Transformation is a process of return

By Gabriella Brayne – guest writer for Organise! magazine

  1. Introduction

Na Te Kore, Te Pō

Ki te Whai-Ao 

Ki te Ao-Mārama 

Tihei mauri-ora

From the void, the night

To the glimmer of dawn

To the bright light of day

There is life. 

Transformation is the binding fabric of our cosmology. The fertile nothingness of Te Kore evolved into the darkness of Te Pō. The separation of Papatūānuku and Ranginui shifted us into the brightness of Te Ao Mārama. Central to many of our pūrākau are the eternal themes of suffering, love, and redemption in transformation. Often in returning to these pūrākau, it seems that our tūpuna always knew of the challenges we would face in this turbulence of Te Ao Hurihuri, struggling to see a world beyond endemic injustice. They remind us that transformation and redemption against the never-ending struggle of colonisation is not only possible, it is the essence of whakapapa. In the words of Robin D.G. Kelley, 

Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.” 

Within Te Ao Māori and Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, these shifts are both visionary and ancestral, looking backward into an unfolding future. Speaking from my whakapapa and positionality as a wahine of Ngāti Maniapoto, Samoan and Pākehā descent, this essay aims to reimagine our socio-legal framework according to liberation as the abolition of colonisation, capitalism, and carceral violence. Starting with constitutional transformation as dependent on the repatriation and de-commodification of whenua, this will then unfold into a wider conversation around indigenous solidarity against global capitalism and imperialism. The last section is dedicated to more personal reflections on the carceral violence of the state and its intergenerational, traumatic repercussions for whānau. Whilst I cannot offer substantial answers to these systemic problems from my written perspective alone, some whakaaro is offered in light of a ka muri, ka mua approach; drawing upon a whakapapa of resistance from Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa. 

  1. Hoki whenua mai, the land as constitution, as relationality

“For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.

― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. 

In Te Ao Māori, the land is life itself. We are born from the land and in death, we return to it. The mauri of the whenua is the cycle of life; where the past, present and future are layered as one. Pitted against this indigenous vision of environmental relationality, land alienation is therefore one of the most fundamental mechanisms of colonisation. Within a capitalist system that commodifies and consumes anything within its grasp, land theft represents the ultimate assertion (and corruption) of violent power, disrupting the very basis of indigenous self-determination and creating the foundations for the settler’s own necropolitical frameworks. `

The violent reordering of Aotearoa into the settler colony of New Zealand depended on the confiscation and commodification of land. European settlers arrived in New Zealand intending to acquire vast amounts of land for the expansion of agriculture, settlement, and international trade. In the early 19th century, the New Zealand Company advocated for a model of colonisation based on the principles of Edward Wakefield. Vast amounts of land were to be assumed by the Company and sold on to settlers for high prices, ensuring that the settlement of New Zealand was reserved for the European capitalist class to fulfill international trade with Britain. He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi recognised Tino Rangatiratanga of Māori over all taonga and resources – especially the whenua. The crown refused to recognise this constitutional sovereignty and with rising resentment amongst iwi Māori around treaty breaches, the Crown passed the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 to enable land confiscation from any iwi associated with anti-Crown rebellion. At the same time, the Native Land Court was established via the Native Lands Act 1862 to fragment and commodify communally held whenua into the Pākehā system of individual title; setting the foundations for economic alienation and urbanisation as the land was further segmented and sold on to settlers. As a result of these compounding strategies, from 1860 to 2000 Māori land ‘ownership’ had decreased from approximately 80% of the total whenua in Aotearoa to less than 4% – a stark mapping of colonisation as a ruthless, violent and ongoing process.  

Under settler colonialism, land alienation is instrumental in destroying the foundations of indigenous self-determination. A settler-colonial government may shift towards recognition of indigenous rights but will remain fundamentally illegitimate if existing on stolen indigenous whenua. Almost all dynamics and devastating outcomes of colonisation can be tied back to the land: the imposition of our punitive criminal justice system, the genocidal repercussions of health inequities, a housing crisis where 43% of our houseless in Tāmaki Mākaurau are Māori. Where tangata whenua recognised the responsibilities of kaitiakitanga and the interconnectivity of Te Taiao, the commodification of the whenua under settler colonialism has led to irreversible ecological destruction. Our journey beyond the climate apocalypse (and countless other manifestations of injustice under colonial capitalism) is a matter of revolution and decolonisation. Decolonisation is the structural abolition of colonisation, most importantly as it relates to the alienation of indigenous peoples from their land. With growing conversations around self-determination through constitutional change, transforming colonial power structures ultimately requires the repatriation of land and an indigenous reimaging of our relationship to the land itself. Relating the whenua to a constitutional framework may seem contradictory; after all the constitution is a legal instrument that can never encompass nor reflect the cosmology of Te Taiao. Shifting towards transformative legal futures, therefore, requires a radical reinterpretation of political power and constitution beyond colonialism. And moving beyond colonialism is a genealogical return, rooted in whenua and whakapapa. 

