At one level the ceremonies surrounding the death of the Maori Queen and appointment of her eldest son as successor seem quaint and irrelevant to modern day New Zealand.

The ceremonies themselves carry their own cultural importance within Maoridom and it’s easy for outside observers to be drawn into such impressive, remarkable events which, aside from the obvious cultural associations, also carry deep spiritual meaning and historical significance for many Maori.

Although it doesn’t have the longevity of our more familiar English monarchy, the Maori monarchy is at least distinctly New Zealand.

Like her English counterpart the Maori Queen’s role was to stay under the radar of public political debate. She didn’t take sides but apparently helped bring diverse opinions together and got people talking to each other. The only publicity was in the ceremonial roles she played on public occasions. For most New Zealanders she appeared to play only a figurehead role – not leadership in the traditional sense but perhaps in a cultural sense.

What is most important however is to recognise that the King movement arose not as a mimic of English royalty but from a grim and determined struggle by Maori to retain their land which in the 1850’s they were losing rapidly through dodgy deals, cynical manipulation and outright theft. Modern day land agents are angels by comparison with government agents of the day.

It had become clear shortly after the signing of the treaty that our most important and critical agreement which effectively established the right of Pakeha to be in New Zealand was being cynically abused and flouted outright by the Crown. Hone Heke (the first to sign the treaty) was in rebellion and chopping down the flagpole at Kororareka within a few years of the Treaty’s signing.

The same story was repeated around the country. Several large pan-tribal meetings were held and Maori recognised they needed to be unified in the face of relentless pakeha thirst for private ownership of land – Maori land.

The outcome was a ceremony in 1858 where Ngati Haua Chief Wiremu Tamihana (the “king maker”) crowned Potatau I as the first Maori King of a movement based in Waikato but with pan-tribal support and respect. Last week it was a direct descendent of Tamihana who crowned the new Maori king. Adding to the significance of 1858 is that this was the first year when the number of pakeha settlers finally outnumbered Maori. 

Struggle it was. Maori were called upon to renounce their king and Governor Grey prepared for war when they refused. Within a short time British Imperial troops marched on Waikato and in a series of battles culminating in the famous battle at Orakau Pa the King movement was beaten but not defeated. Maori defence of their land cost them millions of acres in confiscations. Waikato Maori, at the heart of the King movement lost most heavily. All the lush farmland from the Bombay hills to Hamilton was confiscated for example. They had resisted rather than stopped the seizure of their land.

The King movement has continued through till today but more as a symbol of Maori struggle rather than leading the struggle as it did in its formative years.

However possibly much more important than last week’s coronation was the call for establishment of a genuine pan-tribal Maori movement. Interestingly this call came from Sir Tipene O’Reagan from Ngai Tahu who perhaps have the least connection to the King movement. He asserts that existing Maori pan-tribal organisations – such as the New Zealand Maori Council – have been “domesticated” by the government and a new group should be discussed to spearhead inter-tribal debate and consultation with the Crown and the public.

Attempting to establish such pan-tribal movements is as old as the Maori King movement. After 1890 for example two separate attempts were made to establish Maori parliaments. The Maori King movement itself established the Kauhanganui (Great Council) which passed a lot of legislation but lacked the means to implement it. Unsurprisingly such was the lasting bitterness and resentment from the confiscation of Maori landand abuse of the Treaty that the council issued a proclamation for all Pakehas to leave New Zealand.

It was only in 1994 that the settlement of some of these grievances took place when Tainui accepted a minute percentage of what had been stolen from them.

The proposal for a new pan-tribal body is to be discussed in November at Pukawa under the auspices of Tuwharetoa. This time though the struggle will have a different focus. The place of Maori in negative social statistics is well cemented and we receive weekly reminders of this from all directions – with the sharpest example being the death of the Kahui twins. Tackling the root causes of Maori social deprivation will also mean linking up with other groups in similar low socio-economic traps.

It could be that the events at Ngaruawahia over the past two weeks provide a catalyst for a re-invigorated struggle by Maori for a place in the sun in the land of their birth. We should all applaud such a development.