Monday, June 29, 2015

The Colonial Continuum: Archives, Access, and Power

This paper, which won the 2016 Michael Standish Prize for best archival essay, comes from Archifacts: Journal of the Archives and Records Association of New Zealand, April 2015. Many thanks to Julie Black, Kim McBreen and Hinerangi Himiona for their input and support. You can download a PDF version at here.

Abstract: As Ann Laura Stoler notes, “what constitutes the archive, what form it takes, and what systems of classification and epistemology signal at specific times are (and reflect) critical features of colonial politics and state power.” These forms and systems determine what records are discovered, how they are accessed, and the experience of the user.

Drawing on work with Māori/iwi/hapū groups, this paper addresses settler colonialism and its continuing impact on records creation, archival access, and knowledge production. It argues that archivists should address the way our institutions are organized (both spatially and structurally), and our obligations under te Tiriti o Waitangi. 

The use of public records is at the heart of my job as an archivist. I view myself as a facilitator of cultural production, someone who aids the accessing of stories in order to weave new narratives (including counter-narratives). But this image of myself is constantly challenged in my day-to-day practice. As an archivist working with government records, my relationship with the user is immediately complex: I become the personification of the state.i As a Pākehā archivist working with government records that document settler colonialism in its many forms—dispossession, theft, cultural suppression, sexism, murder—I become something more specific. Whether I like it or not, in my role and in relation to Māori researchers, I embody settler colonialism.

I am challenged by this idea, and feel uncomfortable that I may be seen as a gatekeeper to stolen knowledge—literally the person between the researcher and their tūpuna. Both the physical space of institutions, and the process of accessing records, does little to damper the perception that I serve the government of past and present. In the words of Sue McKemmish, “the very form of the archive provides evidence of the power relationships and social values of the society that produced it, including the prevailing evidentiary paradigm.”ii

If we are to shake off what colonial dust we can within current social and economic limitations, then questions relating to settler colonialism, records creation, archival access, and knowledge production need to be addressed. While I touch on these topics below, and highlight possible organizational models based on tikanga Māori and te Tiriti o Waitangi, my polemic does not pretend to cover them in any detail. Rather, it forms part of a wider constitutional discussion taking place outside of the archive—one I think archivists could and should be participating in.

Settler colonialism 

Settler colonialism is “a process in which colons emigrate(d) with the express purposes of territorial occupation and the formation of a new community.”iii Rather than just the extraction of labour or resources (although this is still a feature), these new communities settle on land already occupied by indigenous peoples. Through various means, some more insidious than others, land and sovereignty was (and is) taken from these peoples for the benefit of settler communities.iv As Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini note, “settler colonialism is a global and transnational phenomenon, and as much a thing of the past as a thing of the present.” There is no such thing as post-colonialism, they argue, because settler colonialism—and the white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism that drives it—“is a resilient formation that rarely ends.”v

The effects of settler colonialism on indigenous peoples have been felt in every aspect of their spiritual and material lives. In her excellent paper on the tapu of taonga, Kim Mcbreen notes how colonialism attempts “to destroy the structures of Māori society including mātauranga Māori, and the tikanga based on it.”vi Not only does it impose “western authority over indigenous lands, indigenous modes of production and indigenous law and government, but the imposition of western authority over all aspects of indigenous knowledge’s, languages and cultures.”vii As Waziyatawin, a Minnesota professor and activist, writes:

Colonialism is the massive fog that has clouded our imaginations regarding who we could be, excised our memories of who we once were, and numbed our understanding of our current existence. Colonialism is the force that disallows us from recognizing its confines while at the same time limiting our vision of possibilities. Colonialism is the farce that compels us to feel gratitude for small concessions while our fundamental freedoms are denied. Colonialism has set the parameters of our imaginations to constrain our vision of what is possible.viii

Because of this, indigenous peoples have struggled in various ways against settler colonialism. For some this entails a radical social shift, one that dismantles the entire colonial system, decentralizes power, and reestablishes the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. Without this, any repatriation of land or principles of partnership fall short of meaningful change. Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) argues forcibly that “accommodation of cultural differences, and even transfers of land, can be accepted by the state so long as the power relationship remains intact and the capitalist system animating it remains unquestioned... accepting these offers of recognition has only meant the continued dispossession of our homelands."ix

