Thursday, April 13, 2017

The problem with being 100% Māori.

Māori TV’s programme ‘Native Affairs’ recently ran a story which followed up on a story about ‘Māori identity’ they aired in 2016. A presenter who appears regularly on the programme undertook an DNA test, and in the story this week her results were released: she is 100% Māori! As soon as this news is announced by the white scientist, the presenter beams and raises her hands in the air triumphantly. She has won! She has overcome! Something in her saliva told a commercial geneticist something which she didn’t know about herself before! In a follow-up piece published by The Guardian, she describes her own daughter reading about the outcome of the test online and responding with similar glee: “My daughter... stormed my room this morning brimming with pride.”

The problem with race and blood

The story aired on Native Affairs opens with a series of clips about race, including Hitler addressing a large rally, and an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jnr’s famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech. In this way, the story is positioned as part of a global story of oppression on the basis of race. At one point in the story, this focus on race is localised as the presenter considers a series of anti-Māori claims in New Zealand which hinge on the idea that there are ‘no real Māori’ left anymore. The logic goes that if there are no Māori people then there is no reason for Māori rights of any kind, which on the face of it feels racist, and certainly it emerges from the same historical context as the kind of racism alluded to in the Hitler and King clips. And absolutely Māori people have been, and continue to be, subjected to racism in many forms.

However, the idea that ‘there are no real Māori people left’ is a specific kind of claim: the ‘elimination of the Native’ (as Patrick Wolfe put it) relies on a particular colonial anti-Indigenous logic. Once Indigenous people are removed, land and other resources become available. This removal has taken various forms over time. In all colonies, albeit to varying degrees, the removal of Indigenous people has taken place through violence: massacres, armed warfare, genocide, deliberate acts of starvation and disease, and so on.   In some places, most notably Australia, Indigenous people were legally assumed to not exist (and so the continent became British on the basis of terra nullius which means there was noone there before). In other places, Indigenous people have been physically removed (as in the major forced migrations undertaken in the US of many Indigenous nations in the nineteenth century, including what is now known as the Trail of Tears). And, in many settler colonies in which the pesky Indigenous folks refuse to be physically exterminated, claims about Indigenous disappearance morph into the cultural realm: ‘real Māori people’ shouldn’t speak English, occupy postions in the middle class, live away from the pā, etc etc etc.

But one of the other ways that Indigenous people have been removed has been through a very powerful story: a story in which the passing of the last Indigenous person is widely mourned or celebrated. These ‘lasts’ are found all over the map: Truganniny the ‘last’ Tasmanian, Tommy Solomon the ‘last’ Moriori, Ishi the ‘last’ of his tribe in California; often their bodies (living or not) have been displayed and paraded publicly. Focusing on ‘lasts’ is actually a good strategy if you are trying to acquire Indigenous land and resources. All you need to do is come up with a definition of ‘Indigenous’ which is ever-shrinking, and this is where blood quantum comes in. Each of the ‘lasts’ noted above were known for being the last ‘full-blood’ person of their community, an idea which suggests an Indigenous community only exists as long as there are individuals who are ‘purely’ (yep, 100%) Indigenous.

The idea that blood is able to be divided into fractions is only able to be understood as a metaphor. Countless people have reflected (some hilariously, some devastatingly) on the problem of imagining that blood can be drained from an individual and sorted into separate bottles by racial type. And yet, the idea that people can be half something and quarter something else is a powerful metaphor, and one which is used against (and in some cases by) Indigenous communities in many places. For years, New Zealand census data listed Māori people as full-blood, half-castes and quarter-castes. Wherever it is used, you can trace the blood quantum back to land and resources: in Hawai’i, for example, Hawaiian homestead land can only be inherited by people who have at least 50% Hawaiian ‘blood,’ a situation which has pretty bleak implications for individuals making decisions about family and partnerships. (See Kehaulani Kauanui’s book Hawaiian Blood for the backstory and analysis.) The idea that ‘blood’ can be sorted into fractions contains its own mathematical trap: as one of my students put it several years ago, ‘you can only lose Indigenous blood.’  Colonialism and claims of race and blood have played out in opposite ways for enslaved and Indigenous people: while the colonial project benefits from enslaved people of African descent to never ‘lose’ their blackness (because otherwise they would revert from property to humans), it simultaneously benefits from Indigenous people being incapable of retaining (or at least, being able to claim) indigeneity.

