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“We’re going to do it with or without your help”: Māori responses to Covid19 as practices of sovereignty

Contentious Politics
Political Theory
Critical Theory
Identity
Mobilisation
Political Activism
Power
Empirical
Valentin Clavé-Mercier
University of Aberdeen
Valentin Clavé-Mercier
University of Aberdeen

Abstract

Covid19 has brought a sharper focus to pre-existing racial and inequality logics functioning around the world. For instance, indigenous peoples have especially suffered the negative effects of both the pandemic and the states’ responses. Pre-existing health and economic inequalities have placed them in a heightened situation of vulnerability, while the reduction of possibilities for political accountability and mobilisation have emboldened governments to encroach further on indigenous lands and rights. However, indigenous peoples have also articulated their own responses to protect and care for their communities and territories in ways based on their needs, worldviews and knowledges. While the international community continues to praise the government response in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the significance of self-organised efforts deployed by Māori is still largely unrecognised and unaddressed. Māori groups across the country established road checkpoints, suspended activities in waterways or mountains, or distributed food and sanitary packages to protect the communities living on their traditional territories. This paper argues that, transcending a health-oriented agenda, these responses inscribe themselves within a certain Māori politics of sovereignty challenging the existing configuration of authority sustained by liberal modern state sovereignty. It thus proposes to engage with these Māori mobilisations as embodiment – and to a certain extent realisation – of intergenerational claims of control over their own affairs and territories that do not recognise the state authority as overarching and all-encompassing. Stemming from an understanding of sovereignty as a contested process, this paper will approach the Māori Covid19 responses as an instance of practices of sovereignty, practices through which forms of authority are produced, legitimated, or challenged. It will primarily draw on interviews conducted with Māori involved in these self-organised responses. Engaging with their voices and thinking will enable us to understand not only their motivations, but also how the Covid19 crisis actually represents a stage for the politics of sovereignty between indigenous peoples and settler states. First, this piece will identify how the Māori responses to Covid19 are articulated within discourses of authority and sovereignty. It will argue that such efforts are examples of how a particular Māori conceptualisation of sovereignty is pursued, materialised, and lived out. Finally, it will explore how these instances of political mobilisation represent a challenge to the existing configuration of authority. In a way, Māori Covid19 responses can be seen as an articulation and assertion of an alternative organisation of the political community where Māori sovereignty and its connected socio-political values are asserted as constitutive of the political order existing on their ancestral lands. Overall, this paper aims to demonstrate how the Covid19 crisis may surprisingly constitute an opportunity to amplify the indigenous call for, not only a redistribution, but a redefinition of political power, one embracing the authorization of their ontologies, epistemologies, and subjectivities currently erased by the homogenising nature of liberal modern state sovereignty.