Treaty of Waitangi witness
In 1952 the people of Nga¯ ti Wha¯ tua were forcibly evicted from their settlement in Okahu Bay, near Auckland’s Bastion Point.
Those who resisted till the end were physically carried from their dwellings, their village burnt to the ground. One man threw himself back into his burning home.
Dame Claudia Orange, just 14 at the time, was a witness to these events brought on by the Crown, which had considered the site an eyesore on a route the Queen would be taking on a royal visit.
Orange and her father, Monty Bell, who worked in Ma¯ ori Affairs and knew many of the people of Nga¯ ti Wha¯ tua, had driven there to try to help.
‘‘We stopped and saw the fire burning down the village and Dad said, ‘This is dreadful’. He put his head on the steering wheel and cried.
‘‘I’ll never forget that. You could hear people shouting and wailing. It was just awful.’’
The experience was another weave in a thread of Te Ao Ma¯ ori that has run through Orange’s life.
The Okahu Bay eviction and the commitment of her father in improving the Ma¯ ori situation shaped her. It still does.
Dressed in a smart black suit, Orange gives a tour of Te Papa’s Tory St digs, where she is an honorary research fellow, introducing her colleagues and advocating the virtues of several as potential interviewees. This person is the bird guru, that scholar an expert on molluscs.
But today it is Orange, considered the guru on all matters Treaty, whose mind is worth mining. Her 1987 book The Treaty of Waitangi, which won the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book of the Year, brought Crown-Ma¯ ori issues into sharp focus at a time when there was virtually no scholarly material to be found on the Treaty.
When Orange began work on her seminal book in 1985 there were very few articles or books to reference. Today there are more than 4000.
It became an instant best-seller and publisher Bridget Williams Books was reprinting after just three weeks. To date it has sold more than 50,000 copies.
It came out at a potent time for Ma¯ oridom. The New Zealand Ma¯ ori Council had brought the 1987 Lands Case to the Court of Appeal to stop the government selling land and other assets they felt could be part of a Treaty settlement process.
‘‘We had all of us grown up on the myth that this was the best treaty that Britain had ever made, that it was the basis for good race relations in this country. What we hadn’t had the experience of was of any good teaching about it in secondary school because there was no basis for them to use as a resource,’’ says Orange.
The book was developed out of her 1984 PhD, which had came out of her masters thesis on the period her father worked in Ma¯ ori Affairs – the period of A¯ pirana Ngata and the first government allotment of money for development of Ma¯ ori land in the 1930s.
While she wasn’t always aware of the Treaty, Orange says it was quite clear to her from a young age that Ma¯ ori were increasingly at the bottom of the heap, socially and economically.
Her father, who had grown up learning te reo Ma¯ ori at high school, had taken her on his travels up north and the poverty-stricken people and the conditions they lived in shocked her.
‘‘As a child I remember Dad working at Ma¯ ori Affairs. I remember the phone going at night and it would be Whina Cooper wanting to talk about the development of land in the north. She would come to dinner and they would be speaking Ma¯ ori. It was normal.
‘‘I just accepted the fact that Ma¯ ori had really important issues they were dealing with as a whole in this country.’’
Orange, whose mother was a descendant of the Puhoi German community, was raised in Auckland with her two older sisters.
As a Catholic, she was taught to see issues, think them through, judge what could be done then act on them: see, judge and act became a critical part of her way of operating as far back as her teenage years.
At St Mary’s in Auckland she learned fast that strong women ruled the place so it was a shock to leave school and discover men were running the world, she says.
She studied school dental nursing purely because she couldn’t think of anything else to do and at 20 married Rod Orange, whom she had met during Lent when she was going to mass every day. Faith has been another thread throughout her life.
After the birth of their third child, they upped sticks to Bangkok, where Rod had been given a job setting up an English language institute for the Thai government.
When they came back after three and a half years, she enrolled at university for the first time, studying the effects of colonialism in Asia, Australia and finally, New Zealand.
The Treaty of Waitangi and its subsequent updates, along with her work on the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and as head of research at Te Papa, has been about getting New Zealand to know itself better.
But it is the Treaty that is at the heart of her ongoing work. While we have come a long way, the road of understanding stretches ahead. ‘‘All our knowledge has greatly expanded. Increasingly, we realise the extent to which Ma¯ ori all the way through the 19th century were trying to get government attention to the fact that their understanding of the Treaty was variable from the government one. You have to ask why didn’t government listen? And it still seems to me to be a problem sometimes. You see history repeating itself.
‘‘Anyone over 60 is still likely to have attitudes that are from a time when we all thought the Treaty was great. They just hope when all the settlements are done the problems will vanish but you have to understand there’s much more at stake than that,’’ she says.
‘‘There are not just Treaty settlements but customary rights that are still not being completely sorted out. We saw that with fisheries, foreshore and seabed.
‘‘We don’t have a constitution. How fragile is our present understanding of rights in our nation without any defined constitution?’’
It’s going to take time for the country to realise that this is an ongoing relationship the country is talking, she says.
‘‘The better understanding we have of it, the more we can grapple with major problems of the socio economic kind we have.’’
Orange, who has just been awarded the Pou Aronui Award from the Royal Society Te Apa¯ rangi for services to humanities, is as busy as she ever was. At 80, retirement is not on the agenda.
But she does have a life outside the Treaty. She and Rod used to travel a lot till Rod had a stroke in 2016 while they were in France.
She is a yogi and looks as fit as a fiddle for what she calls her ‘‘old people’s’’ yoga sessions.
You have to keep at it, she says quoting Ulysses: ‘‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’’
She loves a good detective novel. ‘‘Who dunit and why? If you think about it, that’s what history is all about: who dunit and why?’’
After more than half a century looking at our own history, Orange is hopeful that relations between Ma¯ ori and the Crown will continue to improve.
‘‘The big drive is to find some constitutional change that would give greater security to sharing of authority in the country with
Ma¯ ori. You have to understand how difficult it can be for Ma¯ ori and you can if you’re a woman. You know how difficult it is to be at the top table.’’
‘‘As a child I remember . . . the phone going at night and it would be Whina Cooper wanting to talk about the development of land in the north.’’