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Ahi Kä: Homefires Burning

Published in: Debatable Lands, Vol .II, Iain Biggs, Ed. Bristol, England, Wild Conversations Press, 2009.


In the contested land courts after European settlement in New Zealand, the basic philosophical differences between Päkehä (whites, settlers of European descent) and Mäori tradition could not be more opposed. Mäori not only recognise wairua (spirits) as innate within the land, but they also trace their descent from tipuna (ancestors), who may or may not form spirits when they pass on. In this way, kinship with the land can be expressed in double spiritual links, in a real but intangible connectedness with the land. They believe that they are part of it; they do not 'own' it as such nor do they really believe in the concept of ownership although they do have a strong sense of guardianship. White settlers exploited this hesitancy arising from a differing belief, claiming ownership themselves and appropriating land for the Crown (and through that eventually to individuals). Much of Mäori land was declared as 'waste land' because it was not visibly occupied. Although there were Royal instructions for the taking of these wastelands, the instructions were never carried out legally. Great tracts of land were confiscated, however, in the North island especially, and obtained by sale through deeds to the Crown in the South island. 

After the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, in order to prove what the Europeans could sanction as ‘ownership by custom or long-term occupation’, Mäori were forced to prove that they actually occupied land. They did this by demonstrating homefires burning, as well as by hunting birds, by crops, by trapping and fishing, etc. Ahi kä (the homefires) as a focal point for contested rights to the land came to be both metaphorical but physical as well. These are the subject of the text, the soundtape of Mäori voices, and the fires in the imagery. Fire is presence. It says, 'I am here.'

This debate over land continues to this very day; in one sense, it is Mäori versus Päkehä, indigenous displaced peoples seeking to assert their rightful claims in the judicial systems of incomers. In a few cases it is Mäori pitted against Mäori, trying to untangle inheritance, family and entitlement; this has been complicated as written records have followed on in comparatively recent times from a predominantly oral tradition. In another, it is the resonance of voices heard the world over by indigenous nations whose philosophies, values and customs have been neither respected nor upheld, in conflict with other claims, other philosophies and rights...

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