New Internationalist

We Are Kanaks

Issue 101

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PACIFIC ISLANDS [image, unknown] Fighting against the French

[image, unknown]

We are Kanaks

[image, unknown] Greed and fear keep France in the Pacific: greed in New Caledonia where a large slice of the world's land-based nickel still lies in the ground; fear in French Polynesia where nuclear testing provides the cornerstone of France's 'independent' deterrent.

A while back former French overseas territories minister Paul Dijoud gloatingly described France as the third largest maritime nation in the world by virtue of its Pacific possessions. In French law, New Caledonia and French Polynesia are `territories' and therefore sovereign In reality they are imperial colonies.

In French Polynesia moves for internal autonomy and independence are muted. Massive French aid and comfortable living have numbed the free spirit of the Polynesians. Don't talk politics in French Polynesia and no one will bother you, it seems.

In New Caledonia the story is different. The independence movement is alive and well. Kanaks, as the original Melanesian inhabitants have come to call themselves, are desperate people. Once a pure Melanesian society, New Caledonia today is peopled by less than 50 per cent Melanesians. There are slightly less European French (colons) and the balance is other Islanders and some Asians. Dijoud minced no words when calling New Caledonia 'French' rather than 'Melanesian'. He saw massive future migration by European French to New Caledonia.

Melanesian resistance to France has flared intermittently, gone underground for years at a time, but once again is out in the open. The coming of socialist President Francois Mitterand has boosted independence hopes. Two Kanak freedom fighters, Pierre Qaeze and Nidoish Naisseline tell the Kanak story.

 

Photo: Bob Hawkins
Photo: Bob Hawkins

Pierre Qaeze, a political science student at the University of Papua New Guinea, is a member of Yann Celene Uregei's independentist Front Uni de Liberation Kanak (FULK).

I am a Kanak. That is what the first French colons called us: sales kanaks. It is a word like 'nigger.' But the word 'kanak' defined us. It said we were black and that we were the original native people of New Caledonia. Now we have taken the colon's curse as a badge of pride to distinguish ourselves from others who also claim the right to call themselves true New Caledonians: Tahitians, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Martiniquais, rebels deported from Vanuatu, pieds noirs from Algeria, and the French colons themselves. But we Kanaks are the true people of New Caledonia. We Kanaks alone are the original natives of these islands. We alone have the right to demand independence.

Our elders put it best. 'Why do we have to ask for what belongs to us?' they ask when we young independentists go to talk in the villages. 'We were independent in the time before the French administration. We had our land in the time before the colons. All we want is that the French hand back what they stole from us.'

Giscard and his secretary for overseas territories Dijoud always said they would grant

independence to New Caledonia if the majority voted for the independentist parties. But we know they're playing games. Under the Dijoud plan for the development of the territory they want to increase the population to 400,000 by inviting immigrants from France and the other territories.

They know these people will vote for the mainly white anti-independence parties of the right, and that the 80 per cent of the Kanak people who voted for the Kanak parties of the Independence Front in the last election will be swamped.

But now we have Mitterand, the socialist.

The election of Mitterand has inspired the Kanak people in the struggle for independence. We believe, for example, that the Mitterand presidency must mean an end to the Dijoud plan.

But we also know that Mitterand has said he is not for independence in New Caledonia. He has said he favours 'auto-determination.' Like Giscard, he wants an 'entente' between New Caledonia and France, rather than Kanak independence.

But with Mitterand the socialist must come a new respect for human rights. We interpret Mitterand's talk about disarmament for example to mean a reduction in the police and military presence in New Caledonia.

Giscard used the police and the military to intimidate us. Because we have away been denied access to the media - the mass media are the governement media in New Caledonia - we have had to use demonstrations to inform the people about the struggle. But always the police and the military have been there. Always daring us to provoke them. In the big demonstrations of '79 Giscard flew in the garde mobile from France with the specific task of putting down our demonstration. Military bases in New Caledonia were also alerted.

They came to the place where we had assembled and waited for any suggestion of violence on our part - to start what our people feared could be a massacre. They wanted to provoke us to violence so they could use violence against us. Giscard used fear inspired by the garde mobile to try to silence us.

But now with Mitterand, and the socialist commitment to equality and the rights of man, we know we will be able to express ourselves without harassment from the government or the police.

Our people have been encouraged by Mitterand's win. It allows us to throw ourselves into the struggle without fear. Now we know that if there is to be violence it will not be between we Kanaks and France; it will be between us and the colons of New Caledonia.

We want independence because we want our self-respect. We want to rebuild everything that the French have destroyed. We want to go back to the way our ancestors governed in the villages. We want a Kanak language, and we want education for Kanak, and not French, values; education that unites us instead of dividing us and cutting us off from the Kanak way.

When I was at high school, the French taught me economics. They taught me how to make money - how to profit from the labour and the resources of others. This is against our custom. The Kanak way is to share. The French way - the capitalist way - is to be selfish, and the Kanak people are learning this.

My party in the end wants a return to Kanak socialism. Our Kanak socialism is not the socialism of Marx or Lenin, or of the Soviet Union or of Cuba. We differ on land. Marx would return all land to the state. We will give considerable power over the land to individual clans and tribes within the state.

My dream of a return to Kanak socialism might seem utopian. But I can see the day when disputes are solved in the Kanak way, without the weight of an imposed legal system. I can see a Kanak education system teaching Kanak language and values. I can also see our Kanak socialist society becoming a model for other Melanesian societies in the Pacific, like PNG and Fiji, who are now afraid of socialism and have opted for the capitalist way, but who, in the end, might be reassured that what we Kanaks want is no more than all Melanesians once had.

