Claiming Indigenous Rights to Culture, Flora, and Fauna: A Contemporary Case from New Zealand



Maori individuals and groups in New Zealand have been active for many years claiming rights to property and resources guaranteed to them by the Treaty of Waitangi 1840. An important contemporary case, Wai 262, extends the scope of these claims to include ownership of Maori culture and its products. The tendency in this claim to reify culture, and to assert indigenous ownership of it, is common. However, New Zealand's approach to the issue of cultural rights is unique. The state has established a quasi-judicial forum, the Waitangi Tribunal, to hear claims about violations of Maori Treaty rights. In this particular instance the Treaty - Tribunal framework has shaped indigenous claims in ways that paint the claimants into a corner. Their position at the hearings’ closings comes into conflict with the kind of liberal democratic values that provide Maori iwi (tribes) opportunities to make their case. It is therefore unlikely that Wai 262 will afford a solution to the problems of cultural appropriation and marginalization that exist in contemporary New Zealand. As such, this long-running case leaves the claimants, and those sympathetic to their plight, with some unfinished business. It also provides an important new window into the contradictions facing indigenous peoples who seek redress through law.