Post series: Should indigenous economies take the LEAP? (1)

Austronesian Migration Path: Exhibited at Taoyuan City Indigenous Cultural Centre, Taiwan

[Ellipsister note: aroha mai, I had a meme on here originally but it appears it could be misread or subject to interpretation – and on that basis I removed it]

Recently, I wrote a (relatively) short paper “Should indigenous economies take the LEAP?”. Its purpose was to explore what self-determination could look like in a practical sense. Maybe I’m a bit of an international trade truther or something, but I absolutely believe trade is at the heart of achieving peace and self-determination.

Since I haven’t written here in a while, I figured I would share that paper over three parts: context, theory and application (summarised below), with minor modifications to the original text for easier flow.

Note I explore this topic by way of comparative analysis locating Māori in the Asia Pacific trading picture with their ancestral linkages to Taiwan and their growing connections to North America through forums such as the World Indigenous Business Forum and APEC.

Summary breakdown

Part 1: remembers the past and identifies some of the similarities in pre-contact indigenous trade arrangements to emphasise that international trade and economic development is a traditional activity of Indigenous Peoples.

Part 2: unpacks two theoretical approaches to indigenous self-determination that demonstrates Indigenous Peoples developed their own guiding principles to international trade and that it is possible to restore those practices when construing the theoretical approaches as complementary rather than antagonistic. Here, I compare the different ways Indigenous Peoples entered into agreements to protect their rights – including those to trade, with early settler governments and the legal treatment of those agreements by different courts, tribunals and governments.

Part 3: considers different development models and how they might be used to enhance various indigenous initiatives that are at different stages of development. This part is particularly interested in special jurisdictions known as LEAP (Legal, Economic, Administrative, Political) zones. I suggest that when a LEAP zone is combined with the theoretical approaches to indigenous self-determination, it offers a creative, practical and culturally relevant approach that reflects traditional forms of development adapted to modern contexts.

As one might expect, the most useful place to start then is the beginning.


Indigenous economic and trade development existed and prospered before colonisation and continued into the early contact period (Petrie, 2002; Philpott, 2019; Puig, 2019; Bellwood, Hung & lizuka, 2011) and many of these economies are still recovering from the destruction inflicted through colonisation. However, as indigenous economies experience greater resurgence, international trade becomes an increasingly important economic lever to support the sustainable economic development of their tribes. In New Zealand, trade accounts for around 60 per cent of our economic activity and connects businesses to new markets to help them grow their customer base and explore new technologies (MFAT, n.d. c). The tradable sector also provides employment benefits and pays significantly higher than the non-tradable sector across the employment pipeline (NZIER, 2017). As such, trade has both direct and indirect benefits for whānau (family). However, domestic marginalisation of indigenous economies can create barriers for indigenous enterprises to enter international markets (Puig, 2019). I argue that indigenous self-determination could play a critical role in transforming tribal economies (Cornell & Kalt, 2000) and could improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples (Murphy, 2014). To support that proposition we need policy innovation to support Indigenous Peoples to participate in international trade activities by introducing regional initiatives possessing the potential to un-restrict market access to accelerate indigenous economic development opportunities.

Remembering the past

Indigenous Peoples of the Asia Pacific region have their roots in Taiwan (Ko et al., 2014). One of the most widely accepted connections of this common whakapapa (genealogies) is their shared linguistic heritages revealing that Austronesian languages, originating in Taiwan, have the largest geographical spread of any language family in the world (Ko et al., 2014; Terell, 2004; Crowley, 2006; Huang & Liu, 2016). This language migration demonstrates that over many generations (between 5000-6000 years ago), the Austronesian speaking ancestors of Māori made sea voyages across Asia and eventually down into the South Pacific (Ko et al., 2014; Terell, 2004; Crowley, 2006; Bellwood, Fox & Tryon, 2006). During those voyages and explorations, Bellwood et al (2006) describe these Austronesian ancestors as having “fissioned and diversified in complex ways” (p.2) birthing new cultures, shaping traditions and adapting to new environments (Crowley, 2006; Terell, 2004).

When Māori ancestors arrived and settled New Zealand around 800-1000 years ago they carried their economies with them (King, 2003 cited in Te Puni Kōkiri, 2007). During this period, coastal and inland hapū exchanged items of abundance in their localities, for instance, fish from the coast for birds from the forest (O’Malley & Hutton, 2007). Māori also engaged in trade, formed alliances, and established the earliest enterprises in New Zealand (Te Puni Kōkiri, 2007). During the early encounters, Māori were already navigating offshore to trade with the Pacific Islands, Australia, North and South America, Asia and Europe where they were exposed to new technological developments and economic systems (Petrie, 2002, p.2). Before that, their Austronesian ancestors from Taiwan had been trading goods such as jade products by sea from Taiwan into the Philippines (Bellwood et al., 2011, p.31). Similarly, North American First Nations were specialising in fishing and seal fur trade, facilitating intertribal trade and establishing trade routes such as the Oolichan grease trails that later became a primary fur-trade route (Le Dressay Lavallee & Reeves, 2010, p.117). Further South, Native Americans were connected across the U.S. with pipestone artefacts, native to Minnesota, found as distant as Kansas and Ohio (Le Dressay et al., 2010, pp.117-118).

