Indigenous Pākehā?

I wrote this in late 2010 for Sociology 417: Comparing Ethnic Relations in Settler Societies at Victoria University of Wellington.

May be interesting to those of us who are Pākehā and have often wondered whether we really belong in Aotearoa.  I certainly found it interesting to research, due to what it says about my own identity.  Critiquing your lecturer is always fun too – though he actually comes off pretty easily compared to his friends.

Watch out for the sneaky mention of my flatmate Chris in a footnote.

Indigenous Pākehā?
How plausible and beneficial is the notion that ‘Pākehā’ is indigenous to Aotearoa-New Zealand?

Amongst settler societies, a rather unusual feature of Aotearoa-New Zealand is the tendency of members of the settler-descendent ethnic majority to refer to themselves with a term taken from a minority indigenous language (Spoonley 2005: 102).  This use of ‘Pākehā’ as a self-identifier for fair-skinned New Zealanders is a relatively recent development (Pearson & Sissons 1997: 64), with Michael King’s bestselling ‘ethnic autobiography’ Being Pakeha (1985) the first landmark text on the topic.  As at 1996, ‘Pākehā’ is only claimed by a minority of “potential Pakeha” (Pearson & Sissons 1997: 65-66), but the term is widely known, elicits strong reactions in wildly varied directions, and was even briefly included as an ethnic option in the 1996 census (Spoonley 2005: 102).  As the subtitle of King’s book suggests[1], Pākehā self-identification has largely come about as a response to the ‘Māori renaissance’ of the 1970s and 1980s, and increasingly vocal assertions of Māori sovereignty (Spoonley 1991b).  However, it can also be seen as a result of changing political relations and demographics, whereby Aotearoa-New Zealand and its ‘European’ people are increasingly separated from Britain (Pearson 1989: 68-69).  This prompts a desire for a New Zealand term to help create a New Zealand identity (Spoonley 1991a: 154-155).

One strand of this growing ‘Pākehā’ discourse has seen some self-proclaimed Pākehā positing a ‘Pākehā ethnicity’[2], and some, notably Michael King himself, have even referred to Pākehā as a second indigenous culture or people[3].  So how much credence should we give this bold claim, and how helpful is it to use this language?  Essentially our task is to examine what ‘Pākehā’ is, what ‘indigenous’ is, and the extent to which they match up.

Defining Pākehā

Avril Bell notes that Pākehā is a difficult term to define positively; attempts to do so often end up saying more about what Pākehā isn’t than what it is (Bell 2004a: 51-52).  In the original Māori usage, Pākehā simply meant ‘white person’ (Motus 1986: 19).  It probably derived from pakepakehā – mythical fair-skinned beings – but was being applied to European people by 1814 in the Bay of Islands, and was common across many iwi by the 1830s[4] (King 2004: 168-169).  In contemporary Māori usage, Pākehā continues to be used for any ‘white’ people, not just New Zealanders (Mulgan 1989: 19, Bedggood 1997: 84).  Contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that Pākehā is or was an inherently derogatory term in Māori (Pearson & Sissons 1997: 69); however, it is primarily a racial definition which does not necessitate national or cultural considerations.

The term is used rather more narrowly in Aotearoa-New Zealand English, and particularly in the academic literature promoting the term since the 1980s.  While definitions are by no means clear-cut (Pearson 1989: 62-63), a rough consensus seems to be developing around Paul Spoonley’s definition of Pākehā as “New Zealanders of a European background whose cultural values and behaviour have been primarily formed from the experiences of being a member of the dominant group of New Zealand” (Spoonley 1988: 63-64).  The main difference here from Māori usage is that it restricts Pākehā to New Zealanders only; “[i]t involves a nationalist as well as an ethnic claim” (Bell 1996: 147-148)[5].  Indeed, this nationalist claim is arguably the more important one for Pākehā New Zealanders, many of whom reject ethnic labels altogether in favour of simply being ‘New Zealanders’ (Bell 1996: 145).  Even those who accept Pākehā classification do so as an attempt to “derive their identity primarily from their New Zealand location and experience” (King 1991: 7).  This means that, although Pākehā self-identification is “tinged with self congratulation” for embracing an indigenous term that constructs itself as “the Other to Māori’s normality”, Pākehā have “in a sense … colonised the term” for use as a nationalist signifier (Bedggood 1997: 84, Bell 1996: 154).

This self-congratulation corresponds to Spoonley and King’s idea that self-identifying as Pākehā is an inherently political claim that “implies a set of political views and social obligations … namely those associated with biculturalism” (Spoonley 1991b: 162).  Spoonley even goes so far as to assert that “Pakeha identity is typically associated with other political identities at the liberal/radical end of the political spectrum” (1995a: 105).  David Pearson and Jeff Sissons surveyed ‘potential Pākehā’ in 1996 in order to examine this supposition that Pākehā self-identity indicates membership in a progressive ‘intellectual vanguard’ (1997: 64).  Sure enough, they found a link between Pākehā self-naming and support for bi-culturalism, but a “surprisingly weak” one (1997: 79); strong enough for Paul Spoonley to take it as tenuous confirmation of his view (Fleras & Spoonley 1999: 85,98-99), but weak enough that Janet Bedggood cites it to downplay the assumption (1997: 83)[6].

Apart from a political statement as Spoonley uses it, can Pākehā be considered an ethnicity?  Hal Levine provides a “simple and minimalistic definition” of ethnicity as “that method of classifying people … that uses origin … as its primary reference” (Levine 1999: 168).  This causes immediate problems for Pākehā ethnicity, which is often based on downplaying or eschewing origin in favour of the primacy of current location; ironically in stark contrast to Māori notions of identity (Pearson 1989: 69).  Pākehā, particularly those who are well-versed in New Zealand history such as King (2004), tend to find less to brag about in their origins than Māori.

