Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

How New Zealand Recognizes the People There First

The Maori term “tangata whenua” conveys a powerful relationship with the land.

Maori, one wearing European garb, paddle a canoe in an engraving from 1826.
Maori, one wearing European garb, paddle a canoe in an engraving from 1826.
Maori, one wearing European garb, paddle a canoe in an engraving from 1826 by Louis Isidore Duperrey. Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images

In countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States, a divide remains between people who arrived comparatively recently, in historical terms, and those who were already there. Traditionally, we have spoken of the former as settlers, colonizers, and immigrants, while the latter have gone by a variety of names, many of which refer specifically to the fact of their being there first: aboriginal, Indigenous, native.

There is an awkwardness to these terms springing from the dark history of colonialism and the continued imbalance of power between the two. No matter how much such terms might seem to acknowledge the precedence of the original inhabitants, in practice they have often signaled otherness and marginality.

But what if the term used to capture this distinction came from the language of the original inhabitants and not from that of the arrivistes? This is how things are done in New Zealand, where Maori—the Indigenous Polynesians who have been there since about A.D. 1200 and who were the very first people to reach the islands—are known as tangata whenua, meaning “people of the land.”

In countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States, a divide remains between people who arrived comparatively recently, in historical terms, and those who were already there. Traditionally, we have spoken of the former as settlers, colonizers, and immigrants, while the latter have gone by a variety of names, many of which refer specifically to the fact of their being there first: aboriginal, Indigenous, native.

There is an awkwardness to these terms springing from the dark history of colonialism and the continued imbalance of power between the two. No matter how much such terms might seem to acknowledge the precedence of the original inhabitants, in practice they have often signaled otherness and marginality.

But what if the term used to capture this distinction came from the language of the original inhabitants and not from that of the arrivistes? This is how things are done in New Zealand, where Maori—the Indigenous Polynesians who have been there since about A.D. 1200 and who were the very first people to reach the islands—are known as tangata whenua, meaning “people of the land.”

Tangata is an old word meaning “man,” “person,” or “human.” It has cognates all over Oceania, a clear measure of its antiquity and an indication that it was spread throughout the region by the Austronesian voyagers who first discovered the islands of the remote Pacific in a series of extraordinary migrations between about 1500 B.C. and A.D. 1200.

Whenua (pronounced fe’-nu-ah) is also a word whose roots can be traced along this ancient migration pathway, from the Admiralties and the northern coast of Papua New Guinea to the Solomons, New Caledonia, Fiji, and right throughout the Polynesian Triangle, from Samoa and Tonga to Tahiti, Hawaii, and ultimately New Zealand.

Whenua is a word with a rich range of significance. In its earliest known incarnation, it refers to inhabited territory, the place where people have their gardens and houses and where they keep their stuff. In different Oceanic languages, it can mean land, village, settlement, house, garden, island, even the earth or the whole visible world. It often means “land, not sea”—an important distinction in Oceania, where there is vastly more of the latter than the former, and it can, by extension, mean not just the land but the people who inhabit it.

In New Zealand, as in many Polynesian cultures, the word “whenua” also doubles as the word for “placenta.” There is an old custom, found throughout Polynesia and shared by many other peoples of the world, of burying the placenta of a newborn child in a place of significance. The purpose is clearly to reinforce the connection between the child and the land to which the child belongs. And here, I think, an outline is visible of the way Maori and other Polynesians conceptualize their relationship to territory.

Early European visitors to Polynesia were often quite unclear about whether the people they met in the islands “possessed” their land in the way that Europeans understood that notion. And I think it is fair to say they did not. This is not to say that Polynesians did not identify with the land or feel that it was theirs in some important way but rather that their relationship to the territory they inhabited was not one of dominion but affinity. It was intrinsic, genealogical, and indissoluble.

When Maori describe themselves as tangata whenua, they are invoking a worldview in which their attachment to land is essentially familial, a bond not unlike that of mother and child. They are tangata whenua not (or not just) because they were the first people to arrive in New Zealand or because for a very long time they were the only ones there but because, according to their cosmology, they descend in a quite literal sense from the land itself.