At its core, a constitution is a composition. The composition of the whenua, before and beyond colonial demarcations, provides the ultimate basis for understanding life and relationality. In the eternal words of rangatira, constitutional lawyer, and now ancestor Moana Jackson: 

“If people care to listen, such stories still seep through the land… They are stories from non-colonising times. The values and hopes they contain for this land can provide the basis for a non-colonising future.

Repatriation of the land requires direct action, the literal and substantive return of stolen whenua to indigenous peoples. As Moana Jackson’s quote illuminates, it also requires a re-envisioning of our relationship to the whenua based on mātauranga and tīkanga Māori beyond colonial capitalism. Matike Mai provides an important basis for constitutional transformation; utilising the constitutional arrangement between Māori and the Kawanatanga (Crown) codified in Te Tiriti o Waitangi to enable self-determination and effective tauiwi partnership within a contemporary context. One model for a constitutional future upholds a sovereign rangatiratanga sphere for Māori alongside a complementary kawanatanga sphere for non-colonising Crown governance. A relational space involves the meeting of two political forces for shared decision making around overlapping issues and that impacting tauiwi. Whilst the implications for land ownership within this framework aren’t explicitly mentioned, honouring the rangatiratanga sphere must involve the repatriation of land through a framework of decommodification; of which the kawanatanga and relational space are also accountable. A section of the report relates to the significance of whenua as strongly identified by Tangata Whenua in the interview process. 

“For the ties to the whenua continue to be an especially significant whakapapa value. Being tangata whenua still implies a very real attachment to and concern for the land. The whenua remains part of one’s whakapapa.” 

A whakapapa framing of our relationship to the land provides the ultimate space for dreaming and reconstruction. If we consider our connection to the whenua in light of our ancestors and mokopuna to come, instantly we shift towards a relationship of intergenerational kaitiakitanga, nurturing the whenua which nurtures us all. 

  1. Kōiwi tangata, our blood and bones beyond capitalism:

“Who are we to each other when our lands and ancestral remains are spread across Aotearoa and Australia? What does indigenous solidarity look like when commodities are formed from whenua or te aba and become part of a global food chain?

This haunting question was posed by Katerina Teaiwa in an interview with Tina Ngata. Of Banaban, I-Kiribati and African American whakapapa, Teaiwa’s work has grappled with the contradictions of capitalism and self-determination, exploring the imperialism that continues to feed the West (including their settler colonies). At the hands of New Zealand and Australian industry, phosphorus mining in Banaba has decimated the geography of the island, creating a crisis of displaced communities which this government continues to ignore. Teaiwa speaks of the blood and bones of her ancestors, stolen from their homes and transported across seas to fertilise stolen land in settler economies. Built upon land stolen from Māori, our agricultural sector in New Zealand is dependent on phosphorus supply and therefore continues the ever-unfolding injustice of global colonisation. Now that our Oceanic whānau have been largely stripped of their natural taonga, the unquenchable violence of capitalism has seen our economy look to new sites for exploitation, including the Westen Sahara. 

These themes of transnational violence, of bones and blood being transported and traded across soils, have built the global economy. Understanding the origins of colonisation, therefore, requires the economic and historical analysis of exploitation under capitalism. In simple terms, capitalism is an economic system in which trade and industry are decentralised into the private sector, creating a competitive space for production and profitability via consumption. According to Karl Marx, the general flow of capitalism can be defined through a simple equation: commodities (the means of production and labour-power) fuels production, which results in the creation of unique commodities which are sold with a surplus-value. Underlying this equation are existential questions – how far can we continue this cycle until the means of production are exhausted? And within this violent space of unsustainable resource extraction, who ultimately benefits from these increases to surplus value? To what extremes are working-class labour power exploited to heighten the profit margins of the capitalist class? As Emmy Rākete’s kōrero around ‘Necromancer Capitalism’ describes, capitalism fundamentally depends on the mauri, the life force, the bones and blood of workers to exist. All wealth is the transfigured life force of human beings and that of the environment. When this life force is locally exploited and depleted, the capitalist economy must extend its violence to new terrains in order to sustain itself. 

