It’s been so heartening to see the swelling public imagination around Indigenous land rights this year, oxygenated from the beating heart at Ihumātao. Imagination has not yet led to the categorical return of land, but without SOUL’s imagination-stoking we’d be a lot further away from that outcome. I am currently writing an English thesis that critiques settler representations and explores possible anti-colonial modes of writing on and about education institutions that stand on colonised ground. I pay particular attention to the University of Auckland. Why this place? First off, this university provides an excellent case study in the sort of institutional legitimation that erases the provenance of the first people that cared for the land. Its official histories make no reference to the lives lived on this site for hundreds of years prior to colonisation. Second is the matter of proximity and propinquity. I am a teacher and a postgraduate student. If I care about place pedagogy and working locally to understand colonialism through textured stories of place then I need to start right here, where I am. I have been completing papers and programmes at this institution since 2009, but before now I have never substantially interrogated the grounds – both literal and figurative – on which this university is built and operates. That’s ten years now that I’ve been associated with this campus and the adjacent Albert Park. For me this has been a place of leisure, learning, stress, connection, awe, kinship, frustration, and sometimes fear (if only of the personal, I’m-being-stalked variety). Rarely has it been a place of productive unease and site-based past-present learning.
I don’t know what I thought was here before the University of Auckland. So mature the trees, so gaudy the neo-gothic clocktower, so stacked the layers of concrete that it simply seemed an inevitability: of course this is the home of the University. Only in my postgraduate years did I come to interrupt my ignorance of the locus of European military control and the inscription of power on this site. Governor George Grey made refugees of those living at papakāinga (including Ihumātao) from the control centre of the current-day University of Auckland. The Albert Barracks used the original home of mana whenua as home base for the settler militia and their campaign of land seizure in the Waikato. I’ve been lucky to have tauiwi lecturers in English that take the task of questioning this site seriously. I’ve been even luckier to have access to the thinking of mana wāhine writers such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Jacqs Carter, both of whom connect this site to a constellation of concerns and connections and care in their own hapū and beyond. I’ve been plagued with ethical concerns: why should I, a European person that still benefits from the structures of colonialism, think that I have any place in doing this kind of interrogation work? One of my first answers to this unanswerable question has been, perhaps, a maddening one: none of us truly ‘wins’ when it comes colonialism, so none of us can do nothing. Of course the current system creates winners and losers. I am not denying my material privileges and my ease of passage through colonial institutions, but I am denying the ‘sense’ of colonialism.
It makes no sense for me, you, us, or the earth to keep living this way with our settlement logics of extraction, hierarchy, competition, atomisation, and denial of ways of life that make the most sense for these rich lifeworlds. Having to think that we are ‘right’ in order to avoid letting in systems of sense-making and governance that we have categorised as ‘inferior’ is no success at all. Such is the unexamined life of the settler that cannot bear to address the legacies of violence for fear of losing their grip on a poisoned cup. This is not an argument for a sycophantic ‘lean in’ to pre-colonial Indigeneity (yet another extractive and othering ploy). Indigeneity is not reified but is – through resistance and love – thrumming and thriving and now. Mine is an argument for settlers to learn to live with intervals of difference, learning to be okay with not knowing, learning to give up what we have been programmed to believe in for the ‘success’ of making over a land that is not our own, in our own image. There’s not long now until the thesis is due. But I’m trying to walk my unsettling talk and treat it as the learning exercise that it is: deeply uncomfortable, filled with grief and shame, sedimented with layers. At some point it has to be handed in but I will never, ever be finished with this work of questioning the grounds on which we stand, teach, learn, move, and write. An end in its own right, but also a means: through this imaginative interrogation we can get closer to decolonisation – the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous hands, for the health of all.