Other, more complex, definitions consider origin only part of ethnicity.  Both Pearson and Spoonley consult Anthony Smith’s criteria for an ethnic community; a collective name, myth of descent, history, distinctive culture, association with a specific territory, and sense of solidarity (Pearson 1989: 61-62, Spoonley 1991b: 155-156).  The descent, history and territory are reasonably unproblematic, but the other three run into problems.  We will discuss culture in due course; Bedggood focuses on the lack of a common name and sense of solidarity (1997: 83).  Well before Pearson and Sissons’ research confirmed it, Spoonley was aware that the majority of white New Zealanders do not accept the ‘Pākehā’ name, and worried whether this opposition would “rule out the possibility” of a Pākehā ethnic group (1991b: 159).  Pearson points out that universal acceptance of the name is not necessary if it is being used as an ethnic categorisation, so long as the categoriser is happy to assign it collectively to them (Pearson 1989: 66).

So what of a sense of solidarity?  Pearson and Spoonley identify that this is the criterion which separates an ethnic group from an ethnic community (Spoonley 1991b: 156).  The bi-cultural sentiments that Spoonley associates with Pākehā self-naming are vital to his proposal of Pākehā ethnicity, and not just as his primary explanation for why some Pākehā embrace the term and others spurn it (Spoonley 1988: 64)[7].  He also advances this commitment to bi-culturalism as the sense of solidarity necessary to qualify Pākehā as an ethnic community (Spoonley 1991b: 159).  However, as Bedggood points out, according to political polls, consensus opinion amongst Pākehā is, if anything, in opposition to Māori claims and bi-culturalism (1997: 84).  Pearson and Sissons’ research backs this up; showing that the majority of Pākehā, even those who choose the Māori term for themselves, are “distinctly unsupportive of biculturalism and tino rangatiratanga” (Pearson & Sissons 1997: 79).  This would seem to indicate that a solidarity around bi-culturalism is a long way off, despite observable movement in that direction by the likes of church groups; Bedggood asserts that “[t]o claim ethnicity for this process is self indulgent and misleading” (1997: 88).

Only if ‘Pākehā’ is taken to be a much smaller group can there be said to be a “clear sense of solidarity … expressed as a commitment to power sharing in a bicultural Aotearoa” (Spoonley 1991b: 159).  A major limitation of Spoonley’s description of Pākehā identity is that it lacks the language to clearly separate this ‘intellectual vanguard’ from the larger, dominant group of ‘potential Pākehā’[8] who certainly do not share this commitment (1991b: 167).  He assigns both groups the name Pākehā at various points throughout his many writings on the topic, leading to a rather schizophrenic definition of the concept.  At one point he is even “in the disturbing position of seeing Pakeha as being the dominant ethnic group, restricted to a particular (probably minority) group [and] not an ethnic group, in the same chapter” (Bedggood 1997: 86).  He insists upon describing a dominant bi-cultural Pākehā identity that simply does not match up to present realities.  Bedggood observes that “[h]is project … to convert people to biculturalism … is underpinned by the recognition that people are not already bicultural.  Yet he continually asserts a Pakeha ethnicity, premised on biculturalism” (1997: 87).

David Pearson provides what Bedggood deems a “more sophisticated argument” – certainly a clearer one – of “incipient ethnicity” (Bedggood 1997: 83).  He has “no difficulty in using the term ‘Pakeha’ as a category”[9], but “there are problems in assessing [sic] Pakeha a group status, and they are most assuredly not a community” (Pearson 1989: 70).  However, a community may be “in the making” (1989: 64).  Spoonley, attempting to resolve his inconsistency through narrative rather than definitions, follows a similar line of reasoning and proposes that Pākehā is undergoing what Michael Banton has dubbed “ethnogenesis”; the development of a new ethnic identity (1991b: 155).  Later, he adopts Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar’s theory of ‘fictive ethnicity’, proposing that Pākehā identity in its current form represents “the initial stages of establishing the fictive ethnicity of the dominant group”, of which “self-critical” political engagement is “perhaps the most significant element” (1995b: 54-55).  This does not escape the attention of fellow Marxist Janet Bedggood, who points out that by portraying ‘fictive identity’ positively, Spoonley is missing Balibar’s point, which aims to “discredit a negative, neo-racist fictive ethnicity synonymous with national identity” (Bedggood 1997: 86-87).  Fictive ethnicity for Balibar is not a benign way for a dominant identity to “move beyond … a ‘mode of oppression’” (Spoonley 1995a: 110); quite the reverse.  It functions hegemonically to naturalise and universalise the ideology of the dominant classes[10].

Perhaps, therefore, Pākehā is “not ethnicity but hegemony”; an ideology of dominance, and a people united by a historic goal of colonising these lands and a present concern to maintain the status quo of “writing-dominated, private decision-making, hierarchical procedures” (Nairn 1986: 17-18).  This certainly problematises the notion of Pākehā as a ‘distinct shared culture’, another of Smith’s criteria for ethnic community.  Pearson finds himself “a little dismissive of intellectual attempts … to discover the Holy Grail of Pakeha uniqueness”, partly due to the reluctance of such attempts to acknowledge that “Pakeha ethnicity as a social form is a culture of dominance” (1989: 66).  Moreover, such cultures of dominance are nothing special around the world; Pākehā culture is “just another colonial Anglo-Celtic offshoot” (Bell 2004b: 131).  Bruce Jesson reiterates that “there may be a few distinctive things about the Pakeha way of life, but they are not profound” (Jesson 1986: 15).  In the context of our imported, and increasingly globalised, modern capitalist worldviews, “jandals, kiwifruit and pavlova” seem rather superficial cultural distinctives (Bell 2004b: 131).  Even Hamish Keith who insists that “the Pakeha culture can only be defined as indigenous” concedes somewhat paradoxically that “like any new culture … it is … largely an appropriated one” (Keith 1987: 76).

