Our Favourite CRT: Donna Awatere

Donna Awatere, Māori Sovereignty (Broadsheet 1984)

My mother’s people are from Ōpōtiki on the East Cape of Aotearoa and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to have some understanding of my Māoritanga, or our people’s history. Our iwi (tribe) Whakatōhea are widely acknowledged to have been among those ravaged the worst by successive colonial and white settler governments. My grandmother was the last of 10 children and carried with her until death a deep sense of shame and anger at her brown skin. I never heard her speak te reo (Māori language), though she must have grown up with it as even her Lebanese father was a fluent speaker.  It was in this context that I came to read Māori Sovereignty in my second year of university, around the time when I also read Marx, Foucault and Kate Millet for the first time and there was a revolution happening in my mind. It is probably more a reflection on the poverty of my education and the blandness of the mainstream ‘race relations’ discourse in Aotearoa at the time that I had never come across anything so affronting or confronting before I read Awatere. 

Māori Sovereignty outlines an unambiguous account of tino rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty) which for Awatere meant “nothing less than the acknowledgement that New Zealand is Māori land, and… seeks the return of that land” (10). Awatere details the ways in which Māori culture and life had been debased and erased by white imperialism (or the “Death Machine”) and questions the legitimacy of the nation state in Aoteoroa, being based as it was on sustained violation of the Treaty of Waitangi, which guaranteed Māori sovereignty. In 1985 a complaint about the book’s publication and contents was made to the then Race Relations Conciliator who upheld the complaint, concluding that Māori Sovereignty was “likely to excite hostility or ill will against or bring into contempt or ridicule Pākehā [white] people.” The apple of white fragility hardly ever strays far from the tree of ‘we will tolerate your “cultural eccentricities” as long as they extend only to the All Black haka and not to demands for changes to the status quo or the actual recognition of your legal rights.’ I can see now the influence that the Black radical tradition must have had on Awatere as the language and tone are reminiscent of Malcolm X or Kwame Ture and she was at the time of writing heavily involved with the Palestinian Liberation Front. The text, however, has an essence or mauri of its own which conveys the unique history in which it sits and the changing political landscape it both observed and had a role in generating.

Awatere herself is something of a complex and tragic figure. She renounced Māori Sovereignty and its politics and ideas fairly soon after it was published, became a ‘biculturalism’ consultant and subsequently an MP for the hard-right ACT New Zealand party. She was jailed for fraud in 2005 for misappropriating public money which, the Pākehā media delighted in reporting ad nauseum, was apparently used by her to fund a stomach stapling operation. There is something interesting to be said about the bodies of indigenous women having the same disposability in the white settler mindset as the land from which they came, but suffice it to say here that as hard as she tried, Awatere was never accepted into polite Pākehā society as the ‘good Native’ she clearly wanted to be. I choose to remember her though as she must have been when she wrote Māori Sovereignty: infused with the power of her tīpuna (ancestors) and full of righteous rage. Tihei mauri ora! 

Yvette Russell, University of Bristol

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