The colonial continuum and issues of access

This is not the place to assess the Aotearoa experience with regard to decolonization or tino rangatiratanga. But with the ongoing settlement of claims relating to te Tiriti o Waitangi, more and more iwi and hapū are visiting archives for cultural redress. With this comes the very real issue of access. Writing of her work with an indigenous community in northern Australia, activist and intellectual property scholar Jane Anderson posits this challenge:

Imagine that members of the community have grown tired of having to travel for several days in order to see any documentation about the community. They have grown tired of people turning up with documents and information that they didn’t know existed. They have grown tired of being told their own history by non- indigenous people with greater access to archives in metropolitan centres. They have grown frustrated at not being able to control the circulation of the knowledge held within documents that they have not been given time to assess; that they do not own.x

My cultural biases may cloud my experience of iwi visits, but a recent example is telling. On the surface there is excitement at the prospect of accessing their stories as viewed and documented by the state. It is acknowledged that the collection is important, sacred, and one that must be cared for. But the colonial context and history that led to the creation of the records is always present. “The colonial collecting endeavor was not innocent,” argues Anderson. “It had intent, it had effects and it has remaining consequences.”xi For example, when showing a deed of purchase for a large tract of land to one researcher, I could feel the anger and emotion the record stirred. And there is every right to be angry—both at the undoing of indigenous sovereignty, and the fact that to access an account of that undoing has to be through a Pākehā intermediary, through a Pākehā finding aid and system of organization, and inside a Pākehā institution.

We cannot change the past; nor should we abandon core archival principles that help illuminate it. But as Ann Laura Stoler notes, “what constitutes the archive, what form it takes, and what systems of classification and epistemology signal at specific times are (and reflect) critical features of colonial politics and state power.”xii This relates as much to current practice as it does to the past.

The issue of colonial power manifests itself in other ways. Research shows that monocultural spaces such as government buildings can act as a barrier to access. A survey conducted by Auckland Libraries found that nearly a third of Māori participants reported feelings of discomfort, while my own research into non-users found that participants interviewed felt some form of institutional anxiety.xiii Such anxiety will always likely to be present for Māori until they see their culture reflected in public institutions; until information systems and spaces are truly “based on the philosophies or belief systems of iwi.”xiv Yet according to Luqman Hayes’ 2012 study, there was “scant evidence that kaupapa Māori, mātauranga Māori and Te Ao Māori form part of a formalized bicultural strategy within small and medium (that is, level two and three) public libraries in New Zealand.”xv That libraries are still ahead of archives in this area is revealing.

Records creation and the ownership of knowledge
The question of access leads on to records creation and the ownership of knowledge, especially indigenous knowledge. Anderson writes of colonial law being the “archon of the archive.” It governs the collection and ensures indigenous peoples, as the ‘subjects’ of records, are “not recognized as having legal rights as ‘authors’, ‘artists’ or ‘owners’. Simply, and literally, they did not ‘make’ the record.”xvi This paradigm of colonial control has “ongoing legacies in archives where indigenous people still have to mount arguments for why they also have rights to access, to copy and to control material that documents and records their lives and cultures in intimate detail.”xvii

Some may argue that according to the Public Records Act the records are ‘theirs’, in that the collection exists as a cultural memory accessible to anyone. They are, after all, public records. But this says nothing of power dynamics and the many barriers to access, let alone non-western understandings of knowledge and ownership. As one participant in my research argued, western paradigms, coupled with socio-economic factors, would prevent many like him from accessing archives. “There are all sorts of ways that people are disenfranchised from accessing information,” he said, “whether that’s various kinds of literacy i.e. the most basic literacy, or literacy on the level of being able to filter and understand the particular languages that are used by officialdom.” There was also the “emotional reality of being disenfranchised—what’s your motivation to access information and know about the particulars of your disenfranchisement if you don’t have hope for things being different?”xviii

To paraphrase Anderson and Stoler, the colonial continuum reveals and reproduces the power of the state. At its most basic level, it determines what records are discovered and accessed. For example, the iwi researcher could not understand why the deed, which contained many names of family signatories and sites of immense importance, were not listed in the finding aid. Why, he could have asked, was a detailed series description on the government agency that created the record available, but nothing existed on the other party? Were not the Māori signatories equal creators of the record, equal predecessor agencies? Where was the metadata that he could search, that he could relate to? Adding intuitive metadata for Māori to existing records is just one small way of unsettling such power. An EDRMS based on mātauranga Māori would be another way to future-proof intuitive access.