More elusive still is the ability to distinguish Pākehā culture from Aotearoa-New Zealand national culture.  Roy Nash, in his “outburst” on bi-culturalism, contends that the idea of separate and distinct Māori and Pākehā cultures is a fundamental misunderstanding of our society (Nash 1990).  While the Māori people “continues to maintain institutions that constitute it as … a partial society at least” (1990: 103), there are no exclusive Pākehā institutions.  The two cultures were separate at the first point of contact, but as the nation developed, there was no need to retain specifically Pākehā economic, political and cultural institutions.  The national institutions are already based on ‘Pākehā hegemony’, and thus serve Pākehā interests more than adequately.  Pākehā also never organise themselves as ‘Pākehā’; only rarely as Scots, Dutch and so on (1990: 103-107,119).  What this adds up to is that Pākehā culture is basically indistinguishable from the national culture.  Immigrants learning to speak English[11], ‘bring a plate’ and ‘DIY’ are not absorbing ‘Pākehā culture’, but Aotearoa-New Zealand culture.  A consequence of imposing your culture on everyone else is that you no longer retain a monopoly on it, which may mean dominant groups can never be ethnic groups under Smith’s definition.  Paul Spoonley actually hints at this blurriness in noting that “[t]he interest in Kiwiana that has emerged since the 1990s is equally a celebration of Pakeha icons” (2005: 103), and pointing out that all the elements of King’s description of Pākehā culture are also “part of a national sense shared by Pakeha and Maori” (Spoonley & King 1986: 7-9).

In the light of Nash’s ‘outburst’, a more accurate depiction of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s ‘two cultures’ is a national (capitalist, scientific, democratic) culture – not ethnically bounded but inevitably favouring Pākehā – and a Māori culture/sub-culture which, by virtue of its marginal position, is distinguishable (Nash 1990: 119-120).  This picture could be expanded to include further ethnic sub-cultures, but certainly not a Pākehā one.  The dominance of the Pākehā/national culture pushes it “beneath the level of consciousness” where it is not always recognised as culture by members of the dominant group, but merely seen as natural or universal (Bell 1996: 148-149)[12].  This development of a national identity which ignores ethnic and historical specificities, expressed as “we’re just New Zealanders”, is a more appropriate example of Balibar’s ‘fictive ethnicity’ concept (Bell 1996).

Bell also compares the development of a fictive ethnicity to Ernest Renan’s idea that nations are always founded on forgetting founding acts of violence.  This “social amnesia” can be observed in social institutions such as schools, resulting in “generations of school children raised to believe in the ‘harmonious’ race relations of New Zealand and to respond negatively to anyone who suggests otherwise” (Bell 1996: 150-153).  Nandor Tanczos observes that growing awareness of historical injustice is threatening a Pākehā peace built on “the myth of exemplary race relations and ‘One New Zealand’” (Tanczos 2004).

Another myth “deeply embedded in the Pakeha psyche”, though perhaps less deep for the generations who have grown up in the neo-liberal era, is the idea that Aotearoa-New Zealand is an egalitarian society of equal opportunity (Consedine 1989: 172).  King observes that this was a major factor attracting “both [his] grandmothers” to settle here, and has become an important facet of Pākehā identity (King 1991: 11-12).  However, in practice, this operates more as a dogged insistence that ‘there is no class in New Zealand’ than a desire to truly make it so (Steven 1989: 31).  Bob Consedine and Rob Steven claim that the “egalitarian myth” has served the interests of dominant classes; firstly to attract settlers like King’s ancestors, and subsequently to divert attention away from the real inequality that does exist (Steven 1989, Consedine 1989).  This dangerous potential of identities built on over-optimistic myths reflects worryingly upon Spoonley’s promotion of bi-cultural values as a central feature of Pākehā identity.  We could be “putting down new layers of hypocrisy” after Māori radicalism has shattered less subtle forms (Jesson 1986: 15).

Bedggood supports much of Nash’s account, but points out that this terminology of ‘Pākehā hegemony’ seems to jar with his overall contention that there is no separate Pākehā culture.  Her solution is to replace ‘Pākehā’ with ‘capitalist’, which is also more in keeping with Gramsci’s original meaning of hegemony as the interests of capital (Bedggood 1997: 89).  A similar point is made by Pat Shannon:

what people seem to be describing when they use terms like ‘Pakeha’ are not ‘European’ values and institutions … but … English capitalist [ones] … which have been imposed not merely upon the Maori but also upon the Welsh, Scottish, Irish and indeed upon the English working class itself.  What are often called ‘Pakeha’ features of our society – beliefs in individualism and competition, bourgeois laws and legal structures, privatised family forms – I would define rather as ‘capitalist’ (Shannon 1986: 21, emphasis original).

Shannon associates ‘Pākehā’ with very different political values than Spoonley; values which correspond more to the reality of Aotearoa-New Zealand society than its hopeful myths.  Shannon’s socialist political identity leads him to reject Pākehā self-identification, rather than embrace it like Spoonley’s ‘intellectual vanguard’ (Shannon 1986: 21).  It is vital that, whatever term they use to describe themselves, Pākehā people acknowledge the history of their identity.  The presence of white people, a modern nation-state and their associated culture on this archipelago is the product of a specific history of domination and class interests both in the metropole and the settler state.  Celebrating the product of domination is a dangerous game, as gratifying as it may be for Pākehā self-esteem.  Spoonley walks a fine line here in proposing that Pākehā identity is “self-critical” (1995b: 54), though it can equally be perceived as self-congratulatory (Bedggood 1997: 84), and critical of those other, racist ‘non-Pākehā’ Pākehā (Bell 1999: 135).  Jesson suggests that the solution to Aotearoa-New Zealand’s ethnic injustice is not a tame compromise and tolerance between the two existing cultures, but “an onslaught on the Anglo-American bias of the dominant culture” that has created the injustice (Jesson 1986:16).   If Pākehā were to “join… the tangata whenua in battle against the exploiting, metropolitan non-culture that parasites the New Zealand spirit” (Keith 1987: 76), this could also help to produce the authentically distinctive culture that has hitherto remained elusive.

Another reason Shannon refuses to name himself Pākehā, or even European, is that he considers it a “biologically based and therefore racist term” (Shannon 1986: 21).  This brings us full circle to the original, simple Māori definition of Pākehā as simply ‘white person’.  Unlike Pākehā culture, there is a clear separation between Pākehā people and other Aotearoa-New Zealand nationals, because unlike Pākehā culture, Pākehā identity includes a visible “badge of recognition” (Pearson 1989: 63); namely, fair skin.  This biological bottom line is more vital to the functioning of Pākehā than many of the proposed ethnic criteria, such as myth of common origin.  All white people, even those who hail from outside Britain such as Ariadna Motus (1986: 19-20), can become “political descendants” of the colonising British within a generation or two (Bell 2004a: 16).  Motus’ participation in the Ukrainian community rules her out of Spoonley’s ethnic definition of Pākehā, which “excludes those who continue to practice a minority group ethnicity” (Spoonley 1988: 63-64).  But her experience of being effectively Pākehā, as well as her research that finds fair skin as “crucial” to Pākehā, lead her to conclude that “Pakeha is primarily a racial definition” (Motus 1986:19-20).  This inconvenient racial – potentially racist – element is fundamental to whatever Pākehā is, and even worms its way into ‘race-free’ ethnic definitions, albeit concealed in phrases like ‘European descent’ and ‘dominant group’[13].  Pākehā is thus perhaps best described as a ‘racial-national’ designation.

