UN Year of Indigenous peoples

1 Jan 1993 | JUSTICE

Indigenous peoples have cultural heritage's that contain much wisdom. This is part of a nation's wealth which all citizens need to be open to. Indigenous peoples and their cultures, including Maori, offer their treasures to all while opening themselves to the world's treasures.

The inauguration of the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Peoples 1993, provides an opportunity for the international community to focus on and respond to some of the needs of indigenous peoples. Approximately 300 million indigenous peoples inhabited some seventy member states of the United Nations 1 Maori of Aotearoa New Zealand are included in this number.

The United Nations define the term "indigenous peoples" as the first to live on their land, beginning hundreds or even thousands of years ago. However, as the United Nations notes, it is a sad reality of the contemporary world that political, economic and social pressures are rapidly threatening the very survival of indigenous people. Their patterns of family and social structure have been disrupted, their lifestyles have been denigrated, their protection has not been a priority .2

In 1993 we took the opportunity of drawing attention to the tradition and teaching of the Church when we affirmed: that the right of the first occupants to land, and the social and political organization which would allow them to preserve their cultural identity, while remaining open to others, must be guaranteed .4

The problems faced by Maori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, are many. They can be seen in three areas - employment, health, education - where here are immediate needs to be addressed. In September 1992, the unemployment r rate for young people aged 15 to 19 years was 21.8 percent, compared with 16.7 percent in September 1990. The unemployment rate for Maori aged 15 to 19 was 45.5 percent (36.7% in September 1990).5 In Maori health developments the picture is still not as good as could be expected where numerous studies confirm that Maori continue to experience ill-health and thus a lower life expectancy. 6

Recent statistics show life expectancy at birth for Maori males as 63.8 years and for Maori females as 68.5 years. This compares with 70.8 years for Pakeha men and 77 years for Pakeha females.7 In education there have been encouraging developments for Maori from pre-school to tertiary education but more needs to be done. According to the Ministry of Education the achievement rates of Maori students are low in comparison with other groups, the gap is widening and the Maori language is facing extinction.8
The Christian faith teaches that every human person has dignity and rights. It acknowledges that everyone is created in the image and likeness of God. Everyone has been redeemed by Jesus Christ and is destined through Him to be a son or daughter of God. This is the ultimate guarantee of the rights which belong to all peoples. These rights and the duties which go with them are God-given.

The Church has clarified some fundamental principles that are relevant to indigenous peoples' needs (and those of other minorities) in any society. These principles can be a guide for our country as we make greater endeavors to move towards equality and justice. Pope John Paul II has said: The first right of minorities is the right to exist. This right can be ignored in any ways, including such extreme cases as its denial through overt or indirect forms of genocide. The right to life as such is inalienable, and the state which perpetrates or tolerates acts aimed at endangering the lives of its citizens belonging to minority groups violates the fundamental law governing the social order.

The right to exist can be undermined in more subtle ways. Certain peoples, especially those identified as native or indigenous, have always maintained a relationship to their land, a relationship connected with the group's very identity as a people having their own tribal, cultural and religious tradition. When such indigenous peoples are deprived of their land they lose a vital element of their way of life and actually run the risk of disappearing as a people.

Another right which must be safeguarded is the right of minorities to preserve and develop their culture. It is not unheard of that minority groups are threatened with cultural extinction. In some places, in fact, laws have been enacted which do not recognize their right to use their own language. At times people are forced to change their family and place names. Some minorities see their artistic and literary expressions ignored, with their festivals and celebrations given no place in public life. All this can lead to the loss of a notable cultural heritage. Closely connected with this right is the right to have contact with groups having a common cultural and historical heritage, but living in the territory of another state .9

In our 1990 statement we drew attention to the fact that our history indicated that the promises and guarantees made in the Treaty of Waitangi, 1840, have not been consistently upheld and that the Maori tribes have suffered grave injustices. Maori have not always been given the protection of the State as promised under the Treaty. Worse still, the State has on occasions deprived them by law of the Crown's guarantees, 10 There have been improvements and promising developments in Crown and Maori relationships. We are pleased and encouraged to observe the genuine attempts that have been made between Maori tribal representatives and the Crown to continue endeavors to resolve properly established grievances. Recent decisions of the Courts and recommendations of the Waitangi Tribunal are contributing towards the development of a more just society.

