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  Sunday, November 1 2:46pm PST

Saatchi & Saatchi
Kupe's Canoe and the Five-Door Hatchback
New Zealand's Maori turn to the courts as frustration with official land claim process grows

Popular mythology has it that Kupe was the first Polynesian explorer to sail into the waters of what is now New Zealand. The theories about his journey from Hawaii are many, though most historians would not accept that the 10th-century navigator's craft looked anything like a five-door hatchback.

But the idea that cars owned by Maori New Zealanders should today be regarded as traditional Polynesian canoes - and therefore be exempt from parking tickets and registration - is only one of the more colorful suggestions recently made as this nation considers the rights of Kupe's descendants. Maoris may be only one in a long line of indigenous people requiring political attention - others have made their case in San Francisco this week at the State of the World Forum - but the struggle for recognition in this South Pacific nation has taken some interesting turns of late.

Elsewhere in New Zealand, members of a Maori tribe have served notice that they will not pay their dog registration fees. They have said that their pets are "taonga," or native treasures, and as such, fall outside municipal bylaws.

The issues are small, but the intent is big in a country where native rights have long played second fiddle to the tune of an Anglo-Saxonized culture. Though some claims carry a hint of frivolity - the Maori tribal leader who likened his sedan to an ancient canoe made his point to reporters with a smile - others are serious.

Such was the recent case in the city of Wanganui, where a Maori angler last year petitioned the High Court for the right to fish without a license. He claimed the city's river rightfully belongs to his ancestors and not, as is commonly supposed, to the Government. The court agreed with him. In a precedent-setting decision, Judge Andrew Becroft ruled that New Zealand Maori may cast their lines into a nearby stream or river without the mandatory fishing license.

That decision set off a tidal wave of reaction. New Zealand, a country which makes much of itself as an ethnically harmonious society, has been learning that it takes great political agility to juggle the needs of a modern, industrialized country with the guarantees once given to its original Polynesian inhabitants.

"There was no need for the white judges to make that ruling," said Frank Haden, a conservative commentator, "other than a sense of mission, an evangelical purpose to alter the course of history by giving [Maoris] special advantage over their fellow whites."

In a letter to the editor of a national newspaper, a reader complained that the decision established New Zealand as "the only apartheid-ridden country in the world and one continuing to increase racist privileges for people that have the same, and many more, rights than all the other races in the country."

For the claimants, however, the issue is one of a majority European country facing up to the promises of its founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 by Maori tribes and the British government. The treaty, a blueprint for the course of a future bicultural society, saw the Maori ceding political autonomy in exchange for "full and undisturbed" rights to lands, forests, fisheries, and their enigmatically phrased "national treasures."

But colonial wars and land theft by whites meant that the treaty was largely ignored by successive governments.

Since 1985, when a dormant Waitangi Tribunal was reinvigorated by the then Labour Party government, the treaty has once again occupied central place in official decision making. New laws now inevitably include the clause, "with due regard to the Treaty of Waitangi."

The tribunal is charged with making recommendations for financial recompense to tribes and individuals who have, in the words of director Morrie Love, "suffered profound social and economic consequence, physical deprivation, poverty, social dislocation, and loss of status" as a consequence of treaty violations.

The tribunal currently has before it claims covering nearly two-thirds of all New Zealand land. One recent multi-million-dollar settlement saw the Tainui tribe receive 38,000 acres of rural countryside, including the campus of one of the country's seven public universities, and an official apology from Queen Elizabeth, who remains the nation's head of state. A further settlement this month saw large tracts of the country's South Island returned to another Maori tribe.

Yet the tribunal's work moves slowly, even while the passions it arouses in the wider community run quick and hot - especially at a time when the flow-on effects of the economic crisis in parts of Asia are being keenly felt in New Zealand.

Critics see the situation as a lesson in equality for all, of the hope for a better, classless society that the colonialists brought with them. Mr. Haden called the document a "ludicrous mishmash of vague, undefined words and phrases that are open to any interpretation." He likened the tribunal to an Aladdin's lamp that only needs to be rubbed to produce the required monetary response.

Increasingly, however, many of Kupe's descendents are turning away from the tribunal, preferring instead to make their own cases before the courts. This, observers say, could end up costing the country more, with large sums of money and tracts of disputed land being returned upon strictly legal grounds - and worse, in the eyes of conservative critics, the prospect of fleets of new-fangled canoes, immune from prosecution and cruising the nation's highways with impunity.


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