Examining indigeneity

Unsurprisingly, ‘indigenous’ too is a highly contested term.  ‘Normal’ dictionary definitions of indigenous or ‘native’ simply denote birth in a particular place, and have been most insistently applied to Pākehā people by political scientist Richard Mulgan.  He suggests that the exclusive use of ‘indigenous’ by the descendants of colonised peoples is a co-option[14] of the ‘normal’, simple meaning of indigenous, whereby settlers who ‘put down their roots’ in a new place can, and do, become native (1989: 20-21).  Ironically, given Mulgan’s job, this understanding of indigeneity is in polar opposition to many political descriptions, which tend to set the bar of indigenous status much higher.  Most notable among political definitions of ‘indigenous peoples’ is that of United Nations rapporteur José Martinez Cobo, which has been the UN’s unofficial ‘working’ definition since 1986.  Cobo posits as prerequisites for indigeneity “a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies”, a distinctive and non-dominant position in the national society, and an ethnically-centred identity (Pelican 2009: 55); all of which rule out Pākehā.

Ideas of indigeneity within the social sciences tend to fall somewhere in between these poles.  David Pearson cites Stanley Lieberson’s definition of an indigenous group as “any group capable of maintaining some minimal form of social order over several generations, rather than a necessarily ‘aboriginal’ population” (Pearson 1989: 65).  He is willing to grant that the ‘ethnic category’ of Pākehā is indigenous in this sense, in order to distinguish established settlers from recent immigrants; provided that a distinction between indigenous and aboriginal or tangata whenua is also maintained.  The latter can apply only to Māori.  On a conceptual level, Pākehā is an indigenous word that originates in Aotearoa-New Zealand, and is mostly used here to apply to a specifically New Zealand category of people.  It is therefore reasonably unproblematic on a purely definitional basis to apply the word ‘indigenous’ to the concept of Pākehā, if not necessarily its people or its culture (Pearson 1989: 65, Spoonley 1988: 69-70, Keith 1987: 76).

Meanwhile in anthropology, Adam Kuper has problematised the idea of calling anyone indigenous.  His 2003 article ‘The Return of the Native’ suggests that the concept of indigenous peoples is a successor to romantic, essentialist, and ultimately racist notions of the ‘primitive’ (Pelican 2009: 53-54, Kenrick & Lewis 2004).  He believes that the distinctiveness of indigenous peoples is constructed to allow some groups to assert privilege over others, and that the particular image of indigenous people leads to hypocrisy when, for example, South African Boers claiming indigeneity are not allowed to participate in international indigenous gatherings.  A downplaying of the difference between ‘indigenous’ and other New Zealanders is often implicit when Pākehā draw attention to the fact that all New Zealanders were originally immigrants, or even colonisers of supposed pre-Māori peoples (Bell 2004a 53-54).

Kuper’s article garnered significant criticism, but also considerable approval from anthropologists who highlight the “imaginary and construed” nature of indigenous identity (Pelican 2009: 54).  Other anthropologists have expressed the feeling that indigenous is an indefinable concept (McIntosh, Colchester & Bowen 2002: 23).  Determining who is and is not indigenous is rarely a clear and simple task, particularly in African and Asian contexts where local equivalents to the concept of indigeneity often conflict with one another, as well as with legal designations of indigenous status.  During the deliberations for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the African Group expressed concern that the lack of an official definition of ‘indigenous peoples’ in the declaration could lead to conflict, while the African Union responded that a universal definition was neither possible nor useful (Pelican 2009: 55-57).  The stakes of being deemed indigenous or not are very high given the uncertainty of the concept, but the most damage seems to be done when minority groups are denied indigenous status; often justified by similar logic to Kuper (Kenrick & Lewis 2004: 6-7).

Justin Kenrick and Jerome Lewis believe that Kuper has misrepresented the indigenous peoples’ movement, as well as the concept of indigeneity.  They consider that indigeneity can be non-essentialist if it is perceived relationally, as it is by African indigenous people themselves (2004: 6-9).  This relational focus reflects both the indigenous worldview of belonging based on relationships rather than abstract legal status, and the idea that “‘indigenous’ describes one side in a relationship between certain unequally powerful groups of people … not the quintessential primitive as Kuper misleadingly suggests” (2004: 9).  Ian McIntosh affirms that the term indigenous can only be used in describing “a subjugated ‘first people’ with respect to their oppressors” (McIntosh, Colchester & Bowen 2002: 23).  On these grounds, classing Pākehā as indigenous would be inappropriate.  Kuper’s example of the Boers claiming indigeneity is illustrative, given that until recently, the Boers were a oppressing group in South Africa, whose dominance was partly justified by such claims[15].

Moreover, McIntosh points out that identifying indigenous groups implies the existence of non-indigenous groups.  If all peoples are considered indigenous, the concept becomes meaningless (McIntosh, Colchester & Bowen 2002: 23-24).  Mulgan’s rather low bar of indigeneity could lead to this situation.  He states that to “Vietnamese boatpeople”, Pākehā are just as indigenous as Māori (Mulgan 1989: 20).  But there is no reason why these ‘boatpeople’ cannot put down their roots (or moorings) in Aotearoa-New Zealand, and become just as indigenous as anyone else.  The ability for Māori to lobby for specific claims as indigenous people will therefore be swept away as the floodgates of indigeneity are opened.  Counterbalancing this risk, Mulgan does reserve the term ‘aboriginal’ for Māori (1989: 21), and King points out that Māori claims derive from the Treaty of Waitangi and historic grievances, not from the concept of indigeneity (1991: 9-10).

