesia. To add a touch of colour, the mythmakers also described Moriori as red-headed and of Melanesian “stock”. Many still believe that myth today, despite many efforts by Moriori writers and Pākehā writers, too — such as Henry Skinner (writing in the 1920s) and Michael King — to set the record straight. But the myth was a powerful political weapon to justify European colonisation of New Zealand and so it stuck fast in the consciousness of Pākehā New Zealanders.”Maui Solomon
Of course Māori, and most especially Moriori, are well aware that this extermination theory was a myth. That didn’t stop it being taught in schools up until very recently, and that doesn’t stop every day New Zealanders still throwing this piece of disinformation at Māori every chance they get in order to mitigate their own colonial guilt.
3. Colonization civilized Māori
Another common retort from those seeking to justify colonization is that, were it not for colonization, Māori would still be eating, fighting and killing each other. A few points bear mentioning here:
- Cannibalism was certainly still present in Europe throughout our colonial experience, including today. The global colonial project was not a charitable act to raise the consciousness of the savage world and save it from its savage self. European monarchs were partaking of human flesh and bones even as the imperial project spread out across the world.
- Just like everywhere else it went, colonial interference made inter-Maori conflict WORSE. Trite comments about Maori selling skulls and buying guns to kill each other off are as common and shallow as those who like to raise that there were African slave traders. In both cases, they miss the point that these practices were systematized by Western exploitation and incentivisation. Colonizer arguments commonly erase the significance of western interference – how they exploited and deliberately exacerbated inter-iwi political tensions. How they promised to spare communities from colonial invasion and extermination if they assisted in other means or provided what was requested. How the forcibly introduced systems created new levels of poverty, destitution and desperation.
- The colonial project itself has been brutal beyond any measure of comparison to pre-contact Maori. This fact has often been challenged by the apparent instructions of Lord Normanby that Lieutenant Hobson seek the “intelligent consent” of our ancestors to authoritarian rule by the British. The way this story is often framed is that the New Zealand Land Company was the evil commercial land-grabber, and the Crown were generously intervening to halt unbridled land loss. What is spoken of less often is that British parliamentarians had also purchased, and were selling land also through the New Zealand Land Company, and were very clear that Britain had to colonize Aotearoa in order to protect those interests.
- Check out British MP for Guildford, Ross Mangles, who wrote the astonishingly titled “How To Colonize: The Interest of the Country and the Duty of Government”. Mangles was, by the way, a co-director of the New Zealand Land Company whilst also a British MP. Before the ink was wet on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Maori loss of life and land accelerated. Within 50 years the Maori population dropped to less than 40% of its original size. No precolonial act was anywhere near as destructive to Maori as colonization has been. Nor was this process civilized. It included brutal murders of women, children, babies and elders. It includes two centuries of child theft and sexual assault so severe that it has permanently scarred family lines. Colonization, as a process, is about the most uncivilized behaviour this planet has seen and it continues to surround us today in the form of wealth, poverty, mortality rates, incarceration, state child theft, and continued territorial theft. Those of us on the sharp end of this experience understand that it is anything but civilized, but that does not stop others from raising it time, and time again.
- 4. Māori Privilege
I’m not joking when I say that barely a week goes by when I don’t see or hear some comment along the lines of “Maori are all on a gravy train” “why should Maori get special treatment” “Maori have always got their hand out”.
I’m just going to cut straight to the point: The New Zealand economy is built off the back of stolen Māori land.
New Zealand would, quite simply, NOT HAVE an economy if it were not for the millions of acres confiscated through the colonial project by nefarious means, which were then transferred across to European colonial imports to farm – which became the economic foundation of the nation. Much of that land has never been returned (once it is sold privately it is not able to be returned to Māori regardless of how unjust its theft was). From fisheries to conservation tourism – the amount of economic privilege enjoyed by everyday New Zealanders that stems from Māori dispossession is near innumerable.
I say that because there is no way the “settlement” funds transferred by the Crown comes anywhere near meeting the true, intergenerational and ongoing costs of the wealth that has been (and continues to be) transferred OUT of Māori hands. There is no way settlement payouts should be misconstrued as restitution – From 1999 to 2004, only 0.1 per cent of all government spending was for Treaty settlements. This amounted to less than 2 per cent of the real value of Māori land loss in spite of the fact that the government continued to generate enormous income from what it had taken. The government has spent nearly $1.2billion bailing out ONE COMPANY (South Canterbury Finance). Add the $1billion dollar government bailout of Air New Zealand a few years ago and you have already topped all of the government payments to every settlement for all iwi put together ($2.2billion).
Now add to that the fact that as taxpayers, Māori who have been dispossessed and oppressed are also paying the bill as compensation for their own oppression at the hands of the Crown. Some of these funds paid are not just for land theft, but for the aforementioned atrocities of rape, child theft, murder – and we are, as taxpayers, paying ourselves back on behalf of the Crown for those atrocities. Maori privilege? GTFOH.
- 5. The Government is legitimate
Yep saved the best for last. Of all the ways in which Te Tiriti o Waitangi was violated in the years after its signing, the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852, passed in Britain, in which it absolved itself of its Treaty responsibilities WITHOUT agreement from Māori co-signatories, was without a doubt the most destructive. The New Zealand Constitution Act which set up NZ parliament had absolutely no just grounds to do so. The document signed by over 500 of the 530 signatures was Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which allowed for a governor and the protective capacity of the British Crown – but ultimate authority remained with Maori. The New Zealand government’s OWN treaty judiciary has looked at this issue and concluded that Maori never ceded sovereignty.
Let’s go over that again.
That means that the New Zealand government was acting outside of the law when it set itself up.
And even though it’s been acknowledged by the government, it’s never ever been acted upon. It is carrying on, in a delusional state, making laws as if it is legal, governing Māori as if it is legitimate, spending public funds as if it has a legal mandate to do so. It does not, and this is the largest, most impactful disinformation campaign that Maori have been faced with for 168 years now.
And every step of the way it has been upheld by the media and legitimized by colonial science (and still is). Small wonder then that Māori have such little faith in these systems – our very survival has depended upon us challenging them.
It is, in fact, a cheek for any one of those sectors to expect Māori to trust them considering their role in unfairly vilifying Māori while obscuring or ignoring Crown villainy. The Crown itself still does not trust Māori to determine our own future, to the point where it continues to wield its own illegitimate authority over us, nor does it trust us with direct access to information in a crisis (like COVID). When Helen Clarke’s Labour government carried out the largest landgrab of modern times (a move she recently said she has no regrets over and would do again) – they did so off the back of a vicious misinformation campaign that suggested Māori would lock everyday New Zealanders away from the beaches. It was a completely nonsensical premise that had no basis in fact as Māori had previously held the shoreline without doing anything of the kind up to that point (while plenty of pākeha beachfront properties and businesses fenced off access), but nevertheless the Foreshore and Seabed debate was rife with the suggestion (both from government AND in media, and from the general public) that Māori could not be trusted to allow New Zealanders to access the beach. Think about that next time you want to discuss Māori having trust issues.
So every time I hear people snidely insult QAnon believers, or conspiracy theorists, I can’t help but hear the colonial self-interest in their tone. It’s only one form of misinformation that most colonial commentators are concerned with right now, and their failure to broaden the conversation to include the ongoing mis and disinformation of colonial governments undermines their own commitment to truth, and integrity. When I look at you wanting to discuss misinformation, standing on colonized ground, and ignoring the colonial context – you just look, to me, like you’re down a rabbithole of your own.