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Not a Race Issue

Rawiri Taonui


The death of three-year-old Nia Glassie evokes a litany of Maori child abuse, including the shooting of innocent two-year old Jhia Tua, the beating to death of the Kahui twins, Pirimai Simmonds, Jonelle Tarawa, James Whakaruru, Mereana Edmonds, Lilly-bing Karaitiana Matiaha, Tamati Pokaia and Delcelia Witika.

Every new incident brings dread for Maori that it is one of our own.

The Maori child homicide rate is double that for non-Maori: 50% of the babies under one-year-old taken into state care are Maori. We constitute 40% of 2000 critical and 25,000 general child abuse cases reported annually.

At 55 per 100,000, the Maori rate of abuse related head injuries to children under two is among the highest in the world.

However horrifying the figures, it is simplistic to blame Maori. Do we condemn all white men because they have the highest incidence of child pornography and paedophilia? Vilify all Christians because of sexual and physical abuse by Catholic nuns and priests Judge all mental health workers for 30 years of institutionalised torture of young patients in Lake Alice and Porirua?

Racist stereotyping and scapegoating does not solve issues it does not seek to understand. The abusive `Once Were Warriors Syndrome' we have today did not exist in pre-European times; it is part of a colonial legacy that afflicts impoverished and alienated indigenous minorities the world over.

The causes are not difficult to comprehend. Theft of land reduced Maori to poverty. Suppression of te reo produced cultural alienation. Urbanisation exacerbated this both, when 60% of the Maori population shifted to towns and cities between 1950 and 1980.

Rejected by the dominant culture and distanced from their ancestral culture, concentrated in poor housing, working for low wages or on welfare, and subject to across the board racism, a generation of young urban Maori parents born in the 1970s, 80s and 90s entered an intergenerational cycle of poverty, alcohol, drugs, hopelessness and frustration. In 2001, 120,000 declared they did not know their hapu, iwi, language or culture.

Their experience turned inward manifesting in violence, crime and abuse. The 1970 and 1995 economic downturn impacted more on poorer Maori -unemployment was triple that for non-Maori, incomes at 83% of the national median are still lower than the pre-Rogernomics high of 93%. The Maori child homicide rate doubled from 1.05 (1978-1987) to 2.4 per 100,000 (1991-2000).

It is not the original indigenous culture that causes the cyclic child bashing, but the absence or distortion of culture. The highest rate of cyclic poverty, alcohol, drug and child abuse in Western Europe is in the Glaswegian south-east of Scotland - the descendants of white Highlanders who lost their lands, language and culture.

This is also why Maori child abuse currently outstrips Pasifika, for the moment. Samoa and Tonga remained a majority in their own countries, they retained more of their lands, their language stayed intact. Culturally stronger Pasifika communities were more successful at transferring their communities from Apia to Auckland than Maori were from Ahipara. However, now living as minorities within a dominant culture, a time bomb ticks away in places like South Auckland as contact gradually eats into culture, language and communities.

Are Maori in denial? Sometimes. Most Maori accept abuse occurs and understand the connection to poverty and alienation.

However, nobility in protesting lost rights to the foreshore and seabed is easier than admitting the reality of an intergenerational legacy that some members of the whanau are animals who bash kids and babies. Shame inhibits action.

Newly middle-class Maori sometimes find this hard. When the Once Were Warriors movie came out, my academic colleagues hated it for promoting negative stereotypes, my cuzzies loved it for portraying their lives.

We need the Maori middle class to stay involved - they have the resources and skills to affect change. Policy also needs to change. Too often "Maori" funding is gobbled up by the middle class rather than Maori who need it most.

What else can be done? The anti-smacking legislation repealing Section 59 of the Crimes Act was a good start because it drew a line in the sand. The Maori Party, Maori Council and Maori Women's Welfare League have shown regular commitment to this issue. Maori leaders were among the staunchest supporters of the anti-smacking bill.

Neither are Maori communities useless. The current renaissance has made a difference. The Maori child homicide rate has dropped by nearly half from 2.4 to 1.34 per 100,000 (2001-2005). The rate of reported Maori child abuse, although still twice that for non-Maori (11.9 compared to 5.9 per 1000 children 1998-2003), has also decreased.

Our leaders and organisation need more resources and involvement. The new health sector questioning of women to detect domestic and child abuse while good, risks racial profiling if left solely to a monocultural health system already riddled with prejudice - not all brown people are child abusers.

This is a New Zealand problem not just a Maori one. Are we to condemn the perpetrators? They have to take responsibility for their deeds. No one disputes that. The courts will deal with them accordingly. But vengeance never saves the innocents.

We need to promote young Maori role models, those confident in their culture and dignified at home. We need more education for our younger parents about time out techniques and good behaviour regimes for tamariki.

Maori culture is not the problem, it's the solution.

E te taonga iti, moe mai i waenganui i nga matua tupuna, ratou e aroha, e tiaki. Moe marie. Kei runga i a matou katoa te whakama o to mamae, kia kaua tera mahi.

(Little treasure, rest with the ancestors, those who will love and care for you. Find peace. The shame of your pain is on all of us, may there be no more).  


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