Matariki reflects the value that we now place on Maori culture and traditions after 180 years of colonisation. –Claire Charters

A New Zealander of mixed ancestry

By Roger Childs

Claire Charters is a New Zealander who has done very well academically and politically. She is a law professor at the University of Auckland and has a Ph D from Cambridge, England. Her University profile states: Claire is from Ngati Whakaue, Tuwharetoa, Nga Puhi and Tainui. How does she know this? In reality, as her name and colouring suggests, she is of mixed ancestry, a mongrel like the rest of us Kiwis. 

Another one benefiting from some Maori blood

  • Her research is in Indigenous peoples’ rights in international and constitutional law, often with a comparative focus, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), tikanga Māori and the state legal system. 
  • She has also has expertise in the relationship between human rights and Indigenous peoples’ rights and on the legitimacy of Indigenous peoples’ rights under international law. 
  • Claire regularly speaks around the globe on International and constitutional law and Indigenous peoples and has had many visiting academic fellowships. 
  • Claire is a Royal Society Rutherford Discovery Fellow (2019 – 2024) investigating constitutional transformation to realise Māori aspirations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. 
  • Claire typically focuses her academic research and teaching with advocacy for the rights of Indigenous peoples at the domestic and international levels. 
  • She has been consulted on Cabinet appointments to scope and draft a national plan of action to realise the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). 
  • She has been a trustee on the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples (2014 – 2020). 
  • She has also worked as an advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly (2016 – 2017). 
  • From 2010-2013 Claire worked for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section, focusing on the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 
  • Claire co-directs the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre for Indigenous Peoples and the Law, a leading university centre in Aotearoa focused on research, advocacy and leadership in Indigenous peoples’ rights. 

You wonder how well she would have done nationally and internationally if she hadn’t been able to establish that she has a smidgen of Maori blood.

Perpetuating myths and misinformation

Claire Charters is clearly an intelligent, highly educated and talented woman, and consequently people who read her writings and articles would expect her to be honest, accurate and balanced. However in a recent Stuff article she exhibited a disregard for the truth and an acceptance of many historical myths. 

Her main qualifications are in law, so one wonders how much New Zealand history she has actually read. Her July article A mark of how far we have to travel should have been rejected by the editors on the basis of inaccuracy and unproven generalisations.

In the paragraphs that follow I quote from her article — indicated in italics — and comment on the veracity of her statements.… after 180 years of colonisation.

The early Polynesians who came from Hawaiki in the 13 century were themselves immigrants and colonists, and some Maori chiefs in the 19th century stated that these early migrants treated the original natives badly.  In her statement Charters clearly means colonisation of our country by British, European, American, Australian and other people.

However, the period of colonisation ended in 1908 when New Zealand ceased to be a British colony and became an independent Dominion within the British Empire.

Matariki is an expression of our tino rangitiratanga. But Charters has considerably less than half Maori blood, and as a New Zealander of mixed ancestry “our” is the wrong word. Rangitiratanga in 1840 meant “possession,” however, today it literally means rule by chiefs. But the Maori elites and the Waitangi Tribunal today translate it to mean the right of Maori to rule themselves. As a modern woman with a commitment to equality, rule by (male) chiefs should be unacceptable. 

Both Te Tiriti and He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni (English as the Declaration of Independence) express the right for Maori to rule ourselves in accordance with our law. A lot of inaccuracies here. Firstly note that New Zealand was known as Nu Tireni, not Aotearoa in both documents mentioned above. Again there is the use of “our” and “ourselves” but Charters is less than half Maori. There is no mention of the facts that James Busby wrote the Declaration and virtually all the chiefs who signed were from Northland. Part-Maori historian Paul Moon observes that the Declaration was the impulsive work by a minor official (Busby) with the misplaced view that the New Zealand chiefs would soon come to share some exalted ideals of government as he did.

