Image: James Cameron / Angela George / Wikimedia Commons
Honestly, drunk Pākehā doing the haka in London on Waitangi Day was bad enough. As a Māori New Zealander, I can recall lots of times when a misplaced haka or pūkana has made me cringe. Most recently it happened at a friend’s wedding, when one of the Pākehā guests pulled a pūkana out of the blue in the selfie booth. Other guests laughed, but I felt my face muscles tighten. Sure, I thought sarcastically, use my culture as a funny face, a joke. Take a taonga that you have no understanding of and use it for your own means. It’s not like it hasn’t been done before.
And it will soon be done again, by a group of blue aliens performing the haka on the big screen. How the hell the haka fits into the Avatar universe I’ll never know, but James Cameron’s blockbuster will apparently take one of the taonga of my people, transplant it into an unrecognisable context, and call it entertainment. And if we don’t like it, we’ll likely be called ungrateful. Think of the exposure, people will say. Your culture has made it! It’s on the big screen.
Nevermind that a) we don’t need exposure and b) even if exposure were somehow relevant, our haka has already made the ‘big time’. It is a vital part not only of Māori culture, but of Kiwi culture, performed in front of millions regularly. I’ve been lucky enough to stand on the sidelines mere metres away from the All Blacks performing our sacred haka, steam rising from their bodies as they lay down the challenge to their competitors with full respect for the cultural taonga they have been given the honour of performing.
Can computer generated blue aliens show our haka the same respect? Given the arrogance that has been displayed so far by the production team, who took the word of one Māori actor over the guidance of iwi and Te Ao Māori as a whole, I doubt it. Which is not to attack Cliff Curtis. Curtis is a champion kapa haka performer who will no doubt treat the haka with respect and love, but he cannot speak for all Māori. Nor can I, of course, and this column only represents my personal view.
I’m not an up and down traditionalist. I believe that our cultural taonga can be given the proper respect that they deserve in many contemporary settings, provided tikanga and kawa are followed appropriately. But when foreign producers and directors simply assume that our cultural taonga are theirs for the exploiting without any consultation with the appropriate guardians of the art, my tolerance wears thin.
How many times do we have to have this conversation? Breweries using Māori tūpuna on beer bottles, companies using te reo Māori names with no consideration for Te Ao Māori, wineries cutting ugly paths into maunga without consultation, and now Hollywood blockbusters annexing cultural treasures that they have no right over. Enough.
Tāngata Māori have been more than accommodating. We want to welcome people into our culture. We have bent over backwards for generations to try to make non-Māori feel comfortable and included. But still the message is not getting through.
So here it is, in clear language: if you are not Māori, do not assume that it’ll be okay to do whatever it is that you are planning to do with an element of our culture. Please – PLEASE – ask. And more importantly, when you are given an answer, listen.Support Villainesse