Call for more Maori involvement in Antarctic

21:20, Jun 09 2013

More active Maori involvement in the Antarctic would be good for all New Zealanders, Barrie Cook says.

The placing of a pou whenua at Scott Base is a welcome affirmation of New Zealand sovereignty over its slice of Antarctica.

Ngai Tahu leader Mark Solomon and Prime Minister John Key unveiled the carved totara pole at a ceremony in January. Key called it a "very meaningful addition" to the base. By definition the pou can be seen as a territorial marker.

Diplomacy requires us to go gently on promoting our claim, but for those of us not restrained by such niceties I say we should slowly up the ante, just as Australia is doing, and aim to have the Ross Dependency more fully incorporated into the nation state of New Zealand.

For the past 100 years or so Antarctica has been the playground of explorers, adventurers, scientists and tourists. Overlaying the lot has been governmental jockeying for position, the most egregious of which has been the setting up of "scientific" bases as a way of establishing squatting rights as a precursor to getting more-formal rights.

The dreamers would like to see it as some sort of grand world park, but the reality will be that human need and greed will not allow that to happen. There is too much of value there.


Already New Zealand, like others, is exploiting the continent for commercial purposes - toothfish, tourism and even enzymes from volcanic vents, for a start. And while the Antarctic Treaty bans military activity as such, there sure is a lot of military equipment and personnel around the place. It is all part of a jockeying for position.

A few years ago I put a proposal to Ngai Tahu for it to lead an expedition to Antarctica to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Scott Base. I called it Te Pou Expedition. A centrepiece was to be the placing of a pou whenua.

I wanted to encourage Maori interest in our part of the continent to strengthen New Zealand's territorial rights. My proposal was politely rejected. Ngai Tahu had more pressing matters with which to be concerned.

As we know, Polynesians are the great navigators of the Pacific and, when the climate was warmer than it is today, may well have ventured far enough south to have at least become aware of Antarctica.

Oral history refers to various journeys including one about AD650 by Hui Te Rangiora, who sailed south of New Zealand and discovered a "beautiful white land". Te Rangiora remains a celebrated name amongst Tainui.

Maori have the astronomically based myth of Tamarereti who travelled south in a waka and found white land. His canoe - Te Waka Tamarereti - is located in the tail of the Scorpio constellation.

Maori were familiar with the appearance of icebergs from time to time and, given their familiarity with glacier ice, were likely to have put two and two together. And there is considerable Maori involvement in the modern era starting with Te Atu (John Sacs), who was part of an 1840 American expedition that surveyed 1600 miles of coastline.

Able Seaman Ramon Tito was the youngest member of the New Zealand party that set up Scott Base and was chosen to raise the flag at the official opening in 1957.

There are now many Maori place names in our part of Antarctica, including Mumu Nunatak, Parawera Cone, Tarakaka Peak and Pakuru Icefall. Maori are involved in fishing in the Ross Sea, primarily through the 50 per cent Maori-owned Sealord Group.

Maori do not have ahi-ka (title through occupation) of the Ross Dependency and therefore do not have manawhenua (the power associated with possession), yet they could develop rights and power through a combination of more active involvement and the Treaty of Waitangi. After all, as English academic Klaus Dodd has noted: "Where New Zealand goes, the Treaty of Waitangi goes."

The Treaty was a deal between the British and Maori with only the latter bringing land and its resources to the table. The British and their descendants dishonoured the treaty whenever it suited, backed up by greater military might. This set in train a gross imbalance in favour of Pakeha.

The British gave the Ross Dependency to New Zealand in 1923. That hasn't worked out so far as an outright gift, although we are the recognised kaitiaki of the dependency, and that will do until our sovereignty converts into recognised control in the same way that we control the mainlands, the exclusive economic zone and our continental shelf.

I like to think that the Crown side of the treaty partnership can deliver something as tangible to the arrangement in the form of the Ross Dependency as Maori did when they delivered a share in their lands. If not, maybe, just maybe, Maori will take it anyway.

After all, Mark Solomon did joke at the ceremony at Scott Base in January that Ngai Tahu was not about to lodge a claim to the ice. At least, he said he was joking. However, sticking a pou whenua in the ground is a good way to start.

Whatever happens, more direct Maori involvement in Antarctica would be good for all New Zealanders. There's a land-grab coming up and we want to be in a strong position to hold on to what is ours.

Barrie Cook has a Graduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies from the University of Canterbury and is a member of the NZ Antarctic Society.

The Press