“A Strange Time” Jen Cloher On Indigenous Identity In Australia And New Zealand

"There is a tendency to think it happened so long ago - get over it."

These are curious times. The coronation of King Charles III seemed to bring arguments to the surface that the British nation doesn’t often like to confront. What place, if any, does a hereditary monarchy have in the 21st century? How implicitly tied is our state to the Imperialist legacy? And how do we confront those issues to create a more just society, both at home and abroad? These seem to be questions that are coming to the forefront across what is (for now) termed the Commonwealth, including New Zealand and Australia.

Jen Cloher knows this more than most. New album ‘I Am The River, The River Is Me’ is out now on Milk Records!/ Marathon Artists, and it finds the songwriter going deep on their roots. An artist with Māori heritage who was brought up in Australia, Jen uses her platform to unpick established narratives, highlighting voices who aren’t normally heard in the process.

In this very special essay, Jen Cloher discusses indigenous identity, the legacy of imperialism, and pursues paths of possibility.

It’s a strange time to be writing a piece about being Māori (the indigenous people of Aotearoa, New Zealand) just weeks after Charles, formerly known as Prince, became the King of England. It is even stranger to have grown up in so-called Australia as a guest on unceded Aboriginal land. To have lived most of my life here in Naarm, Melbourne as an ‘Australian’ songwriter and performer, knowing so little about who I am and where I come from. 

There is hot debate around the world, even in the United Kingdom, about the relevance of the Crown as an institution. Many see it as outdated, an unnecessary taxpayer’s expense, others as an integral part of British tradition. Meanwhile we watch announcers on Sky news making jokes about Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific, “about to go underwater, let’s hope they have their snorkels on.” The sting of that comment reveals a truth, that the British people have given little thought, if any, to the small islands of the Commonwealth. And why would they? How could a place 15,000 kilometres away hold any meaning other than symbolic?

Meanwhile the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese (who is a huge improvement on Scott Morrison tbh) appeared on Piers Morgan’s show to let the British people know he was ‘a lifelong Republican’ but would be present for the coronation and ‘engage in the spirit’ by swearing the oath as a ‘representative of Australia’. The joke is that Australia, aside from a few Grannies (bless) who remember Queen Elizabeth’s first visit here in 1954, think about ‘our Queen’ or ‘King’ about as much as Brits think about Tuvaluan’s – who by the way – are fighting for their lives and homes as I write this. 

This is just one of the complexities of living in The Colony. Or to be more precise, being part of the Commonwealth of Nations, who swear their allegiance to a King who does not know them. What has unraveled since the first ships arrived in Aotearoa, New Zealand is tragic. A great people, my people, the Māori, signed a famous treaty – Te Tiriti o Waitangi – or The Treaty of Waitangi with the Crown in 1840. What Māori believed they were signing was a document that gave the British governance over their own subjects as Māori did not want to deal with them. They were saying, ‘if you’re going to live on our lands, then use your own governing structures to deal with your people, we have no time for them’. The Crown saw it differently and over the past 180 years continuously breached the treaty to acquire two thirds of Aotearoa’s total land mass.

There is a tendency to think it happened so long ago – get over it. A quick look at the stats and a different story emerges. For a start, Māori make up 52 percent of the prison population but only 16 percent of New Zealand’s total population. Prior to colonisation Māori didn’t have prisons. Around 25% of Māori children are living in poverty as compared to 9% Pākehā (European) kids. Unemployment for Māori is double the national rate. Numbers tell the real story. These numbers are the outcomes of colonisation; laws passed by the Crown to “confiscate” land from Māori, discourage our language from being spoken in native schools (children were beaten), and outlaw our spiritual practices, an integral part of who we are.

My tūpuna (ancestor) Hongi Hika was the brother of my Great Grandfather Houwawe (five times removed) and a greatly feared Ngāpuhi Rangatira (Chief) known for his ruthless warriorship. In 1820 he boarded the New Zealander and sailed to London. His mission was to procure muskets, which he did successfully, beginning the catastrophic Musket Wars in Aotearoa a few years later. While Hongi was there he met King George IV who was attempting to divorce his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. Parliament had recently rebuffed the Bill that would have sanctioned his divorce and George was furious, saying to Hongi ‘a bad wife is as rottenness to his bones.’ Hongi was sympathetic and surprised, expressing his puzzlement aloud by asking how a great man like King George could not manage one wife without calling in the assistance of all his Lords, when he was able to have five without difficulty.

This exchange, which is documented in the book Hongi Hika (Penguin, 2003) written by my mother Dr. Dorothy Urlich-Cloher, reminds me of two things. That history repeats itself. Unruly women and difficult divorces made headlines well before Charles and Diana. Human beings are simply that, and no institution can make them otherwise. To the people of Great Britain, the royal family have always been the stuff of rumour mills and street gossip. 

But what I find most striking about this ‘on the record’ conversation is that Hongi Hika was there on behalf of his people. He did not see himself as the subject of King George. He came to court speaking English and wearing a British naval uniform over his kākahu (traditional clothing) out of respect for this King’s customs but he was there for a political purpose, to strike a deal. George on the other hand met this legendary Māori Chief with little more to offer than his own personal grievances. If the Crown’s aim was to civilise the Māori people, they might have done better to look at their own leader first.

But I’m not here to Crown bash or reduce the legacy of the British people to one unfortunate meeting. It’s just to let you know a little of who I am and where I come from. When I play shows in the UK and Europe in June this year, I’ll be touring an album that weaves my matrilineal language Te reo Māori throughout. I’ve spent the last four years slowly learning a language my Mother was forbidden to learn (remember those laws that were passed). In fact, I’ve made a podcast about the experience called, Everybody’s Trying To Find Their Way Home. Across six episodes I speak with Māori and First Nations artists about writing and singing in our tribal languages. We talk about the trauma of not knowing languages that should have been our birthright, many of which are now on the verge of extinction. We also talk about the healing and joy of rematriating our languages as we bring them back into our bodies, onto our tongues and into our songs.

Catch Jen Cloher at the following UK shows:

7 Manchester Deaf Institute
8 Leeds Belgrave Music Hall
9 Newcastle The Cumberland Arms
10 Glasgow Stereo
11 Birmingham The Hare & Hounds
13 London Jazz Café
14 Bristol Louisiana
15 Brighton Green Door Store

Photo Credit: Marcelle Bradbeer

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