Another understanding of indigeneity is advanced by Te Ahukaramu Charles Royal, who describes indigenous as one of three major worldviews.  As opposed to Western and Eastern views which glorify the abstract and the internal respectively, indigenous worldviews see humanity in “a seamless relationship with nature which includes seas, land, rivers, mountains, flora, and fauna” (Cunningham & Stanley 2003: 403).  Ranginui Walker simplifies the equation even further by proposing that there are only two types of cultures; indigenous and metropolitan (Walker, quoted in Keith 1987: 75).  Stressing the indigenous connection to land – which is also expressed in the Māori phrase ‘tangata whenua’, people of the land – emphasises the impact of displacement and land alienation suffered by colonised peoples (Greenland 1984).  ‘Indigenous by worldview’ is an interesting concept because it indicates that certain Pākehā individuals could seek to become indigenous by changing their mindsets, without necessarily granting the entire Pākehā population wholesale indigenous status.

Generalised and romanticised images of indigenous ways of life have been fetishised at least since Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others discussed the ‘noble savage’ (Rousseau 1754), and amid the growing criticism of modernity, particularly its environmental impact, “learning from these ‘real people’ is seen to be crucial for the survival of humanity” (McIntosh, Colchester & Bowen 2002: 23).  To Europeans such as Rousseau, these images of indigeneity can be held at an arm’s length.  In settler societies, indigenous people are far more present.  Moreover, the image of the indigenous is tied up with notions of authentic belonging, and leads to a Pākehā envy of “some of the things Māori seem to ‘have’ – a secure claim to this place, a clear sense of cultural distinction” (Bell 2004b: 131).  Settler literature has reflected a desire to “become native” by “going native” (Goldie, quoted in Stafford 2005: 162).  Literary critic Terry Goldie has described this as ‘indigenisation’, a symbolic or rhetorical process whereby white settlers attempt to produce this sense of authentic belonging, and validate their usurpation of indigenous land.  This “psychologically devious need” is satisfied by appropriating the values of the indigenous culture (Dominy 1995: 370).

Michèle Dominy examined South Island high country farmers’ submissions to the Waitangi Tribunal, which was considering returning their leased Crown land to the Ngāi Tahu iwi as part of a Treaty settlement.  Some of the farmers’ statements could be seen as “claiming tangata whenua feelings” (Dominy 1995: 369) through emphasising a spiritual connection to the land.  One farmer explained how his identity was shaped by his relationships to the land and its people, a feeling “that the Maori people would understand” (1995: 366).  Another proposed that, because Ngāi Tahu had not settled on and worked the land, perhaps the true indigenous people of the area were the farmers, who “consider themselves to have the indigenous feeling of the high country” (1995: 363).  Generally the farmers were sympathetic to Ngāi Tahu’s claim, so long as they did not lose their farms, so the situation “does not fully fit Goldie’s description of a white strategy of indigenization in which land is penetrated and native claims are rejected” (1995: 369).  However, they do seek to establish a “discourse of authenticity” based on belonging and commitment to the land (1995: 370), expressed in terms more reminiscent of stereotypical Māori worldviews than Pākehā ones.

Where suggestions of Pākehā indigeneity are based on a connection to land, they can be threatening to Māori status as tangata whenua.  Michael King does not claim the label tangata whenua for himself, and denies that Pākehā indigeneity “supplants that of the tangata whenua” (1991: 19-20).  However, he does emphasise that he “identifies as intimately with this land … as anybody Maori” (1999: 239); he has “no other home, no other turangawaewae, any more than Maori do in the Cook Islands, Tahiti or Samoa” (1991: 9).  Richard Mulgan does believes that Pākehā deserve the label ‘tangata whenua’ according to its original Māori meaning, because the only other alternative is being permanent manuhiri – visitors – in their own home.  Mulgan cites a former Race Relations Conciliator, Hiwi Tauroa, who referred to Pākehā as the ‘new tangata whenua’ and Māori as the ‘old tangata whenua’ (Mulgan 1989: 21-22).  Then-prime minister Jim Bolger laid claim to a tangata whenua connection with the land in 1995:

“I am as much tangata whenua – I was born here – as anyone else and I will never give that up because I can’t.  You can’t be born twice.  We love the land with the same intensity and the same emotions” (Bolger, quoted in Bell 2004a: 56).

Taking on Māori lifestyles could be seen as the ideal form of settlement, whereby settlers make Aotearoa-New Zealand their home on the terms of the host, in direct opposition to imposing their own worldviews on Māori.  But in practice, this adoption of Māori worldviews is highly selective; western legal and economic systems are given primacy, and a ‘tangata whenua’ connection to land is typically only expressed rhetorically when belonging or land ownership under these systems is under threat.  Bolger’s espousal of an intense emotional connection to ‘tēnei whenua’ only came about as a reaction to some particularly spirited Māori activists, and was an attempt to “equalise his status as settler with theirs as indigenes” (Bell 2004a: 56).  In this context, there is a fine line between showing solidarity and support for indigenous values and colonising them, as with the word Pākehā itself.  Perhaps this is an inevitability in systems of dominance.  If Pākehā truly want to learn from indigenous collective, ecological worldviews, they will need to adopt a position of humility and powerlessness, which may require separating themselves from the dominant system and its hegemonic individualism, even though that system is their ‘home’ and what brought them here.

Espousals of Pākehā indigeneity are not necessarily fuelled by spurious motives of downplaying rival Māori claims; the likes of King and Spoonley genuinely wish to advance a Pākehā identity based on positive relationships with Māori, as does Avril Bell.  However, Bell believes that invoking the concept of the ‘white native’ belies these benign political intentions, and works as “a continuation of, rather than break with, Pākehā practices of domination” (Bell 2004b: 135).  She explains that while Māori belonging is based on a relationship with the land, Pākehā belonging is based on a relationship with the Māori people, and that asserting an independent relationship to the land removes Māori from their rightful place in this picture.  It also ignores the history of colonisation, whereby the moment of Pākehā commitment to this land – which to King is the point at which Pākehā became indigenous – is also the moment of Māori alienation from the same land (Bell 2004b: 132).