Tikanga Māori and te Tiriti o Waitangi 
If we are to remain custodians of documented interaction with tangata whenua, then we have a responsibility to continue changes in the archival profession. The way our institutions are organized (both spatially and structurally), and the way we approach knowledge production, need to be governed with those whose land our archives possess. In doing so we acknowledge that Māori, in signing te Tiriti o Waitangi (and not the English ‘version’) never ceded their sovereignty. In doing so we acknowledge that tikanga was the first law of Aotearoa, and that it has a place outside of policy documents or powhiri.

According to Moana Jackson, “tikanga has been diminished and constrained by the labels of colonization... tikanga has been transformed from its expanding site of freedom and political sovereignty into a subordinate place of ceremony.”xix Ani Mikaere writes how this elaborate system of balance and regulation “was ensured through the exercise of rangatiratanga, which was ‘a total political authority’. Importantly,” she notes, “both the Declaration of Independence and te Tiriti o Waitangi that followed it reaffirmed that authority.”xx If we are to acknowledge te Tiriti as understood and documented in te reo Māori, then tikanga Māori and its political framework cannot be divorced from it.

This is not a matter of ‘special treatment’. Nor is it the imposition of the past actions of others onto future generations. It is the recognition that unlike Pakeha or other cultural groups that make up Aotearoa, “Māori are tangata whenua—Māori culture, history and language have no other home.”xxi Sven Lindqvist in Terra Nullius reminds us that as beneficiaries of settler colonialism, Pākehā have no right to disown the dirtier aspects of our past: “I’d had my share of the booty, so I had to take my share of the responsibility, too.”xxii

With this responsibility comes a unique opportunity—one that could inform others the world over. Recent debates around constitutional reform show us that sincere, Tiriti-based models of governance and organization are available. A long-standing example is the Raukawa-Mihinare Model. This decision-making structure consists of three houses:

Tikanga Māori House: where the Māori partners plan and prepare their proposals
Tikanga Pākehā House: where the Pākehā partners plan and prepare their submissions
Two-Tikanga (or Tiriti o Waitangi) House: where a council of representatives of the two tikanga houses consider individual and joint proposals against a set of criteriaxxiii

According to this structure, all proposals are tested against te Tiriti o Waitangi, and decision making within both the Māori and the Two-Tikanga house is by consensus.xxiv

One organization that has formally adopted and adapted this framework is the NZ Playcentre Federation. It is also governed at a national level by the Raukawa-Mihinare model. Decisions made by Te Whare Tikanga Māori and Tangata Tiriti House are brought together and then celebrated in Te Wa o Rongo, The Treaty of Waitangi House. In the words of Rachelle Hautapu, “we have said yes to the opportunity to show Aotearoa New Zealand what a Tiriti based partnership can look like, to demonstrate how we can preserve the mana of both Māori and Pākehā in ways that are authentic and meaningful.”xxv

This model had already been extended to the GLAM sector. Whatarangi Winiata from Te Wānanga o Raukawa talks of the relationship between a Māori worldview and the organization of their library, and the development of a kaupapa-tikanga framework.xxvi Winiata gives examples of how this works in practice:

Other examples exist, such as that used by The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (which has their own tikanga house model). The Independent Iwi Constitutional Working Group, convened by Professor Margaret Mutu and chaired by Moana Jackson, has also been developing a constitutional model based on tikanga Māori, He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tireni (1835), and te Tiriti o Waitangi. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is core to their work.xxvii