There have been improvements and promising developments in Crown and Maori relationships. We are pleased and encouraged to observe the genuine attempts that have been made between Maori tribal representatives and the Crown to continue endeavours to resolve properly established grievances. Recent decisions of the Courts and recommendations of the Waitangi Tribunal are contributing towards the development of a more just society.

On the matter of some fundamental principles, societal obligations and the value of diversity as a contributing factor towards the common good, we quote once again Pope John Paul II: The obligation to accept and defend diversity belongs to the state and to groups themselves. Every individual, as a member of the human family, ought to understand and respect the value of human diversity and direct it to the common good. A mind that is open and desirous of knowing better the cultural heritage of the minority groups with which it comes into contact will help to eliminate attitudes of prejudice which hinder healthy social relations. This is a process which has to be continuously fostered, since such attitudes tend to reappear time and time again under new forms. Peace within the one human family requires a constructive development of what distinguishes us as individuals and peoples, and constitutes our identity. 11

As Pastors we remind all people of goodwill of the Church's teaching that equality does not mean uniformity. It is important for us all to recognize the diversity and complementarily of one another's cultural riches and moral qualities. Equality of treatment, therefore, implies a certain recognition of differences which minorities themselves demand in order to develop according to their own specific characteristics, in respect for others and for the common good of society and the world community. No human group, however, can boast of having a natural superiority over others, nor of exercising any discrimination that affects the basic rights of the person. 12

In order to establish and nurture the virtues of solidarity and peace 13 which we deem essential in building a more just society, we must overcome all forms of ethnic inequality.

At the same time we remind all peoples that rights carry with them corresponding duties. Members of indigenous and other minority groups also have their own duties toward society and the state in which they live. Indigenous peoples and minorities can offer their own specific contribution to the building of a peaceful world that will reflect the rich diversity of all its inhabitants. Furthermore, an indigenous or minority group has the duty to promote the freedom and dignity of each one of its members and to respect the decisions of each member. This is so even if someone decides to adopt the majority culture.14

Indigenous peoples have cultural heritage's that contain much wisdom. This is part of a nation's wealth which all citizens need to be open to. Indigenous peoples and their cultures, including Maori, offer their treasures to all while opening themselves to the world's treasures.


Footnotes:

General Assembly President STOYAN GANEV, Press Release gap/8447, 10 December 1992, p 3.
ibid. p 3.

NZCBC, A Commemoration Year for Aotearoa New Zealand 1990, Advent 1989, Wellington.
Pontifical Commission Iustitia et Pax, The Church and Racism: towards a fraternal society, 1988, n 10.
Minister of Labour, oral answers, Hansard, November 24, 1992.
Professor Eru Pomare and G de Boer, 1988 Hauora: Maori Standards of Health, 1970 -1984, Special Report. Series 78.
Report of the Ministerial Planning Group, Ka Awatea, March 1991, Wellington p 37.
Education Gazette, The Ministry of Education, Wellington, March 15 1991, Vol. 70, No 5, p 1.
Pope John Paul II, "To Build Peace Respect Minorities", 1989 World Day of Peace Message, paras 5-7, in Origins, December 29, 1988, Vol. 18, No 29.
op. cit. NZCBC, A Commemoration Year for Aotearoa New Zealand 1990, 1989.
op. cit. Pope John Paul II, To Build Peace. Respect Minorities, Fundamental Principles, para 3.
op. cit. Pontifical Commission Iustitia et Pax, Church and Racism, n 23.
The Church and Racism n 23; Sollicitudo rei Socialis n 38.
op. cit. Pope John Paul II, "To Build Peace, Respect Minorities", para 11.