The story of blood quantum underpins constant bubble of questions in New Zealand about whether there are any ‘real’ Māori left, which in turn are underpinned by an assumption that there are not. This is a useful strategy for people who want to make contemporary anti-Māori claims, because it allows them to simultaneously acknowledge prior Indigenous presence while insisting on current Indigenous absence. (This duality, of course, both updates and draws on the ‘smoothing the pillow of the dying race’ colonial claims of the late nineteenth century.) It feels tempting to challenge the claim there are no ‘real’ Māori left by producing an example of a ‘real’ Māori. ‘See,’ some people on social media have agreed with the TV presenter, ‘there are some full-blooded Māori out there! So now those racist people can stop saying there aren’t any!’ But like attempts to ‘disprove’ stereotypes by proving their opposites (eg by producing a sober Māori person for someone who claims all Māori are drunks), this approach to colonialism fails to understand that the original colonial claim (eg that there are no ‘real’ Māori left) is not operating according to logic; rather than nodding the head and saying ‘aha! I see! There are real Māori people left after all!,’ the claim will keep shifting to enable a claim to be made about Indigenous absence. The way to challenge stereotyping, and the way to challenge claims of Indigenous absence, is not to disprove them by proving their opposites. Instead, it is only possible to challenge them by pulling them apart: by understanding their history, by understanding their deeper claims, and by refusing to engage with them as logical (and, thus, ‘disprovable’) arguments.

Saying “I am 100% Māori” reinforces, rather than undermines, a claim that there are no ‘real Māori’ left: it allows the logic underpinning a colonial argument about blood quantum and ‘purity’ to remain unchallenged. (And, irresponsibly, it implies something about Māori people who would not receive 100% certification from – triumphantly putting one’s hands in the air quietly suggests how less-than-100% Māori people should respond.)

The problem with genes and science

When I posted the story on my facebook newsfeed, someone I don’t know wrote a fairly lengthy reply which assumed I (and others commenting) had not actually watched the Native Affairs story or read the accompanying article. But, more concerningly, the person assumed that the ‘science’ peddled by commercial organisations like is beyond question. The percentages and their associated claims offered by the TV presenter and were repeated by this stranger as a kind of ‘truth’ about which I was having an inappropriate response. But what kind of ‘truth’ can a saliva test at tell?

There are (at least) two answers: one is that a wide range of experts have weighed in on the limitations of this kind of genetic testing; and another is that (a little like engaging with blood quantum) it is important to take a step back and ask a broader set of questions about the uses of western science against Indigenous people.

It is simply not possible for a single genetic test to make a set of claims about the DNA of a single individual: these tests either trace the mitochondrial DNA (mother’s mother’s mother etc) or the Y chromosome (which the TV presenter would not possess if she is genetically female. And so, any one test can only trace, and thus account for, a particular lineage. But, more broadly, the important thing about genetic testing for ‘ancestry’ is that there is no single genetic marker which is found in, and only in, each respective community. Instead, companies like compile all the results of all of the people who have done tests with them and line these up with the claims these people make about where they are from. This allows them to build up a series of genetic markers which they suspect is more likely to be found in a particular large grouping of people. The presenter is advised her DNA contains a certain percentage (98%/ 100%) of ‘Polynesian’ genes – there is no specific genetic marker for being Māori. There is nothing about the presenter’s genes which say ‘this person is Māori’ as much as there appear to be similarities between the DNA found in her saliva and the DNA foud in saliva contributed by other people who claim to be Polynesian. The idea of specific genetic percentages is itself as metaphoric as fractions of blood.

What does 98%, or 100%, actually mean? It is a scientifically impossible yet easily-extrapolated claim based on a set of claims about being based in science which is itself dubious (or, at best, extremely limited). Then why would it feel like ‘truth’ to the stranger who wrote on my facebook wall and, indeed to the presenter? Because we are constantly told a series of stories about science as a (neutral, unchallengeable, simple) arbiter of ‘truth’ – and the interesting thing is that genetic science is just the latest in a long, long history of science being used in order to reinforce colonial claims about Indigenous people. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists pulled out measuring tapes and metal instruments to record the dimensions of skulls, limbs and other body parts in order to produce a picture of humanity in which people could be sorted into racial types. It can be easy to blindly accept the ‘science-ness’ of genetic testing in the early 21st century even as we imagine we would never be fooled by truth claims about racial difference (and racial hierarchies) made by this kind of ethnographic science of a century ago.