This is where the global dimensions of imperialism and colonisation come into force. The Doctrine of Discovery is an international legal concept stemming from Papal bulls issued in the 15th and 16th centuries, timed with the growing expansion of capitalism within Europe, heightening feudal inequities and murderous expeditions undertaken by colonial figures such as Christopher Columbus. . Essentially, the Doctrine gave Western powers the legal justification to impose legal rule over international territories based on them being terra nullius (empty land). The concept of terra nullius, therefore, categorised certain indigenous peoples as non-human, part of the flora and fauna to be discovered, commodified, and destroyed.  The Doctrine of Discovery framed the colonising intentions of Captain Cook’s expeditions throughout the Pacific. Hobson’s Declaration proclaimed British Sovereignty over the North Island on the basis of Treaty cession – and Te Wai Pounamu and Rakiura terra nullius by right of discovery. And within these dynamics of unfolding conquest and dislocation, the colonisation of Aotearoa was never confined to its own cartographies; we were colonised into the settler state of New Zealand, not only to exploit resources internally but to provide a geopolitical base for the British to colonise the Pacific region. As Teresia Teaiwa writes, 

“The New Zealand Government could extend its colonial reach into the Pacific during the early twentieth century precisely because it saw itself as a British agent rather than a Pacific Island.” 

My nan always speaks of the deep love she had for her parents – my great-grandparents. Woven into the stories she passes down from their generation are glimpses of the horrors of New Zealand colonial rule in Samoa, my great-grandfather digging mass-graves and burying aiga during the 1918 Influenza epidemic. Even in this era of supposed post-colonialism, capitalist violence and exploitative migration laws continue to frame an imperialist flow of labour between the Pacific region and New Zealand, such as through the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.  ‘Blood and bones’ are not just a metaphor, they are a literal reference to the lives which have been brought to Aotearoa within this web of imperialism. 

Just as colonisation depends on divisive cartographies and transnational exploitation, our fight for sovereignty is beyond borders. One of the evolving questions for Aotearoa achieving constitutional transformation is how this might also transform our economic fabric and geopolitical positioning within a capitalist global economy. Our journey towards constitutional transformation in Aotearoa must simultaneously reject the economic systems which keep our indigenous and dispossessed whanaunga captured in a state of transnational violence.  In the words of Fanon, “Decolonisation, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder.For so long we have been taught that the order of capitalism and western colonisation is an inevitable feature of a globalised economy. This is the hegemony of white supremacy, a fallacy that can be overturned through the dismantling of imperialism and restoration of indigenous relationality, walking backward into the future with new insights and technologies. Tracey Banivanua Mar’s book ‘Decolonisation and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire’ offers ideas around economic transformation through Oceanic regionalism, stemming from an extensive history of Moana resistance to Empire and globalisation. In line with a ‘ka mua, ka muri’ approach to time and transformation, these strategies of liberation from global capitalism are rooted in ancestral cosmologies, particularly Te Moana-nui-a-kiwa as a potentiality for exchange, enrichment, and energy. 

“Like the enrichment of the Ocean, cultures of decolonisation in the Pacific were kept alive by processes of upwelling and downwelling that resemble the exchanges of water and oxygen between the surface and deeper currents that keep the Ocean alive.” 

Global decolonisation honours the indigeneity we hold to each of our whenua and similarly a whakapapa of migration and relational exchange between our sea of islands. Indigenous liberation rests upon interwoven solidarities – the abolition of imperialism as a global food chain that continuously feeds off the desecration of moana and whenua, our blood and bones. Reimagining indigenous futures through a dynamic Oceanography, the interconnections of whakapapa, offers a powerful response to Katerina Teaiwa’s question. For Te Moana Nui a Kiwa; we are all connected beyond memory to the source, Hawaiki: to return is to begin as we end. We are reminded that in our shared experiences of dispossession, our self-determination is intimately tied beyond the colonial cartographies which have long fragmented us from our lands and each other. 

  1. Manaakitanga as revolutionary love; beyond carceral violence:

In our reimagining wānanga with Kirsty Fong, we were encouraged to meditate on our personal vision for a liberated world. My thoughts initially went to my mother: how a liberated world would encompass a sense of peace, against the mapping of her struggles and desires for a better life. Although I was initially surprised by this train of thought, as the only child of a solo mother it eventually made sense. As Ocean Vuong better explains, “The most beautiful part of your body is wherever your mother’s shadow falls.In speaking of mothers, I am not speaking to a gendered and Westernised notion of parenthood. Rather, I think of Te Kore, the realm of infinite potential which lies in Te Whare Tangata. I think of the ocean; Tagaloa as the genderless progenitor of life itself. I think of Papatūānuku and her painful separation from Ranginui in shifting us, her mokopuna, into Te Ao Mārama. These are the stories of whānau and whenua, of unfolding creative potential, of transformation in what James Baldwin describes as love at its revolutionary core. A “tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.For at the end of the day, it is the threads of whānau, whakapapa, and ultimately love which make us whole. The revolution is as intimately transformative as it is political.  