In conclusion, there are past and present examples of how our institutions could be organised differently, as well as future opportunities not yet developed. A wider conversation is needed to see how an archival model could be implemented; one that is beyond the scope of this short text. Nonetheless, I want to end by echoing the words of Ani Mikaere: the recognition of tikanga Māori as the first law of Aotearoa need not be a cause for alarm. As Pākehā, confronting our past and our colonialism “might prove liberating.”xxviii Acknowledging tikanga Māori and the overriding authority of tino rangatiratanga that was reaffirmed in 1840 allows us to create a meaningful Tiriti relationship, one that carries the seeds of a fruitful future.xxix While extra metadata and the recognition of tikanga in the archive falls short of decolonization, it goes some way to address the promises made by the Crown. By honoring such promises, we honor the importance of our collection, our collective past, and our future users.

i. Given that the state is an abstract way of defining social relationships between people, it’s not technically correct for me to say that I personify it. More fitting would be that my relationship with the user becomes ‘statist’, but I didn’t want to bore with ultra-left semantics in the first paragraph.
ii. Sue McKemmish, ‘Traces: Document, record, archives, archives’ in Sue McKemmish, Michael Piggott, Barbara Reed & Frank Upward (eds.), Archives: Recordkeeping in Society, New South Wales: Centre for Information Studies, 2005, p.18.
iii. Ashley Wiersma, ‘What is settler colonialism?’, available online at
iv. It is important to note that settler communities are not homogenous—divisions of class, gender etc ensures certain parts of the community benefit more than others. However, the fundamental fact that all settlers benefit from colonialism remains.
v. Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini, as cited by Wiersma, ‘What is settler colonialism?’
vi. Kim Mcbreen, ‘The tapu of toanga and wāhine in a colonized land’, available online at
vii. Linda Smith, as cited by Mcbreen, ‘The tapu of toanga and wāhine in a colonized land’
viii. Waziyatawin, ‘Colonialism on the Ground’ in Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality, Minnesota: Unsettling Minnesota, 2009, p.192.
ix. Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene), as cited by Daniel Tseghay, available online at
x. Jane Anderson, ‘(Colonial) Archives and (Copyright) Law’, available online at and-copyright-law/
xi. Ibid.
xii. Ann Laura Stoler, ‘Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance’, Archival Science, 2007, p.87.
xiii. Luqman Hayes, ‘Kaupapa Māori In New Zealand Public Libraries,’ New Zealand Library and Information Management Journal 53 (December 2013). Available online at m%C4%81ori-newzealand-public-libraries; Jared Davidson, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Non-user Understandings of Archives in Aotearoa New Zealand’, Masters Research Essay, February 2014, available online at

xiv. Hayes, ‘Kaupapa Māori in New Zealand Public Libraries, p.87.
xv. Ibid.
xvi. Anderson, ‘(Colonial) Archives and (Copyright) Law’.
xvii. Anderson, ‘(Colonial) Archives and (Copyright) Law’.
xviii. Davidson, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind?, p.22.
xix. Moana Jackson, as cited by Ani Mikaere, ‘The Treaty of Waitangi and Recognition of Tikanga Māori’ in Michael Belgrave, Merata Kawharu, & David Vernon Williams (eds.), Waitangi Revisited: Perspectives on the Treaty of Waitangi, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.330.
xx. Ibid., p.332.
xxi. Constitutional Advisory Panel, New Zealand’s Constitution: A Report on a Conversation, November 2013, p.33.
xxii. Sven Lindqvist, Terra Nullius: A Journey through No One’s Land, London: Grata Books, 2007, p.12.
xxiii. Whatarangi Winiata, ‘Raukawa-Mihinare Constitutional Model - Our People, Our Future, Our Way’. Presentation at Our People, Our Future, Our Way, Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Ōtaki, 18 November 2013.
xxiv. Ibid.
xxv. Rachelle Hautapu, ‘A Perspective on the New Federation Structure’, Playcentre Journal 142, 2011, p.27.
xxvi. Whatarangi Winiata, ‘Our knowledge, our future: Puna maumahara & the mātauranga continuum’. Presentation at Sixth International Indigenous Librarians' Forum , Ōtaki, 1-4 February, 2009.
xxvii. Independent Iwi Constitutional Working Group,
xxviii. Mikaere, ‘The Treaty of Waitangi and Recognition of Tikanga Māori’, p.345.
xxix. Ibid.

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