We’ve seen this all before, of course: certain kinds of science being used in order to prove ‘once and for all’ truths about Indigenous people for which Indigenous people already have complex explanations. The history of human migration across the Pacific region, for example, has been carefully preserved by people across the region in oral traditions, songs, dance, material culture, technologies, and so on. For generations, Europeans have sought to ‘prove’ things about human migration across the region through various strategies which claimed to be the ‘final’ word on that migration because it was scientific. The most recent version of this has, of course, been genetic science: the tracing of history through DNA tests which gained some wider interest around a decade ago, such as through the popular 2006 documentary. The opening words of the documentary? “In New Zealand, we all come from somewhere else.” While Māori people have no problem discussing and celebrating our migration histories in most contexts, it seems striking that these opening words gently reinforce the idea that Māori have no special or particular relationship with New Zealand. The elimination of the Native indeed.

No, the point here is not that Māori don’t have ancestral connections across the Pacific region. The point is that we allow ‘science’ to make a set of claims about us that are presented as if there is a ‘truth’ that science has access to which our other accounts of who we are simply cannot grasp. A claim about Māori lineage accompanied by a mathematical expression like ‘98%’ feels more ‘true’ than other kinds of claims.

We also see it elsewhere: genetic science (and especially commercial enterprises like, although they are by no means the only players in this marketplace) being used in order to ‘prove’ or delegitimate all kinds of Indigenous claims of connection and heritage. Among others, the Indigenous Studies scholar Kim TallBear has written and spoken widely about this in the context of North America (especially in her book Native American DNA); she problematizes the science, but also the ways in which this ‘science’ is used in, as well as against, Indigenous communities in order to undermine (to trump, if you will) other claims of connection and belonging which have worked for millenia. She has also explicitly responded to claims made in ads for these genetic ancestry companies in which people ‘discover’ they have a certain percentage of what is described as Indigenous ancestry. Interestingly, there is a link between the anti-black racism alluded to by the footage of MLK at the beginning of the Native Affairs story: these genetic ancestry companies have also built up a large market among the African American community, providing ‘answers’ to questions about African origins which centuries of enslavement have rendered irretrievable. It seems has figured out all of our weak spots.

These comments about science and colonialism are not themselves anti-science. They are, instead, comments about the ways in which we should hold science to the same accountability we hold any other source of information, and we should not get all distracted by the truth claims made by people who spit out percentages despite their scientific method being widely critiqued. Responsible scientists working in the area of genetics would presumably clarify the limitations as well as possibilities of any claims they make.  

The problem with colonisation

So then, why would a TV presenter who publicly demonstrates her grounding and proficiency in Māori language and culture feel so triumphant about someone telling her (yes, on the basis of fuzzy science) she is 100% Māori? Why would she report on a global news site that her daughter is just as thrilled? What is it about all of the things she already knows about who she is (tribally, linguistically, culturally) that they feel insufficient when compared to the ‘truth’ offered by the man from How can a percentage derived from questionable commercial science be such a source of pleasure?  

Why would something posing as ‘journalism’ fail to draw on any analysis of the ways in which blood quantum has historically, and continues to be globally, used in order to undermine Indigenous people? Why would it fail so spectacularly to challenge rather than reinforce the colonial logics of blood quantum, even as it attempts to gesture to the problematic way that a story of ‘no real Māori anymore’ is used to challenge Māori people? And, why would a TV show which purports to centre ‘Native’ affairs, screened on a TV channel which purports to centre Māori perspectives, be prepared to provide free and uncritical advertising for a specific company?

The Kenyan writer and scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o has famously spoken about what he calls the ‘colonisation of the mind,’ and the ways in which decolonisation is not just a political or singular act but an emotional, psychological and ongoing process.

We already have our own ways of knowing who we are: they are connected to the transformative, complex and dynamic concept of whakapapa. I hope that one day we will feel more confident about making a set of claims about who we are – not just ‘factually’ - but according to our own logics.
Sadly, but surely obviously, you can’t have it both ways: you can’t claim to be undermining the damage done by claims about disappearing Natives while presenting yourself as Native #1. 

You can’t fight blood quantum with blood quantum. But you can fight it with whakapapa.  

Native Affairs