Bell demonstrates that claims to Pākehā indigeneity are inevitably pregnant with political meaning, far more so than the purported bi-cultural political statement of Pākehā self-identity.  Pearson acknowledges that whatever can be said on a purely conceptual level, the notion of Pākehā indigeneity places us on “dangerous political ground” (Pearson 1989: 65).  Some anthropologists who regard the concept of indigeneity as fully constructed still grant that it can be useful as a legal tool, as it has real and significant political meaning (Pelican 2009: 53-54).

Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from Michel Foucault’s discussion of ‘power-knowledge’ (Foucault 1975 and elsewhere) is that determining the truth of a proposition within certain discourses is not enough.  We must also critically examine the political framework that constructed the discourses, and tends to be reinforced by truth-claims made within it.  Kenrick and Lewis’ relational view of indigeneity, and Bell’s insistence that we acknowledge what Gramsci calls the “‘traces’ of history” in our identity (Bell 2004b: 122) imply a ‘genealogical’ view of which Foucault may approve.  This reveals that the concepts of both ‘indigenous’ and ‘Pākehā’ arose from a history of European capitalist colonisation.  From this perspective, ‘should Pākehā be called indigenous?’ is a far more important question than ‘can Pākehā be called indigenous?’.  It implies an examination of not just whether the truth-claims surrounding Pākehā identity are consistent within this regime of knowledge, but also the effect that the claims have on the overall knowledge-regime of Pākehā-dominated capitalist modernity.

Bell has advanced the most extensive case that the truth-claim of ‘indigenous Pākehā’ reinforces this hegemony.  King’s language of the ‘white native’, and associated observations that we are all originally immigrants and all have skeletons of oppression in our cultural closets, may be innocuously motivated and factual enough, along with Spoonley’s idea that Pākehā are both colonisers and colonised.  But they can have the effect of “undermin[ing] any challenging Maori political voice” (Bell 2004a: 56), as well as the Māori people’s own indigenous status and the political leverage that it can provide in the remedying of colonial injustices (2004b: 133).  Its implicit downplaying of the ‘traces’ of history, also does not help Pākehā address ongoing issues of colonialism; instead it “may work to deny any historical complicity with colonisation, at the same time as Pakeha proclaim their critique of it” (1996: 156).

Ultimately, the ‘question behind the question’ of Pākehā indigeneity is whether Pākehā really belong in Aotearoa-New Zealand.  This is the heart of the matter for King (1991: 20), for Mulgan (1989: 21), for the high country farmers (Dominy 1995: 365), for Bell and for me.  Bell professes that the question of Pākehā authenticity is central to her identity, and “would like to be ‘at home’ here, but not at the continuing expense of Maori, the indigenous New Zealanders” (Bell 1999: 123).  Since then Bell has looked at the ‘ontological dilemma’ of Pākehā identity in several recent articles and her PhD thesis.  She often illustrates the dilemma with comedian Ewan Gilmore’s quip that “I have no claims to anything in Britain, and there has been no Māori blood in the family, so I have no identity” (Gilmore, quoted in Bell 2009: 147).  This ontological ambiguity of “human remnants of that [colonising] power … left adrift on their own in the Pacific” (Keith 1987: 75), cannot be simply resolved by declaring that settlers are indigenous, because this does not deal with any of the history that created the ambiguity.  Indeed, this may simply lay a new veneer of harmony over a troubled post-colonial society, after the Māori renaissance has stripped the old one away (Jesson 1986: 15).  Moreover, it risks giving an impression of belonging and legitimacy to the colonial history, capitalist mode of production, and individualist values which brought the people and culture that became Pākehā to Aotearoa-New Zealand.

Not Pākehā but tangata tiriti?

In August 2004, a debate in Parliament touched on many of the issues which have been raised here.  The debate was called forth by a speech from then-race relations minister Trevor Mallard, who announced that he and other Pākehā were indigenous, citing Michael King (Mallard 2004).  Mallard’s espousal of Pākehā identity was at odds with then-prime minister Helen Clark who calls herself a “New Zealander, full stop”, and his speech was considered an “obvious ploy to woo Pakeha voters … by affirming … their indigenousness” (Armstrong 2004).  Green MP Nandor Tanczos pointed out Mallard’s divergence from the United Nations working definition of indigeneity, to “collective groans from other parties” and a swift rebuff from Mallard[16].  Tanczos continued, however, to affirm that Pākehā do belong in Aotearoa-New Zealand, but not because we are indigenous or tangata whenua.  Affirming a point King made elsewhere (King 2004: 167), Tanczos noted that our presence is authorised by the Treaty of Waitangi, and therefore we can be called ‘tangata tiriti’ (Armstrong 2004).

This phrase was proposed by high court judge Eddie Taihakurei Durie in 1989, who pointed out that the treaty is “not just a Bill of Rights for Maori. It is a Bill of Rights for Pakeha too”; specifically, the right for Pākehā to be here (Durie, quoted in Peet 2007).  From the perspective of identity and authentic belonging, the Treaty is more important for Pākehā than Māori, who would be indigenous and tangata whenua even without a treaty.  ‘Tangata tiriti’ a far better indicator of belonging for white New Zealanders than convoluted attempts to establish an ethnicity and then demonstrate that that ethnicity is indigenous; not least because it does not just apply to white people.  It is a non-ethnic description which applies to all non-Māori New Zealanders, because although the Treaty was signed with the British Crown, the resulting nation-state has allowed (some) multi-cultural immigration.  ‘Tangata tiriti’ therefore avoids both kinds of rhetorical discrimination; rendering Māori indigenous status meaningless by universalising it, and perpetuating a bi-ethnic discourse which leaves no room for ‘other’ migrants.

The dichotomy of tangata whenua and tangata tiriti could be seen as representing not two ethnicities, but two distinct worldviews; one emphasising relationships to land and community, and the other prioritising legal documentation and political representation of individuals.  This is perhaps an accurate depiction of the two peoples at the time of signing the Treaty, but may present problems for tangata tiriti who wish to cast off these modernist worldviews and learn from indigenous ways, or indeed vice versa for tangata whenua.  More importantly, however, ‘tangata tiriti’ does justice to Bell’s suggestion that “any project to enhance Pākehā belonging must focus primarily on relationships with Māori (in the past as well as the present)”, not a problematic quasi-indigenous relationship to often-illegitimately-acquired land (Bell 2004b: 135).