Te Tiriti did not express the right for the natives (later known as Maori) to rule themselves. They were guaranteed possession (the meaning of rangitiratanga at the time) of their lands, dwellings and all their property (taonga). Furthermore the natives did not have their own legal system, just accepted practices – tikanga. (In the late 20th century Professor Hugh Kawharu conveniently changed the meanings of rangitiratanga, taonga and kawantanga.)

A Te Tiriti poltical partnership model is not just beneficial for Maori, as the frontline response from marae to our recent severe weather events illustrates. There was no mention of partnership in Te Tiriti. The valuable assistance of local iwi was just part of a wider community response from local authorities and community groups to the impact of devastating weather events.

However, ‘Aotearoa’ still refuses to repudiate the doctrine of discovery – the racist rule that permitted European powers to take land from “natives” because they didn’t qualify as humans.

Charters gets rather mixed up here with the experience of Australian Aborigines. Firstly the name of the country is New Zealand not Aotearoa. I don’t know anyone who thinks that the British were the first to discover New Zealand. Over the Tasman, Aborigines did not qualify as humans for over 150 years and were not counted in an Australian census until the 1960s. The taking over of land in Australia was based on the inaccurate concept of terra nullius – “land belonging to no-one”.  

The Native New Zealanders (later called Maori), however, were the beneficiaries of a very enlightened treaty which guaranteed them the rights of British citizens. Land was bought from them and the only land “taken” was because certain Maori tribes rebelled against the Crown and had some land confiscated. Most of this land was later returned or bought.… the Crown’s legal claim to sovereignty is at best confused. Before we can claim a nation founded on the rule of law, we must address the fundamental illegality of the state.

This is more nonsense unworthy of a New Zealand Professor. The Maori chiefs who signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi clearly conceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria and her heirs.  Article 1 stated: “The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and other Chiefs who have not joined the Confederation cede to the Queen of England forever the entire Sovereignty of their country.”  Nothing confusing about this crystal clear statement. Many of the rangitira reinforced the 1840 transfer of sovereignty at the 1860 Kohimarama Conference. So there is no issue about the legality of the state.Has Charters read the 1840 Treaty and details about the 1860 conference? (The best book on the latter is John Robinson’s The Kohimarama Conference 1860: Chiefs Support Christianity and the Queen)

Our Supreme Court now recognizes tikanga Maori as an independent legal system. The definition of tikanga according to the Te Aka Maori Dictionary is “correct procedure, custom, habit, lore, method, manner, rule, way, code, meaning, plan, practice, convention, protocol — the customary system of values and practices that have developed over time and are deeply embedded in the social context.” Note that the words “law” or “legal system” are not mentioned. It is difficult to know what aspects of tikanga the Supreme Court accepts. 

In traditional Maori society tikanga could mean seeking revenge, slaughtering, eating and enslaving enemy tribes.


The Charters article makes reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and, as mentioned above, the Professor has been active in researching and implementing it. Helen Clark in her time as Prime Minister did not sign up to UNDRIP as she argued it was inconsistent with the way New Zealand is governed. Her successor John Key had no such scruples. Desperate to keep the support of the Maori Party to stay in power, he allowed Minister of Maori Affairs, Pita Sharples, to secretly fly to  New York to sign New Zealand up to UNDRIP. There was no consultation with the public and one wonders if all his National MPs knew. Key argued that it was non-binding, but that is not Charters’ opinion or the view of the current Labour Government.

Some of the outcomes are He Puapaua and the increasing favourtism shown by government to people who can prove some Maori background.

A highly dishonest article

As I have outlined A mark of how far we have to travel is a mish-mash of dishonesty, exaggeration and misinformation. Charters has clearly not read Te Tiriti of 1840, or relevant works about New Zealand history. Is also interesting that Charters never mentions the word “equality” which is a key concept in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights:– Article 1 All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Sadly, many Stuff readers will have wrongly concluded that coming from a “distinguished” Professor, the article represents the truth about the state of our nation and what should happen in the future.