WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND — Popular mythology has it that Kupe was the first Polynesian explorer to sail into the waters of what is now New Zealand.
The theories about his journey from Hawaii are many, though most historians would not accept that the 10th- century navigator's craft looked anything like a five-door hatchback.
But the idea that cars of Maori New Zealanders should today be regarded as traditional Polynesian canoes - and therefore be exempt from parking tickets and registration - is only one of the more colorful suggestions recently made as this nation considers the rights of Kupe's descendants.
Elsewhere in New Zealand, members of a Maori tribe have served notice that they will not pay their dog registration fees. They say their pets are toanga, or native treasures, and as such, fall outside municipal bylaws.
The issues are small, but the intent is big in a country where native rights have long played second fiddle to the tune of a Anglo-Saxonized culture. Though some claims carry a hint of frivolity - the Maori tribal leader who likens his sedan to an ancient canoe makes his point to reporters with a smile - others are serious.
Such was the recent case in the city of Wanganui, where a Maori angler last month petitioned the High Court for the right to fish without a license. He claims the city's river rightfully belongs to his ancestors and not, as is commonly supposed, to the government. The court agreed with him. In a precedent-setting decision, Judge Andrew Becroft ruled that New Zealand Maoris may cast their lines into a nearby stream or river without the mandatory fishing license.
That decision set off a tidal wave of reaction. New Zealand, a country which makes much of itself as an ethnically harmonious society, is learning that it takes great political agility to juggle the rights of a modern, Anglo-Saxon country with the guarantees once given to its original Polynesian inhabitants.
"There was no need for the white judges to make that ruling," says Frank Haden, a conservative commentator, "other than a sense of mission, an evangelical purpose to alter the course of history by giving [Maoris] special advantage over their fellow whites."
Apartheid, Kiwi style?
In a letter to the editor of a national newspaper, a reader complained that the decision established New Zealand as "the only apartheid-ridden country in the world and one continuing to increase racist privileges for people that have the same, and many more, rights than all the other races in the country."
For the claimants, however, the issue is one of a majority European country facing up to the promises of its founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 by Maori tribes and the British government. The treaty, a blueprint for the course of a future "bicultural" society, saw the Maoris ceding political autonomy in exchange for "full and undisturbed" rights to lands, forests, fisheries, and their enigmatically phrased "national treasures."
But colonial wars and land theft by whites meant that the treaty was ignored by successive governments over most of this country's history.
Since 1985, when a dormant Waitangi Tribunal was reinvigorated by the then Labor Party government, the treaty has once again occupied central place in official decisionmaking. New laws now inevitably include the clause, "with due regard to the Treaty of Waitangi."
The Tribunal is charged with making recommendations for financial recompense to tribes and individuals who have, in the words of director Morrie Love, "suffered profound social and economic consequence, physical deprivation, poverty, social dislocation, and loss of status" as a consequence of treaty violations.
The Tribunal currently has before it claims covering nearly two-thirds of all New Zealand land. One recent multimillion-dollar settlement saw the Tainui tribe receiving 38,000 acres of rural countryside, including the campus of one of the country's seven public universities, and an official apology from Queen Elizabeth, who remains the South Pacific nation's head of state.
Yet the Tribunal's work moves slowly, even while the passions it arouses in the wider community run quick and hot.
Critics see the situation as a lesson in equality for all, of the hope for a better, classless society that the colonialists brought with them. Mr. Haden calls the document a "ludicrous mishmash of vague, undefined words and phrases that are open to any interpretation." He likens the Tribunal to an Aladdin's lamp that only needs to be rubbed to produce the required monetary response.
Case by case for Maoris
Increasingly, however, many Maori claimants are themselves turning away from the Tribunal, preferring instead to make their own cases before the courts. This, observers say, could end up costing the country more, with large sums of money and tracts of disputed land being returned upon strictly legal grounds.
Another kind of social cost was also foreshadowed last month when a lone Maori protester entered the Westhaven Marina clubrooms in Auckland and attacked the displayed America's Cup with a sledgehammer.
Cup to despise
A lawyer for the accused, who now faces up to seven years in jail, says that his client attempted to destroy the fabled silver ewer - won by a New Zealand team from the United States in 1995 - because it represents "everything he despises" about the state of the country's race relations.
As the accused awaits trial, the damaged ewer has been sent for repairs to Britain - it was flown there by plane, or, some would argue, a canoe of the skyways.