If Pākehā can be said to promote bi-culturalism because it uses a Māori word and dislodges Pākehā from their discursive position as ‘normal’ New Zealanders, tangata tiriti does all this and more.  The internal reference to the Treaty does not carry the same self-congratulatory danger as Spoonley’s vision of Pākehā ethnicity, because it does not indicate membership in a certain progressive subgroup boldly forging a new ethnicity; it is a simple acknowledgement of the relatively uncontroversial notion of what legitimises our belonging here.  Of course, the level to which this is controversial depends entirely upon how well the Treaty is being honoured, which means legitimacy of belonging and a ‘home’ in Aotearoa-New Zealand is inextricably tied to the honouring of the treaty (Tanczos 2004).  When the view that “The Treaty is a Fraud” predominates (graffiti quoted in Pearson 1990: 223), the onus is on tangata tiriti to prove it wrong.  Tangata tiriti is thus a dynamic identity, which is contestable as the Treaty is, but is also able to strengthen itself through improving relations with tangata whenua; and in a far less problematic way than Spoonley proposes for Pākehā ethnicity.

So is it still worthwhile retaining the concept of Pākehā?  Due to its biological bottom line of white skin, Pākehā racially divides the tangata tiriti, excluding non-white New Zealanders.  Consequently, Pākehā is a useful concept when – and perhaps only when – we want to describe a racially divided tangata tiriti.  If ethnicity and racism are ignored, tangata tiriti could lapse into another form of ‘we’re just New Zealanders’, a fictive harmonious tangata tiriti ethnicity, which perhaps cannot homogenise Māori, but can ignore the history of power relations between Pākehā and other non-white immigrants such as the Chinese.  The national culture created by the Treaty is dominated by particular types of people; the rich, the male, and – importantly – the white; we ignore these divisions at the peril of those who do not fall into these categories.  In light of artist Coco Fusco’s axiom that “[t]o ignore white ethnicity is to redouble its hegemony by naturalising it”, Bell proposes a “progressive potential” of Pākehā to undermine this naturalisation, by explicitly acknowledging Pākehā as one specific set of people (Bell 1996: 153).  The concept of ‘Pākehā’ is useful not as a contrived indigenous majority culture, but as an acknowledgement of Pākehā dominance within the multi-ethnic national culture.


Pākehā as a concept (or conundrum) can be considered indigenous according to some definitions, though perhaps not the content which the concept encompasses (variously; certain people, certain cultural traits, certain values).  The claim to Pākehā indigeneity is primarily a bid for belonging for settler-descendants, who have no other tūrangawaewae – place to stand – but whose footing is not as secure as that of Māori.  It is unhelpful for Pākehā to seek to establish authentic belonging through membership in a certain ethnic (or racial-national) group; particularly if this group is said to be indigenous or tangata whenua.  A more healthy concept to denote the belonging of non-Māori New Zealanders is tangata tiriti.  However, it is useful to acknowledge the dominant position of Pākehā within tangata tiriti.  As long as the Aotearoa-New Zealand nation-state has existed, it has contained inherent (indigenous?) ethnic divisions, which create a dominant ethnic category, most readily identified by white skin and national culture.  Pākehā is as good a word as any to describe this dominant group, but we do not belong on these islands because we are Pākehā, we belong because we are tangata tiriti.


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_______ (1999). ‘Authenticity and the project of settler identity in New Zealand’, Social Analysis 43(3), 122-143.

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_______ (2004b). ‘‘Half-castes’ and ‘White Natives’: The Politics of Māori-Pākehā Hybrid Identities’ in Bell, Claudia & Matthewman, Steve (eds) Cultural studies in Aotearoa New Zealand : identity, space and place, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 121-138.

_______ (2009). ‘Dilemmas of settler belonging: roots, routes and redemption in New Zealand national identity claims’, The Sociological Review 57:1, 145-162.

Consedine, Bob (1989). ‘Inequality and the Egalitarian Myth’ in Novitz, David & Willmott, Bill (eds) Culture and Identity in New Zealand, Wellington: GP Books, 172-186.

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Dominy, Michèle D. (1995), ‘White Settler Assertions of Native Status’, American Ethnologist 22(2), 358-374.

Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison (tr. Alan Sheridan 1977), New York: Vintage Books.

Fleras, Augie and Spoonley, Paul (1999). Recalling Aotearoa : Indigenous Politics and Ethnic Relations in New Zealand, Auckland: Oxford University Press.

Greenland, Hauraki (1984). ‘Ethnicity as Ideology: the Critique of Pakeha Society’ in Spoonley, Paul; Macpherson, Cluny; Pearson, David & Sedgwick, Charles (eds) Tauiwi : Racism and Ethnicity in New Zealand, Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 86-106.

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Keith, Hamish (1987). ‘Towards Pakeha Identity’, New Zealand Outlook 2, 74-76.

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_______ (ed) (1991). Pakeha : The Quest for Identity in New Zealand, Auckland: Penguin Books.

_______ (1991). ‘Preface’ and ‘Being Pakeha’ in King, Michael (ed) Pakeha : The Quest for Identity in New Zealand, Auckland: Penguin Books, 7-22.

_______ (1999). Being Pakeha Now : Reflections and Recollections of a White Native, Auckland: Penguin Books.

_______ (2004). The Penguin History of New Zealand, North Shore: Penguin Books.

Knox, Chris (1991). ‘Soft and White’ in King, Michael (ed) Pakeha : The Quest for Identity in New Zealand, Auckland: Penguin Books, 187-197.

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Motus, Ariadna (1986), ‘Being a Pakeha’, Sites 13, 19-20.

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Spoonley, Paul (1988). Racism and Ethnicity, Auckland: Oxford University Press.

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_______ (1991b). ‘Pakeha Ethnicity: A Response to Maori Sovereignty’ in Spoonley, Paul; Pearson, David & Macpherson, Cluny (eds) Nga Take : Ethnic Relations and Racism in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 154-170.

_______ (1995a). ‘Constructing Ourselves: The Post-colonial Politics of Pakeha’ in Wilson, Margaret & Yeatman, Anna (eds) Justice & Identity : Antipodean Practices, Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 96-115.

