Language complaints in inter-school netball expose New Zealand’s settler colonialism

New Zealand does a good job of presenting itself as an inclusive, moral place grappling with the challenges of its past and confronting the consequences of being a colony of settlement. It is widely seen as better than most at incorporating its indigenous Māori into the modern state and as developing relations with indigenous peoples that put to shame the other major colonies of British settlement – the USA, Canada, South Africa and Australia. Although its people seldom talk of the ‘best race relations in the world’ as they confidently did in the 1950s and 1960s (with residual claims straggling into the 1970s), this belief continues to weave its way through the ways that many Pākehā (descendants of European settlers) see their country.

That’s not to say many Pākehā New Zealanders don’t see that there are issues. Māori, as is the case with indigenous peoples almost everywhere, continue with among the worst social indicators for health, employment, education, prison populations and most of the other standard markers of well-being. Since 1991 the state has been engaged in an active programme of atonement for and resolution of grievances arising out of breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by Māori and the British Crown in 1840. Despite widespread buy-in, this process remains controversial in both Māori and Pākehā worlds, and disputed by powerful elements of the country’s elite.

Yet in the world of sport Māori are seen as enjoying an equality that belies the colonial history of war and dispossession. The first sustained international tour of a New Zealand rugby team in 1888-89 was by a predominantly Māori team; the first captain of an official representative rugby team in 1893 was Māori. More recently, the pre- and often post-match haka by national teams in many sports is seen as a sign of national pride and prowess, of a bicultural nation displaying to the world the power, honour and dignity of its indigenous peoples as fully representative of the (edging towards post-)colonial state. Initially an act of men’s national rugby union team (even before they were the All Blacks), haka of various forms at sports matches have been adopted by both men’s and women’s teams across a wide range of sports since the early 1990s. This was a major turn-around; less than 10 years before, the All Black’s performance of Ka Mate as their haka of choice was seen by many Māori and others as dispirited as to be offensively derisory with leading Māori players in the early 1980s challenging the team to shape up or stop. Looking in from the outside, and no doubt for many looking from the inside, New Zealand seems to be better than most of the dynamics of settler colonialism.

A mid-June complaint about a high school sports match, as often happens in the ordinary world of popular culture, gave the lie to this narrative of progress: a small thing exposes a much bigger issue. On June 12, TV One news reported that Tauranga high school netball team was criticized for using Māori as their on-court language of communication . The school, Te Wharekura o Mauao, is a te reo Māori (Māori language) immersion school, where pupils conduct all their classes in Māori and are actively encouraged to use te reo as much as possible outside of school: as a school sports team it makes sense that the netballers would use te reo among themselvesWhat’s more, the school is part of the region around the city of Tauranga that has long been identified as having a significant Māori population and being an important issue as a site of local Māori cultural power. Te Wharekura o Mauao was not the only school team to be criticized: a report came two days later of a similar complaint made against Te Kura o Matapihi , a primary (elementary) school across town near Mt Maunganui. 

New Zealand does well internationally in netball (although its place in the rankings slipped in the mid-2010s they have picked up to become top four again) and it is the sport with the highest participation rates for women in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Debates in the game are widely followed, so news stories of this kind can have significant profile.

There is one level on which the complaints against the team are simply foolish: Māori is an official language of New Zealand and is widely taught in addition to the growing number of Māori immersion schools, so it is hard to see the grounds on which any complaint could be valid. Although not clear in much of the media coverage, the ground of complaint is almost certainly that there is an unfair advantage resulting from being bilingual. In the case of Te Kura o Matapihi the complaint was made because the other team claimed they “did not know what was being said”. In this, the schools’ response of ‘go out and learn’ is entirely correct. There are many guides to the netball basics available.

There is a more insidious issue here as well. It is becoming increasingly understood that the goal of settler colonialism is the replacement of indigenous peoples with settlers as ‘native’. We see this in the systematic cultural genocide waged against indigenous peoples, such as in the theft of generations of children in Australia, Canada and the USA to be made ‘white’ in schools or settler families: as was said of ‘Indian schools’ in the USA and Canada – “to kill the Indian to save the child”. We see the beatings inflicted on Māori pupils in the early to mid 20th century for speaking te reo in the playground. These actions across settler colonies can be directly linked to current rates of alienation, dispossession, poverty, dislocation, suicide and other causes of high death rates.

We also see it in sports, although the myths of sports apolitical character and notions of the ‘natural’ body conceal its role in cultural genocide. One of the most profound ways a people can be culturally annihilated is through the control of their bodies, and therefore definitions of what is seen as natural movements, actions and ways of being. That might be school marching drills, but it is more likely in the current context to be through sport and physical education and training where colonialism’s approved of ways of moving and being are inculcated. While we might celebrate indigenous flair and ingenuity in marking national sport styles, we cannot escape that these bodies move in ways prescribed implicitly and explicitly in the rules of the game. This disciplining and control is part of the formation of forms of physical culture and of movement cultures that presume and embody specific, limited, ways of moving and of being.

A growing body of scholarly work on sport in colonial contexts shows that indigenous peoples have taken up colonial sports and played the game, but that those sports are also often a place of cultural resistance. While settler communities might also appropriate aspects of indigenous movement culture to mark themselves as ‘native’ (think lacrosse or snowshoeing in Canada), indigenous communities will also imbue their playing of sports brought by colonisation with their own meaning defined in indigenous terms, often resisting and subverting colonisers’ goals and intentions. Increasingly scholars are looking at what these sports mean in addition to the more common question of what happens during their play.

Amid all of this, the demand that netball teams from kura kupapa Māori use English on the court reminds us that te reo and other markers of Māori are acceptable around sport – in, for instance, haka and the national anthem – but the use of te reo Māori in the game itself threatens sports’ role in making settlers into ‘natives’ at the expense of indigenous peoples. All this reveals, as Patrick Wolfe and others have argued, that settler colonialism was not an event, it is a continuing structure and process – seen here on the side lines of school sports events as much as a daily prison population, unemployment rates and state atonement for land and resource alienation.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and is currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport and Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.
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