A traditional Maori genealogy, which is a fundamental assertion of authority, responsibility, and rights, traces a person’s ancestry not just down through the familiar generations of the recent past but across centuries of tribal history, from the legendary figures and founders of tribes to the heroes, demigods, and deities of myth to arrive at last at the origins of humanity and the primordial pair: a male embodiment of the heavens and a female embodiment of the earth.

But tangata whenua is not just a metaphysical concept. In New Zealand, where relations between those who arrived and those were already there is governed by a formal treaty, the term functions effectively as a concept in law. In the words of the constitutional scholar J.G.A. Pocock, it “rests upon a metaphor: that is, a poetic, rhetorical or dramatic statement that there exists a close and rich relationship between the meanings of land and birth, and that there can exist between a people and its land a similarly rich relationship, which can serve as a basis for a claim of right.”

In practice, Maori authority has always been explicitly tied to place. Tribes have territories, and individuals have rights, standing, and social and political power in a particular location. Some years ago, a cautionary article appeared in the New Zealand press reminding Maori that they were not tangata whenua in Australia and should not expect to receive the rights and privileges reserved for the Indigenous population there. By the same token, other Pasifika peoples, including the many Samoans and Tongans who have migrated to New Zealand for education and work and who share a good deal with Maori culturally speaking, are not tangata whenua in New Zealand. They have their own ties to their own whenua, where their own ancestors were born.

Many people—perhaps all people—are attached to the place where they come from. But not everyone’s relationship to that place is enshrined in their ideology to quite this extent. One thing about this case that has always struck me as interesting, however, is that, until about 800 years ago, Polynesians (or their Austronesian ancestors) were one of the great migratory peoples of the world.

We know from many different sources—archaeology, linguistics, molecular biology—that beginning around 3000 B.C. they began making their way from Taiwan down through the islands of the Philippines and Indonesia. One branch of this great exodus went northeast to the islands of Micronesia; another made an epic trip southwest to Madagascar. A third took the pathway past New Guinea that brought them into the middle of the Pacific, reaching eastward as far as Rapa Nui, or Easter Island.

The distances are phenomenal. It is nearly 5,000 miles as the crow flies from Indonesia to Madagascar and more than 7,000 from Papua New Guinea to Easter Island. The Polynesian Triangle alone, which is but a subset of this territory, encompasses an area of more than 10 million square miles. This is a people on the move, relentlessly seeking new territory, finding and settling everything in their path.

Some have argued that it is precisely this oceanic experience—the vast stretches of water, the terrible scarcity of land—that engendered a philosophy in which the earth itself could be counted among one’s ancestors, where the physical ground was literally an extension of one’s self. Perhaps, to the oceanic traveler, land assumed a significance that could never be rivaled in the cosmology of a continental people. But this may be reasoning too literally; after all, Pacific Islanders are not the only ones who claim this kind of kinship with their land.

Sometimes that kinship can be hard for others to understand. Early in the pandemic, like a lot of people, I decided I ought to update my will. Thinking about how to allocate our assets, my Maori husband and I concluded that the house, which I had inherited from my parents, should pass directly to our children, skipping him if I should die first.

The lawyer I talked to felt there was something fishy about this. He wanted to make sure he was not party to a situation in which I was cheating my husband out of what was rightfully his.

“He doesn’t want it,” I told him. “He doesn’t feel that it’s his.” I tried to explain that my husband, who is Maori, did not feel that land here in New England could really belong to him. (I’m not sure he thinks it should belong to me either.) His land, the land he belongs to, is in New Zealand, where he is tangata whenua.

“He doesn’t feel the same way about property,” I told the lawyer. “He doesn’t really think you can own it. He just has a different relationship to land.”

“Oh,” he said with a slowly dawning appreciation. “I’m still going to have to talk to him, though.”

Christina Thompson is the editor of the Harvard Review, and author of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia and Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.

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