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_______ (2005). ‘Becoming Pakeha: Majority Group Identity in a Globalizing World’ in R. Patman and C. Rudd (eds) Sovereignty Under Siege? : Globalisation and New Zealand, Aldershot: Ashgate, 97-110.

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[1] Being Pakeha : an encounter with New Zealand and the Maori renaissance (King 1985).

[2] See the debate in Sites 13 (1986), 18 (1989) and 35 (1997), for example.

[3] As far as I can tell, the only formal texts that have advanced this claim at any substantial length are Michael King’s autobiographical works (1985, 1991 (ed), 1999) and Richard Mulgan’s ‘ordinary person’s’ guide to ethnicity and democracy in Aotearoa-New Zealand (1989).  Since most of the opposition has centred around the claim of Pākehā ethnicity rather than Pākehā indigeneity, seemingly the only person to have refuted the Pākehā indigeneity claim at length is Avril Bell, initially in 1996 but more extensively in her PhD thesis (2004a) and a chapter on New Zealand hybrid identities (2004b).

[4] The relative homogeneity of te reo dialects no doubt aided the development of a common term, as opposed to other settler societies with more diverse aboriginal peoples.

[5] Ethnicity and nationalism are often nearly indistinguishable concepts (Nash 1990: 108), or at least have “amorphous linkages” (Pearson 1989: 66), but in this case, Pākehā ‘ethnicity’ does not neatly correspond to a Pākehā nation, but includes Aotearoa-New Zealand nationality as a necessary (but insufficient) component.

[6] An interesting feature of the research, not noted by Pearson and Sissons who focus mainly on the difference between those who always call themselves Pākehā (9.5%) and those who never do (52.2%), is the difference between the ‘always Pākehā’ group and the slightly smaller ‘sometimes Pākehā’ group (7.1%).  Most strikingly, while the ‘always Pākehā’ receive significantly more information about race relations from interactions with family and friends, and significantly less from television or radio, the ‘often Pākehā’ receive the average amount of information from family and friends, but more than average from television or radio and less than average from newspapers and magazines (Pearson & Sissons 1997: 66,71-72).  This seems to indicate that the ‘always’ and ‘often’ groups represent two rather different ‘types’ of Pākehā; one ‘intellectual vanguard’ with a lot of interaction with Māori and a staunch commitment to the term, and another group, less insistent on their identification as Pākehā, who are distinctive only in their preference for newer forms of media.  Perhaps the latter group represent young people who have grown up since the vanguard began to make its mark, and for whom the word is more mainstreamed and less of an active political statement.  This may be an interesting area for future research, especially as such a cohort will have markedly grown since 1996 when the research was carried out.

[7] Perhaps in light of Pearson and Sissons’ ‘weak link’, this position has been somewhat softened in Spoonley’s more recent writings (2005: 102).

[8] Tellingly, both of these phrases have been lifted from sources other than Spoonley.

[9] Incidentally, this is how I am using the term; as a categorisation of white New Zealanders, without necessarily assigning that category any other status or characteristics.  Sometimes I will use Pearson and Sissons’ language of ‘potential Pākehā’  where it is necessary to distinguish this category from the smaller group of self-naming Pākehā.

[10] Bedggood’s criticism on this point is warranted, and Spoonley seems to have responded by quietly dropping his references to Balibar and ‘fictive ethnicity’ from a central place in his account (Spoonley 1995b) to occasional passing mentions (Fleras & Spoonley 1999: 81,92,99), and falling back to his earlier language of ‘ethnogenesis’ (1999: 83).  On the other hand, Bedggood is quite wrong to accuse Bell of making the same mistake (Bedggood 1997: 87).  Bell uses Balibar’s concept rather differently, referring to an unhealthy ‘just New Zealanders’ national ethnicity, to which Pākehā is a subverting alternative (Bell 1996: 150-153).

[11] Even the much-touted ‘Pākehā accent’ (Spoonley 1991b: 166) is shared by many Māori and ethnic minorities.

[12] Musician Chris Knox describes his Invercargill childhood “surrounded totally by people like myself: white, or, as I assumed at the time, normal” (Knox 1991: 187).  Knox (1991: 193), King (1991: 18-19) and other autobiographical pieces in King’s 1991 collection describe becoming aware of their Pākehā/New Zealand culture only when they left the nation.

[13] My flatmate, born to a third-generation New Zealand Gujarati mother and an English immigrant father, fits almost all the ethnic criteria for Pākehā identity advanced by the ‘intellectual vanguard’.  He only falls outside of Spoonley’s definition because he does not identify as ‘part of the dominant group of New Zealand’ (ethnically, at least), and, like Motus, identifies to some extent with a minority ethnicity.  But, crucially, his exclusion from the dominant ethnic category is ensured by his dark skin, not his minority ethnicity; Gujarati ethnicity excludes him from Pākehā while Ukrainian ethnicity does not exclude Motus.  My flatmate is a potent example of this biological bottom line; to be part of the dominant group, and to be Pākehā, you must be white.

[14] “… the term ‘indigenous’ has been pre-empted [sic] by the movement … ” (Mulgan 1989: 20).

[15] Spoonley also cites the Boers, seemingly without irony, as his example of the birth of an ethnic group; “the Boers developed a very clear sense of ethnicity and peoplehood as the result of their experiences in South Africa and their commitment to a particular religious and racial view of the world” (1988: 63 & Fleras & Spoonley 1999: 83).

[16] Aotearoa-New Zealand governments have often shown resistance to UN approaches to indigeneity; being one of only four states in the UN General Assembly to vote against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 (Peet 2007).


About calebmorgan

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2 responses to “Indigenous Pākehā?

  • camostar

    Hey bro, I’m really enjoying all these essays! They’re really informative and present some many lines of thought that I would never have otherwise come across. Man I miss studying and that excuse to spend so much time with books and reading material. Hey you should totally go through your posts and make sure you’ve got some good tags. Think of pertinent things in your post that people will be scouring the internet for. I’ve found that good tags attract a wider readership from search engines, etc, and this is quality stuff so you don’t want it going to waste in the dark recesses of the interwebs.

  • John

    Lol, you rate Paul Spoonley almost as lowly as I do

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