Lessons from New Zealand: Interdependence, Race Relations and Coronavirus


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Image: Wikimedia)

Americans are already looking enviously at New Zealand’s success in taming the coronavirus pandemic and their dynamic young Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. And many of us have long been enamored of this Pacific rim-of-fire island nation, which is partnered with Seattle through our Sister City relationship with Christchurch. That city, by the way, also has a lot to teach us about surviving a catastrophic earthquake.

And there’s more. New Zealand has also charted a unique course in race relations with its indigenous Maori peoples. It is the only former colonial nation whose national holiday is not the celebration of its independence, but of the signing of the treaty between the colonial power and the native population. Waitangi Day (February 6) commemorates a Declaration of Interdependence. For the last several decades, New Zealand has worked to find a way to realize the promise of a treaty that laid out a framework for peaceful coexistence.

There is a history to overcome. Although the Treaty (signed in 1840) described a formal path to peace and harmony, the path has had many twists and turnings on the way, beginning with the difference in meaning between the English and Maori texts. The treaty provided that Maori iwi (usually translated as “tribes,” but it is more subtle than that in Maori) would continue to have “full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession.” 

Land could only be alienated through purchase by the government. In return, signatories (who had varying levels of authority) agreed to become British subjects. But the Maori version ceded “governance” to the British, whereas the English version surrendered “sovereignty.” In other words, the Maori signatories thought they were allowing the British to govern the settler communities, while they retained power over their lands, and there would be a partnership to govern the islands and resolve disputes. The British maintained that the Maoris were conceding the right to make decisions.

These differing interpretations and continued settler encroachment on Maori lands led to conflict. By the 1860s this became intermittent warfare, settled by military power, and setting the stage for a century of settler dominance. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Maori population had dwindled and there was widespread poverty and lack of resources, despite some continued Maori presence in government and other institutions.

Auckland, New Zealand

Between the 1920s and 1940s the government began slowly to recognize that it had failed its obligations under the Treaty. Some land compensation settlements were approved, and Maori economic conditions improved. But it was not until community organizing and major protests in the 1960s and ‘70s that a new course was fully shaped. There was both social and governmental recognition of the society’s failure to live up to the Waitangi agreements, and the Waitangi Tribunal was created to adjudicate claims and compensation agreements.

The last 40 years have not resolved all conflicts between pakeha (settlers) and Maori, nor have they brought about a utopian era. But there has been a full revolution in acknowledging the realities of an unjust historical record, and of committing to creating a more equal partnership in the future.

Maori and English are now both official languages. Political and societal leaders try to speak at least some Maori. Negotiations and settlements on reparations for stolen land are a key activity of the national government. Although the Maori population continues to have fewer economic assets, poorer health, and other socioeconomic issues associated with ethnic and cultural oppression, Maori culture is respected and taught in schools. Maori people participate fully in all aspects of New Zealand society.

We are in the midst of what is hopefully a radical reassessment of racism in American society. It feels like many white Americans are preparing to look beyond the real but limited progress of the last 50 years and consider a major reshaping of our social, economic, and political structures. If this means a new openness to acknowledging that much of America was built on the backs of slavery and on land taken unjustly from our indigenous peoples, that opens up the possibility of a new path.

We can see a glimpse of that in the acknowledgment of treaty rights in the Northwest that has evolved since the landmark Judge Boldt decision of 1974, which recognized that the treaties granted equal rights to the state government and tribal fishers. The Northwest treaties have language that is close to that in the Waitangi Treaty, and the new equality that has emerged since the Boldt decision has greatly enhanced the economic, social, and political health and power of Northwest tribes. As in ceremonies in New Zealand, it is becoming increasingly common for formal occasions in Northwest life to include noting that the land was historically that of the local indigenous peoples, and to pay tribute to those peoples and their heritage.

The indigenous people of the United States continue to face many challenges, but the flow of justice is moving in their favor around the country, and probably most clearly here in the Northwest. Could we expand that flow to include America’s Black population by understanding our history of oppression and denial and developing a new approach to social justice? 

Interestingly, the percentage of Black and Native American peoples in the US is pretty similar to that of the Maori in New Zealand. While our treaties are only with the indigenous peoples, the 13th through 15th Amendments to the United States include powerful language that can be a model for creating a more just relationship. 

We have made great progress in addressing the unjust taking of land from Native American populations (see most recently the decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma). But we have not tried to develop a process for rectifying the unjust appropriation of the labor of millions of African Americans. It is not too late to do so, and this is a teachable moment for America.

The destinies of Black and white Americans are intertwined. I hope (hat-tip to New Zealand) it is time for our own Declaration of Interdependence and a system for undertaking the painstaking task of making that a reality.

Richard Conlin
Richard Conlin
Richard Conlin is a Principal in the Conlin Columbia Partnership for Cities, which develops workforce housing in conjunction with community and cultural facilities, and is an Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington. He served four terms on the Seattle City Council and was elected by his colleagues to two terms as Council President.


  1. Interesting trend: emulating small countries such as Scandinavia and New Zealand. Seattle could use a dose of envy for smaller-scale democracy, rather than our lust for major league status. It’s encouraging that the Chamber of Commerce now measures our region’s progress against a series of trade-oriented but smaller cities such as Melbourne, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam. And we’ve always been, far away from the nation’s capitals, something of an “island” culture, though also too much of a California colonial extension.


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