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"Land as Heritage"

Issue date: 
Friday, 17 July 1987
The Hon and the Rt Rev Sir Paul Reeves, GCMG, GCVO, QSO

When we think of life we think of our mother. A Māori viewpoint is that the land is Papatuanuku our earth mother. We love here as a Mother is loved. It is through her that we entered this world and eventually we will return to her bosom.

When someone says "land is my mother" it means that in the land they dig down to the deep and basic things about life. They are in tune with the rhythm and movement of life, - the tilling, the sowing, the growing, the reaping and so on. As they work the land they are engaged in the sacred act of bringing life to birth. Land is their right to life, to power, to eternity. It is not something given up easily.

We are indeed part of God's world, the creation, and to be redeeemed people means that we approach creation with a care and reverence and a sense of responsibility. This is my theme and what I will say is based on the Biblical record and Christian traditions.

The Bible starts with the experience of those who don't quite know where they belong, and are yearning for a place. A sense of place is a human hunger which we all experience. The current crisis in our society is rootlessness, ,not belonging or feeling alienated from all around us. It is an experience heightened by economic and social stress. Sadly its victims often end up feeling more at home in prison that in the community.

I want to make a fundamental distinction between a sense of place and a sense of space. Space is an arena of freedom, free of pressures and responsibilities to others. Intoxication or a drug induced euphoria for some would be an entry into their space.

But on the other hand place is somewhere where important history has taken place, where people are sure of who they are, their identity is not a problem and their confidence is born out of belonging to where they live.

An expression of place is the great number of Māori place names that have survived commemorating a mass of long remembered history, mythology, and imagery that illustrate the close relationship maintained with the land.

Every natural feature bore names spanning centuries of Māori occupation. Tutaekuri, the river near Napier - 400 years ago, Hikawere ordered 70 dogs killed to feed a group of famished travellers. The offal from the slaughter was thrown into the river. Tutae = the dumping of offal. Kuri = dog. Kaiuku Pa on Mahia Peninsula: uku = white clay.

The Bible is the story of Israel's longing to belong in a place somewhere. You will remember the people of Israel had become slaves in Egypt but had the experience of being saved by Yahweh while they were suffering under the heel of Pharoah. They fled from Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and set out for the Promised Land trusting in God to guide them to it.

The Jews were on a journey and the Bible gives us several pictures of people travelling. Here are two:

  • Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were travelling towards the unknown. They were sojourners always moving on, a day at a time, outsiders who never belonged anywhere.
  • In the wilderness, that threatening wasteland out beyond the Red Sea, Israel was wandering with few resources and little protection. The Wanderer is concerned not with going anywhere but simply with surviving and waiting for a better day.

Israel never belonged to a land they felt to be fully theirs. Israel is always on the move from land to landlessness, from landlessness to land, from life to death, from death to life. Israel searched for promises which seemed so rich but in reality they were burdened down with ambiguity and loss.

In Māori terms they never found their turangawaewae (lit., a standing place for the feet). It was on the marae that a Māori tribe thrashed [out] public policy with all members of the tribe having the right to speak and to contribute towards the final group decision. All lived on, worked and defended the land which gave them sustenance. In return they all had some say in how that land was used or disposed of. Land was both the bread of life and a lasting symbol of where they stood in the world. This is still the Māori understanding of land.

At birth a Māori child's pito (umbilical cord) was buried as an iho-whenua (connection with the land). For children of rank it was customary to plant a tree over the spot. The mortal remains of countless ancestors were laid to rest in the earth, secure in sacred caves or sandhills. There they remained to bind the glories of the past to the present. Sadly Pakeha settlers raided burial sites to obtain bone fertilisers. In Auckland Bycrofts within Mt Eden ground bones from nearby lava caves when the biscuit trade was slack.

Israel's experience was not one of being secure on the land. Their thinking was somewhere between expulsion from Egypt and finding the Promised Land. The faith we share with them is that Yahweh is Lord of all things new and we are his partners in history now, pilgrims who believe he will do what he says. The Bible does not look back in remorse and bitterness but looks ahead with confident hope.

A parallel would be the spirituals sung by black slaves in the United States during the 18th and 19th Centuries. For black slaves however, spirituals meant not only that place beyond time and space, but also countries like Africa or Canada where a man or a woman might be free. Their singing could be buoyant, joyful, triumphant. A keen observer might have detected in the repeated singing of "O Canaan sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan" something more than a hope of reaching heaven. They meant to reach the North and the North was their Canaan.

Eventually of course Israel arrived at the Promised Land. The genius of the Israelites was that they always saw themselves as being involved with land and with Yahweh. If they belonged to the family of earth they were also God's distinctive listening partners.

Christianity has always wanted to talk about God and neglect the land. Secular opinion wants to talk about the land and forget God. What we have to emphasise is that land is not only the giver of nourishing crops. It is also the bearer of God's hopes and words with their implication for what we do, how we care, and what we decide.