The dream of Ati Nidoish Naisseline, a high chief of the Kanak people in the Loyalty Islands, to the east of the New Caledonia mainland, and leader of the '1878' section of the radical independentist Parti de Liberation Kanak (PALIKA), was educated in Paris. He was behind the Paris barricades in 1968. On his return to New Caledonia he formed the radical group Foulards Rouges (Red Scarves).

Atai was the first Kanak martyr. But we cannot talk about Atai without looking at the beginnings of French colonialism. When the French began to move in they found the tribes in New Caledonia with their own way of life and their own customs. For example the Kanak people worshipped their dead, and, as a way of identifying themselves, they venerated the land.

When the first whites came we thought they were gods. We believed that when a man died his body disappeared but his soul stayed with us, taking on another body. So, when Captain Cook arrived in New Caledonia our people wondered if he was a god or a man. When they gave him some poison and they saw him vomit, they knew such a man could not be a god.

The French followed Cook. We offered those first settlers hospitality according to our custom. When a stranger comes to our people he is offered land if he has no friends or relatives in the village. But that does not mean the land is entirely his. The spirit of the land remains in the tribe. The whites did not understand this. They were given land - out of hospitality - and they brought in stock - cattle and sheep. The colons pushed us off the best land to make way for animals.

They stole Kanak women away from their customary role as gardeners and providers and put them to menial housework - without pay. Our women were made slaves.

The settlers told Atai to build a fence round his garden so the cattle would not eat it. Atai said he would build a fence round the garden on the day he saw his yams and his sweet potatoes climbing out of the ground to eat the colon's cattle.

In the beginning there were small revolts. They were isolated and quickly quelled by the French. But the grand idea of Atai was to bring the tribes together. He united us. In 1878 he led the first organised revolt against the French. Many settlers and 1500 Kanak warriors died. Atai was betrayed by a neighbouring tribe, bribed into collaborating with the French, and beheaded. The head was put on display in a Paris museum. In 1978 I went to Paris to try and find the head of the martyr but it was not to be found. Atai was the first Kanak hero.

When Atai was killed the Kanak people. lost confidence in themselves, from then until now. We Kanaks have become a little like the Palestinians. We are one people but we are strangers in our own land. Our people have been shoved into reserves where they live under special regulations like those used in mental hospitals. We want a popular, revolutionary Kanak independence, with the total destruction of the capitalist system here in New Caledonia and the nationalisation of resources, especially the nickel, that the country has.

If anyone tells me now to take up arms against the French, I will refuse. But I am afraid violence will happen. I take the position of the Gaullists in World War II - I will not refuse violence if we are attacked. But for our side we are non-violent.

The dream of Ati

Nidoish Naisseline...'We are non-violent'

Nidoish Naisseline...
'We are non-violent'

Nidoish Naisseline, a high chief of the Kanak people in the Loyalty Islands, to the east of the New Caledonia mainland, and leader of the '1878' section of the radical independentist Parti de Liberation Kanak (PALIKA), was educated in Paris. He was behind the Paris barricades in 1968. On his return to New Caledonia he formed the radical group Foulards Rouges (Red Scarves).

Atai was the first Kanak martyr. But we cannot talk about Atai without looking at the beginnings of French colonialism. When the French began to move in they found the tribes in New Caledonia with their own way of life and their own customs. For example the Kanak people worshipped their dead, and, as a way of identifying themselves, they venerated the land.

When the first whites came we thought they were gods. We believed that when a man died his body disappeared but his soul stayed with us, taking on another body. So, when Captain Cook arrived in New Caledonia our people wondered if he was a god or a man. When they gave him some poison and they saw him vomit, they knew such a man could not be a god.

The French followed Cook. We offered those first settlers hospitality according to our custom. When a stranger comes to our people he is offered land if he has no friends or relatives in the village. But that does not mean the land is entirely his. The spirit of the land remains in the tribe. The whites did not understand this. They were given land - out of hospitality - and they brought in stock - cattle and sheep. The colons pushed us off the best land to make way for animals.

They stole Kanak women away from their customary role as gardeners and providers and put them to menial housework - without pay. Our women were made slaves.

The settlers told Atai to build a fence round his garden so the cattle would not eat it. Atai said he would build a fence round the garden on the day he saw his yams and his sweet potatoes climbing out of the ground to eat the colon's cattle.

In the beginning there were small revolts. They were isolated and quickly quelled by the French. But the grand idea of Atai was to bring the tribes together. He united us. In 1878 he led the first organised revolt against the French. Many settlers and 1500 Kanak warriors died. Atai was betrayed by a neighbouring tribe, bribed into collaborating with the French, and beheaded. The head was put on display in a Paris museum. In 1978 I went to Paris to try and find the head of the martyr but it was not to be found. Atai was the first Kanak hero.

When Atai was killed the Kanak people lost confidence in themselves, from then until now. We Kanaks have become a little like the Palestinians. We are one people but we are strangers in our own land. Our people have been shoved into reserves where they live under special regulations like those used in mental hospitals. We want a popular, revolutionary Kanak independence, with the total destruction of the capitalist system here in New Caledonia and the nationalisation of resources, especially the nickel, that the country has.

If anyone tells me now to take up arms against the French, I will refuse. But I am afraid violence will happen. I take the position of the Gaullists in World War II - I will not refuse violence if we are attacked. But for our side we are non-violent.


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