Christine Dann* writes that ignoring the views of Maori and all New Zealanders in what happens to our National Library is 21st century colonialism, pure and simple.

The other day I told a Maori neighbour that the National Library (NL) plans to get rid of 90% of its books which were published overseas. “Why would they do that?” he asked. Good question. I then mentioned that the first film shot totally in te reo, with Maori actors, was a translation of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. “I know”, he said.

My neighbour says he is not an educated man, because he never went to university. But he has read a lot and knows a lot, and like all my other Maori connections he values learning and books. All learning and books, no matter where the learning takes place and where the books are published.

But in 2018 the then National Librarian (not a Maori, and not even a New Zealander until a few years back) managed to convince the then Minister of Internal Affairs (also not a Maori, but a member of the New Zealand First party) that New Zealanders no longer had any use or need for the 625,000 books in the Overseas Published Collection, and they should all be disposed of. In 2019, after some public outcry, the NL hired a PR company (no longer in existence) to spin the disposal as the ultimate in wokeness, making more room for Maori and Pacific publications and getting rid of all the ‘non-New Zealand’ books. The minister (no longer in Parliament) piled on by describing the books (in a now-deleted Facebook video) as ‘foreign’ books – she spat the word out. (It seems xenophobia is now being applied to books as well as people.) On 27 January 2020 she also tweeted in reply to citizens opposing the decision to dump the books – “But hey – carry on with the BS because the more you do the less you are listened to.”

This seems to be a 21st century colonial government’s version of what happened in New Zealand in the 1840s. Just six days after Te Tiriti was signed at Waitangi, Mohi Tawai said to a meeting between Governor Hobson and his officials and tangata whenua held in Hokianga:

“Where does the Governor get his authority? … It is quite right for us to say what we think; it is right for us to speak. Let the tongue of everyone be free to speak; but what of it? What will be the end? Our sayings will sink to the bottom like a stone, but your sayings will float light, like the wood of the whau tree, and always remain to be seen. Am I telling lies?” **

Alas, speaking truth to power is no more popular now than it was then, and the government officials have the power (and the money they get from us) to hire spin doctors to create faux (whau?) narratives of what is being done and why.

So the initiators of Book Guardians Aotearoa (BGA) started contacting all their Maori friends and colleagues and letting them know what was being done in their name. My friend Powhiri, a teacher who is fluent in Maori and German as well as English, was outraged. She wrote immediately to the minister, and became an Advisory Member of BGA.

Her views have been ignored, like those of all others who oppose the wholesale disposal. National Library top brass never consulted with any Maori other than those in the library profession (dare I call them kūpapa?) who they were sure would toe this particular party line on getting rid of the nation’s books. They didn’t consult with any Maori organisations, or organisations with Maori members (such as the Professional Historians Association) to see what they thought of the idea, and/or if they could think of better alternatives. The sort of alternative that BGA is proposing, for example, which is that an independent panel of subject experts be set up to advise the NL on which books remain of value to researchers, writers and scholars (regardless of their whakapapa) and which can safely be let go. Nor – heaven forbid! – did they bring in Maori readers and scholars as equal decision-making partners on the fate of the books.

And that, I am afraid, is colonialism – pure and simple. It makes a sorry contrast with the genuine exchange of views and proposals which Ngai Tahu leadership engaged in with writer Neville Peat and myself at a small private meeting in Dunedin in the late 1980s, when Ngai Tahu was at the beginning of its twelve year process of Treaty settlement negotiations. Ngai Tahu was under no obligation to do this, of course, as its legal relationship was with the Crown, not with real, live human Treaty partners with no governmental status. But it could see the value in such relationships, and the benefits for both parties in sharing ideas.

At one point in the discussion I said that I felt there was one way in which Maori were better off than Pakeha, because they had a Treaty to which they could hold the Crown, and the government of the day. I know that hasn’t gone well on far too many occasions, and that Te Tiriti o Waitangi has been more honoured in the breach than the observance. Yet it does (in theory) grant rights to Maori organised into tribes which have never, ever been guaranteed to people of English descent, not in Great Britain nor in the British settler colonies. Tipene O’Regan said he was sorry that I felt this lack, and we agreed that two wrongs don’t make a right, and the group got back on to discussing how Ngai Tahu could best pursue its claim and communicate what it was doing and why with Pakeha in Te Wai Pounamu.

Yet it is because of the history of my people – ordinary people of British descent – who have never held powerful positions like Minister of the Crown, chief executive, police chief, general, and so on – that I can understand and empathise with what those who were colonised by force continue to suffer to this day. We both have a history of having to accept whatever the rulers see fit to give us – or take away from us.

Good housing and food and health care are all more important to Maori (and Pakeha) wellbeing than books – but why can’t we have them too? In the long run, they’re cheaper and also much more reliable and environmentally friendly than anything digital. But I guess they might give us anti-colonial ideas, of the sort that abound in Tyson Yunkaporta’s 2019 book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Could Save the World. Since it’s an overseas published book it won’t be high on the NL’s purchasing priority list, even though it is extremely relevant to indigenous thinkers here as well as everywhere else. Also to anyone who cares about sustainability, whatever their whakapapa, because the ideas in it are relevant to them too.

Yunkaporta has tried really hard to see all sides, and to engage with those with the power to make change. But they just don’t get it, as this excerpt illustrates:

A ‘foreign’ book which the National Library probably won’t bother stocking or keeping. It has already made it clear that collecting and and making accessible the books of ‘non-Zealand’ thinkers is not what it thinks it should be doing. 

“My idea [for the ‘big ideas’ summit of 1000 thinkers in Canberra in 2008] was to create Indigenous Knowledge Centres all around Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could gather thinkers and knowledge-keepers together and grapple with solutions to the world’s sustainability issues. To my great surprise and joy, my big idea was taken up and funded with the full support of the government …. After the consultations I didn’t hear anything about it for a long time, and a couple of years later I visited one of these knowledge centres in a capital city. It was not exactly what I hoped it would be. There were a couple of staff there, curating exhibits in a beautiful room filled with artefacts in glass boxes, dot paintings and stirring tributes to Indigenous Australia’s most famous sporting heroes and country music artists. And free Wi-Fi.” (pp 266-7)

The National Library and the Ministry of Internal Affairs don’t get it either. When they are ready for an open-ended dialogue with library users of all kinds, and when they take their Treaty partnership responsibilities seriously, then – and only then – will it be possible for them to claim that they are putting ‘New Zealand’ interests first.

* Christine Dann is a Pakeha writer, gardener and activist who has been supporting decolonising actions and activists since the 1970s.

* * Caselberg, John (ed) (1975) Maori is my Name Historical Maori Writings in Translation, Dunedin: John McIndoe, p. 48

“Let the tongue of everyone be free to speak; but what of it?” Mohi Tawai, 12 February 1840

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