Let me tell you a short story. This case is well known to those familiar with New Zealand legal history. It involves a woman called Waipapakura from the Ngāti Hineuru hapū of Te Āti Awa. One day in 1911 she used nets on poles to go fishing in the tidal waters of the Waitōtara River. History doesn't tell us if the fish were biting that day, just that she stuck her poles in the bed and got to work. At some point, a fisheries officer came along, told her she wasn't allowed to do what she was doing, and took her poles and nets away. Just one small story of Māori having their practices interrupted or obliterated by Those Who Knew Better. On this occasion the woman bit back and sued the officer for the return of her nets.
The stories that others tell about us can also come to define us; even when they are false, because they often hold pieces of truth that wound, like tiny unseen shards of broken glass.
Our legal system is the source of many stories about Māori in New Zealand society, including the broad and depressing story of how we have become, in the last 40 years, a hyper-incarcerated people, arrested, locked up, and more heavily punished for criminal behaviour than our population numbers warrant.
There are other older stories too; of how Māori have been excluded, ignored, discriminated against and plundered, by way of the legal system over the course of the past 175 years or so. We need little reminding of these bad and true stories; of the lands stolen, confiscated, and lost, often completely "legally", of customary marriages and family relationships being ignored, or trampled, of the depletion of our language and cultural practices.
In this powerful story of exclusion and loss, the position of Māori women has often been unseen, because the New Zealand legal system has also long failed to recognise women and children anyway. The notion that Māori women could have specific rights, authority, cultural expressions, tikanga, or even opinions that required protection or attention was usually anathema to the New Zealand legal system in the 19th and 20th centuries.
This exclusion of the voices and mana of wāhine Māori began very early. In 19th century Māori society important decisions were often made in hui rūnanga. Māori women were integral to such gatherings, as noted in the Te Manuhiri Tuarangi and Maori Intelligencer in August 1861, one of the pro-government Māori newspapers of the time, bemoaning such mana being afforded women's voices:
"With the Maori Runanga, all must assemble together, the small and the great, the husband, the wife, the old man, the old woman and the children, the knowing and the foolish, the thoughtful and the presumptuous: these all obtain admittance to the Runanga Maori, with all their thoughts and speeches: this woman gets up and has her talk, and that youth gets up and has his...
Article continues in issue 135