Would we have made such a fuss if it had been Elizabeth R who died last week? Most likely not. That speaks volumes about who we are and who we are not.
It tells us we are no longer British. The Queen of New Zealand is a remote figure, a figment of heritage. She is our formal head of state but Dame Silvia Cartwright has been our real head of state and just as regal.
The Queen of New Zealand is distantly in London and one of us by law. The sentimental attachment is decaying generation by generation. The Queen of the Maori lived among us, was one of us by birth and, we have come to understand, one of us by culture.
The younger the New Zealander, the more Pacific and less British that New Zealander feels. The baby-boomers cut the painter in the 1980s. Our art, our writing, our films, our dance, our music could not be made in London or Cardiff or Edinburgh. We are distinct, in our way of talking, our symbols, our sport, our food.
And that distinctness is as much Maori as ex-British (with Samoan and Fiji Indian and sixth-generation Chinese add-ons).
So with Dame Te Ata’s death we sense a loss and we sense a beginning.
Her long reign began not long after the long presumption of assimilation ended. Maori were seen as brown British, lending this colony a token of difference with cute ceremonials and as fodder for asserting we had the world’s best race relations.
In that 40-year reign Maori emerged from anthropological curiosity to be tangata whenua again, real actors in a real, if still uncertain, nation, with a vibrant and developing culture and injecting vitality into music, dance and the arts.
Assimilation was swapped for integration in the 1960s. Maori were to be recognised as different. So the cultural relics were fostered. It was no longer assumed they would melt into the majority.
Then came pushy students’ assertion of the language and the militant Nga Tamatoa and He Taua. A decade later integration began to disintegrate at Bastion Point and on the Raglan golf course.
The demand for rights of redress embodied in these ultimately successful occupations was conceded in the 1985 legislation on historical claims — presided over by one of Dame Te Ata’s circle, Koro Wetere. Then came “partnership” in the Appeal Court’s state-owned enterprises decision in 1987.
The result has been a revolution.
The rights revolution reached high tide on the foreshore in 2003. The turmoil over that confiscation produced the Maori party, a new and potentially potent influence on our politics over time. But, as measured by the Maori electoral option, the surge of sentiment that fired the Maori party looks to have slowed.
Now there must be an accommodation between those who want to push on on rights and the nation’s majority, which wants a breather.
The focus, at least in policy, has begun to shift from rights to development, from recovery of respect to the recovery of prosperity. The Treaty of Waitangi was in good measure about Maori access to British technology and the wealth that technology could bring.
The Treaty in fact brought nothing of the sort. Instead, in the name of paternalistic assimilation, Maori were pushed to the margins. Iwi and hapu are now recovering a (small) portion of the lost assets. The next challenge is to revive the Treaty’s prosperity promise and extend it to all Maori.
That is the remit for Dame Te Ata’s successor. Iwi and hapu rights have largely been reclaimed. Now it is time to reclaim those who have been lost to benefits, poor parenting and prison — for Maori commoners to aspire to and realistically expect prosperity and dignity in a globalised world. It is a huge challenge and needs a huge champion.
The best hope lies in the fact that some commoners have realised that 1840 hope of prosperity. Education and ambition and entrepreneurial energy are growing the Maori middle class and it is beginning to assert its learning and wealth, as middle classes do everywhere. And, as middle classes everywhere eventually do, it will in time take power within iwi and hapu.
If over the next 40 years the Tainui royal house is not to become irrelevant to New Zealand, as the English royal house now largely is, it will have to navigate this democratisation of Maori society, as the English royal house has had to navigate Britain’s democratisation.
Elizabeth R used to be sneered at by some as bourgeoise, letting down the aristocracy ; in fact Betty Windsor is a sort of supra-political representative of the whole British nation.
The next Maori monarch’s challenge is to be such a figure for all Maori — not just as head of the kingitanga but as an imaginative, energetic and effective champion of the emergence of Maori of all iwi and of all classes from the long shadow of corrosive colonisation and
victimhood to full citizens of the world.
And the challenge goes beyond Maori. The past week’s fuss has told us the Maori Queen has been a figurehead of this whole new nation. Can her successor build on that?