AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND — New Zealanders are generally an unassuming bunch who've distanced themselves from the more belligerent policies of their close cousins, the Australians, and pride themselves on being low-key. But if they were the crowing sort, they could crow modestly about at least two aspects of their domestic policy: the commitment of the white majority to make serious amends to the indigenous Maoris, now just 15 percent of New Zealanders; and the country's innovative experimentation with "restorative" approaches to criminal justice.
One good example of the changing policies is the experience of the family of Mike Roberts, a successful news anchor on national TV. Mr. Roberts strongly self-identifies as a Maori and has, by his own account, "about one-third" Maori blood, but he can't speak much Maori at all. His father had grown up speaking Maori - until, at 14, he was sent to a residential school where Maori was forbidden. He almost completely lost his facility with the tongue. "That's one of my dad's biggest regrets," Roberts says.
Then in 1986, a high-level tribunal ruled that the Maori language certainly constituted one of the Maori "treasures" that the British had promised to protect in the seminal 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.The tribunal recommended several steps the government should take to revive the language and culture, including supporting Maori- language schools, as well as Maori broadcasting.
Maori radio stations have operated locally for some years and a nationwide Maori TV station started up just last year. Roberts's kids, ages 5 and 3, have both been to total-immersion Maori-language preschool programs. Does he think that Maori language and culture will survive in New Zealand?
"If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I would have said no. Now, I'm more optimistic. I think it will."
Signs abound of the commitment that the government and other major national institutions have made to respecting and strengthening Maori language and culture. Many government publications and websites are bilingual. Schools and businesses commission Maori-themed decorations and stage Maori-style ceremonies for key rites of passage. Government employees undergo mandatory training in the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi.And it's not only Maori language and culture being saved: Steps have also been taken to restore some Maori land and fishing rights.
Maori culture has also been an influence in the use of New Zealand's restorative-justice processes to supplement and sometimes replace the essentially "retributive" processes of the traditional Western-style justice system.
Judge Fred McElrea sits on the District Court bench here in Auckland - home to a quarter of the nation's 4 million people and to one of its fullest crime dockets. One of Mr. McElrea's former colleagues on the Youth Court, Judge Michael Brown, a Maori, pioneered the Family Group Conference (FGC) method that the Youth Court now uses in place of the more formal criminal-court proceedings.
In a typical FGC, the offender and the victim - and their families - sit with respected community elders in a consultative circle in which the victim can fully express his or her pain and needs for reparation. The group then works to reach agreement on a plan whereby the offender comes to understand the seriousness of the offense and acknowledges this by making some reparation to the victim. This plan is reported to the court system, and all the FGC participants take some responsibility for monitoring follow-through.
In 1993, McElrea started campaigning for the FGC model to be used in adult cases, too. A recent Ministry of Justice evaluation of a one-year pilot project in which 539 adult cases were referred to FGCs found that most victims were very happy with the process. Also, re-offending rates for cases involving more violent crimes and more hardened offenders were noticeably lower in cases referred to FGCs.
"I find this exciting," McElrea said. "Apparently, the conferences managed to 'get through' to them in ways that the court system had not."
Now McElrea and his colleagues plan to continue and expand their use of FGC. They've kept in touch with parallel efforts elsewhere, including some that have also been informed by the cultural wisdom of indigenous peoples. McElrea also noted recent EU directives mandating that all EU countries make restorative-justice systems available by 2006.
But New Zealand is definitely recognized as a leader in this field - as it also is in the attempt to make amends with its indigenous people. Not bad for an unassuming country of just 4 million people.
• Helena Cobban is writing a book about violence and its legacies.