Thursday 15 April 2010

people are the same wherever we go....

As an historian, I must say that I do find it a little amusing the way that there are so many things signposted both in New Zealand & in Australia as "historic".. when actually what they mean is that the item in question might be about 100 years old. I shouldn't be so snobby about these things, of course... not everyone is lucky enough to have so many ancient monuments and so much monumental architecture on their doorsteps as us Europeans, but it's hard not to see it (more than a touch patronisingly) as a little sweet - bless these colonials with their "history" and their search for a place in the world.

But of course, the human history of both of these countries goes back beyond the arrival of the Europeans a couple of centuries ago. What's really interesting around this part of the world is the way that the Maori culture seems to be part and parcel of NZ life in a way that aboriginal Australian culture is not. I'm ill qualified to comment on this with any authority, of course, and these are only my observations....

In New Zealand, their Maori heritage seems to be something that is honoured and preserved. The Maori language is prominent: this may be the result of a recent campaign to prevent it disappearing altogether by making a concerted effort to get kids to learn it and to speak it, but the result is that lots of things are presented with their Maori names displayed first: Mount Cook is called Aoraki / Mount Cook these days, and I can ultimately see the Cook bit being dropped entirely over time and in the national museum, Te Papa, all plaques are in two languages, with the Maori displayed before the English. Every museum we visited also had extensive displays of the polynesian history of the island, and in places like Rotorua, cultural displays are as big an attraction to tourists as the skydiving and bungee jumping. A huge proportion of tourists will leave New Zealand wearing a bone carving or a piece of greenstone as a souvenir of their stay, both the products of Maori culture. Most obviously of all, of course, is the haka performed by the All Blacks before every rugby test. Can there be a more prominent display of New Zealand's cultural heritage and how big a part it is of the nation's pysche?

I'd assumed that the Maori had been in New Zealand for years, but actually they only arrived something like 400 years before the Europeans. Of course, the European arrival changed things dramatically, but the massive environmental changes usually associated with the European arrival actually started with the Maoris and are really not all our fault. Sure, the pace of change accelerated massively after Captain Cook's arrival, but the Maori had already begun to radically change the environment before the tall ships sailed into view: the massive wingless Moa were hunted to extinction before we turned up, for example and the rat was introduced to the islands by the polynesians as a meat source....

By way of contrast to this relatively recent history of human intervention on the environment in New Zealand, the Autralian Aboriginal culture dates back omething like 40,000's the earliest human culture. And yet, as we travelled around, we barely saw a single aboriginal face in Southern Australia and they were most easily found in North Queensland in the local branch of MacDonalds every evening or drinking from brown paper bags on a park bench. With something like 400 distinct languages rather than just the one, I suppose it's much harder to include the indigenous language on bilingual signposts, but the difference with New Zealand is really marked, with the Australian Aborigines seemingly much less involved in the "Modern" society than the Maori in New Zealand. A couple we met in Tasmania told us how they had worked as volunteers with the aboriginal people of Queensland, but that no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn't help people who didn't want to be helped. They told us about how they found a group in the house they had been given trying to cool themselves down with sprinklers inside their living room, in spite of the fact they were surrounded by TVs and air conditioning units. Another story we heard was of the aborigine who won a pile of money on the lottery and spent it all on a top of the range Toyota Land Cruiser that was up in bricks and rotting within a month. The problems clearly run deep with two cultures that just don't seem to be capable of integration.

A Kiwi kayaker we met in the Whitsundays told us that the difference in New Zealand was because -- unlike the Australian aborigines -- the Maori were never actually subdued by the Europeans and Maori rights were ultimately enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, recognising claims to the land and their rights as British citizens in their own right. It's a treaty that is still referred to today. There is no Australian equivalent....

Of course, this is a complicated issue, and I certainly won't pretend that I have all the answers. I know that everything isn't rosy in New Zealand, and neither is everything all doom and gloom in Australia. To say otherwise would be a gross over-simplification.... but it has certainly been interesting to observe the differences between these two beautiful countries as we've travelled around them both over the last couple of months.


  1. The building I currently live in is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's actually two buildings, the first was built in 1952, the second in 1960. I live in the second building.

    It was added to the register in 2009, or when it was 57 & 49 years old.

  2. I noticed the same thing while visiting Australia and New Zealand. Though it's within the same country I found it (somewhat) akin to Hawaii where Hawaiian culture is very much front and center versus the Native American culture in the U.S.