To go back to my earlier distinction, land is not free and safe space, it is a place where we meet God and God meets us.

Here are two quotations which express what I am trying to say. The first is this: "To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skilfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want."

The second is more down to earth: "How can you love your neighbour if you don't know how to build and mend a fence? How can you practice virtue without skill? The ability to be good is the ability to do good work for good reasons."

But to return to the Biblical record. Israel's journey did not stop once they reached the Promised Land. The Land of Promise becomes the land of abomination and once more Israel is on the move. Jeremiah announces to the people that exile in Babylon is where they must go, so out they go again.

Jeremiah has a hard message. Loss, fracture, ending something in these, all happens and sometimes it's the only way we can start again.

The landed folk wanted to cling onto what they had. But the wrenching experience of going into exile is all about the ending of what was precious to Israel. The land is lost. "By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept."

The Good News in the Exile is that God transforms those who are displaced, makes them a home, and gives them security. And this is the Good News for the Jews at a time when there is no prospect of them returning to the familiar surroundings of Jerusalem or the Jordan or anywhere else in their homeland.

While in Exile Israel recited genealogies which bound them to the land from whence they came. As long as Israel can name names it has a belonging place which no hostile empire can deny.

Maoris recite their whakapapa or genealogies. Through it they trace the passage of the Māori, the life force which grips them, through the generations which may go back before the arrival of the canoes in this country. It roots and binds them in their history. I would suggest that the desire of the new Māori element in this country to explore their pre-New Zealand links and lines is for exactly the same reasons. Israel's experience is one we can easily understand.

Israel's was a painful lesson. The problem of land and the possibility of land consisted of grasping the opportunity with courage (this is what they did in coming through the Wilderness to the Promised Land) and waiting in confidence for the gift (this was their experience in Exile in Babylon).

When people are landless the promise can come. But when the land is secured it can seduce. Jesus expresses precisely what Israel had learned about land: being without land makes it possible to trust the promise of it, while grasping land is the sure way to lose it. The proclamation of Jesus is about graspers losing and those open to gifts receiving.

The debate concerning the purchase and confiscation of land from the Maoris in the 19th Century probably strikes you as a North Island debate. It may be hard for you to share the concern for a Treaty signed nearly 150 years ago at a place called Waitangi in the Bay of Islands.

That may change once the Ngai Tahu Trust Board's claim to the ownership of the Crown Pastoral Lease Lands in the South Island is heard before the Waitangi Tribunal. At that point the historic Māori grievance over land may be felt much closer to home.

You will be aware that recently the State Owned Enterprises Act was enacted as the instrument for the Corporatisation of various Government Departments and assets. Section 9 of the Act says: Nothing in this Act shall permit the Crown to act in a manner that is inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Court of Appeal in a recent decision has said these words mean exactly what they say. The Crown is restricted to acting under the SOE Act in accordance with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. It is the Waitangi Tribunal which determines what those principles are and the Court of Appeal has instructed the Crown to work out a system whereby Māori claims regarding land under dispute may be heard by the Tribunal before any land can be transferred to a State enterprise.

The Court's decision is a major landmark in enhancing the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi. But the Court's decision was possible only because the SOE Act contained a specific reference to the Treaty. It does not follow that the Treaty of Waitangi has application to all laws. For that to happen a Bill of Rights incorporating the Treaty or some other constitutional arrangements will be needed.

"Whatu ngaro ngaro te tangata,
Toitu te whenua."
People perish,
But the land remains.

Gradually it is the worthwhile things of life around which we tussle. My guess is that in dealing with land claims and land settlements we will have to learn how to love and respect each other. To stay where we are is to allow one of the country's most enduring issues to smoulder on. To deal with it is to create a history and an environment much more positive and creative for children and succeeding generations.

I want to finish with a few words about scale and size. Why, then, has the small farm so few advocates? Perhaps it is because we have allowed economy to mean only money economy. Success and even goodness are equated with monetary profit because we lack any other standard of measurement. Against this background the small farm, let alone the small community is often judged to be uneconomic.

But the small farm is part of an ancient pattern of values and skills that support the sound establishment of a people on the land. The pressure is for the themes [of] agriculture to be volume, speed, efficiency. But there are other themes frugality, care, security in diversity, ecological sensitivity, correctness of scale. These may be best expressed on a small farm.

Don't ever use the word economy to mean only money economy. Basically the word means the order of households.

Economy has something to do with human relationships and the quality of human life. Using this standard of measurement no one can say automatically that the small community is less economic than the city or great conurbation.

My words may not solve your cash flow problem but I wanted to emphasise the worth of something which by its very scale is under threat to-day.

The theme "Land as Heritage" has given me a chance to look at several matters. In so doing I hope that I have illuminated the theme and not wandered away from it.

Last updated: 
Friday, 17 July 1987

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