Adding to the vibrant trade picture is evidence of trade between Mayan and Inca civilisations who built and patrolled some of the earliest trade infrastructure (Le Dressay et al., 2010, pp.117-118).

Accordingly, indigenous economies and trade networks were thriving in their own right and Indigenous Peoples were adapting to new technologies through increased encounters with other nations who brought with them new goods and materials (Petrie, 2002; Philpott, 2019; Le Dressay et al, 2010). Speculation that indigenous economies were undeveloped and incapable of innovation is unfounded and belies a history that tells a different story (Petrie, 2002).

Toward theories of self-determination

The question as to whether self-determination of Indigenous Peoples is actionable through international law or law at all, is disputed at length from scholars of both legal and non-legal disciplines. Political posturing, virtual signalling and strict or questionable legal interpretations typically underpin criticisms of the politics of recognition, that is, attempts to locate indigenous self-determination in State recognition of it through international human rights law (Corntassel, 2012, p.92). Those supportive of legal recognition approaches tend to view legal avenues as the most practical way to seek justice and achieve certainty of rights. Whereas opponents typically possess low trust in these institutions considering it a vulgarity to rely on settler developed norms and institutions as the source of Indigenous Peoples rights (Corntassel, 2012). And as courts and tribunals have demonstrated time and again rulings can be overturned, and governments have shown they can also be legislated over (e.g. Puig, 2019; Yablon-Zug, 2008), which can work either in favour of or in opposition to indigenous rights.

Part 2 to follow


Bellwood, P., Hung, H-C. & lizuka, Y. (2011) Taiwan Jade in the Philippines: 3,000 Years of Trade and Long-distance Interaction, in Purissima Benitez-Johannot (ed.), Paths of Origins: The Austronesian Heritage in the Collections of the National Museum of the Philippines,the Museum Nasional Indonesia,and the Netherlands Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Singapore: ArtPostAsia. Retrieved from:…/A14%20PathsofOrigins_pp30-41_2011.pdf

Bellwood, P; Fox, J.J & Tryon, D. (2006). The Austronesians in History: Common Origins and Diverse Transformations in Bellwood, P; Fox, J.J & Tryon, D. (eds.) The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. ANU Press. Retrieved from:

Consedine, B. (2007). Historical Influences and the Māori Economy. Wellington: Te Puni Kōkiri.

Corntassel, J. (2012). Re-envisioning resurgence: Indigenous pathways to decolonization and sustainable self-determination. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 86-101.

Crowley, T. (2006) Austronesian languages: overview.  Encyclopedia of language & linguistics. Oxford: Elsevier, 600–609.

King, Michael. (2003). The Penguin History of New Zealand. Auckland. Penguin Books Ltd.

Le Dressay, A., Lavallee, N., and Reeves, J. (2010). First Nations Trade, Specialization, and Market Institutions: A Historical Survey of First Nation Market Culture” Aboriginal Policy Research Consortium International 72. Retrieved from:

MFAT. (n.d. b). The Māori Economy. Trade for All Agenda. Wellington: New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade. Retrieved from:

MFAT. (n.d. c). Trade and Regional Economic Development. Trade for All Agenda. Wellington: New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade. Retrieved from:

Murphy, M. (2014). Self-Determination as Collective Capability: The Case of Indigenous Peoples. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 15(4), 320-334.

NZIER, (2017). Benefits of Trade: Report for Export New Zealand. Wellington: New Zealand Institute for Economic Research. Retrieved from:

O’Malley, V. and Hutton, (2007). The Nature and Extent of Contact and Adaptation in Northland, c.1769-1840. Report commissioned by the Crown Forestry Rental Trust, 1.

Petrie, H. (2002) Colonisation and the Involution of the Maori Economy. A paper for Session 24 XIII World Congress of Economic History. Buenos Aires.

Philpott, A. (2019). The ship is not the only vessel on the river: Revisiting first nations’ mobility rights under Article III of the 1794 Jay Treaty. Appeal, 24, 157.

Puig, S. (2019). International Indigenous Economic Law. UC Davis Law Review 52:3, 1243-1316.

Terrell J. (2004). Introduction: ‘Austronesia’ and the great Austronesian migration. World Archaeology, 36(4), 586-590.

Yablon-Zug, M. (2008). Gone But Not Forgotten: The Strange Afterlife of the Jay Treaty’s Indian Free Passage Right. Queen’s L. J. 33, 565.