To be an indigenous solo mother in a colonial, capitalist world is to experience a crossroads of marginalisation; a compounding of patriarchy, colonisation, racism, and often poverty. The terminology of solo motherhood reflects the Western capitalist construct of the nuclear family, delegitimising expansive structures of whānau beyond colonial norms. But as such stories outline, the construction of solo motherhood illuminates the systemic struggles for some of our strongest yet most vulnerable people under colonisation. For my own mother’s experience – who was also the daughter of a migrant solo mother – these themes of structural isolation and punitive responses to grief and vulnerability resonate. The financial hardship of being a beneficiary in a decimated welfare system, for example, contributed to a growing sense of isolation as urbanised Māori and Pasifika. And our story has been significantly easier than countless other whānau across the motu, whose experiences of compounding hardship have only been met with horrific state violence. 

The western legal system in New Zealand is fundamentally carceral in responding to its own construction of worsening socio-economic inequality. Where neoliberalism is built upon the premise of non-interventionism with regards to corporate agency, enabling the mass accumulation of wealth for the capitalist class, the state takes a punitive hand against society’s most vulnerable, fuelling the cycle of intergenerational trauma and poverty. The ‘justice’ system is a space where such violence against the poor is obvious, intertwined with the history of colonisation, urbanisation and land alienation. Today Māori make up over half of our prison population. Wāhine Māori are the most imprisoned indigenous women per capita, 70% of whom are primary caregivers with many raising their pēpī behind bars. Around 75% are victims of violence and over half of women in prison have a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD. As Angela Davis writes in Are Prisons Obsolete? 

“The prison, therefore, functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.

Carceral violence, however, is not confined to prisons; it is ingrained within most state practices that respond to the complex issues of vulnerable communities – healthcare, education, and the welfare system. The Ministry of Vulnerable Children has come under intense scrutiny in recent years for the intergenerational damage it has caused to Māori in fragmenting whānau and uplifting babies from their mothers. The legal system as we know is fundamentally pitted against the interests of whānau, tamariki, and the community as a whole. 

From a Te Ao Māori framework, the antithesis of carceral violence is manaakitanga. While manaakitanga is often translated into reo Pākehā as hospitality or generosity, fundamentally it is about the affirmation, nurturing, and restoration of mana through collective spirit. Moving beyond carceral colonialism and its law of marginalisation, therefore, requires a reimagining of the system according to manaakitanga and a commitment to the eradication of poverty. To fully liberate ourselves from the intergenerational traumas of state violence, we need to abolish the current punitive responses to community trauma, reinstating transformational processes for whānau based upon whakamana, healing, and restoration. The possibilities for transformational change within a manaakitanga-centred political economy are endlessly hopeful. It means shifting toward community-centered justice models which uphold the restoration of mana for all those affected, breaking the cycles of hara through pathways of redemption. It means treating addiction as a hauora issue, placing aroha at the centre of our care for suffering whānau. It means supporting whānau to raise their tamariki in a thriving space of health, safety, connection, and strength in knowing their whakapapa – who they are and where they come from. It means reimagining our society through a revolutionary sense of love; nurturing the infinite potential that lies within us all.

  1. Conclusion

As generously shared by Karlo Mila, the Samoan Proverb O ‘le gase a ala lalavao’ speaks to how the paths in the bush are never obliterated, protected by the shade of high trees. Our ancestors watch over us as we journey through these eternal paths, returning to the source to begin anew. Transformation is that ancestral pathway – of restoration, redemption, and return. The restoration of indigenous self-determination and the mauri of our whenua as we launch into constitutional futures beyond settler colonialism. A return to Oceanic connections as we shift into economic futures beyond globalisation. Redemption which is only possible in embracing the revolutionary essence of aroha and manaakitanga beyond carceral violence. Thinking of an alternative existence draws us back to the intimate space of memory. We dream of how life could have been different for our loved ones who have suffered and endured under the current paradigm of violence. Nothing can ever truly rectify the wounds of unspeakable injustice under colonisation. But the endless poetry of whakapapa reminds us that our stories are constantly evolving, our ancestors watching over us always. Through abolition and a radical sense of imagination, we carry our ancestors and our mokopuna into liberated futures. Transformation is urgent and eternal. From the nothingness, to the darkness, to the glimmer of dawn, to the bright light of day. Forever unfolding into the beyond, there is life.