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TOP 30 OF 2017 - 24. Ignorance about Māori culture is no longer acceptable

Image: Tama-Te-Kapua, Ohinemutu / Remon Rijper / Flickr

First published on Sunday the 19th of November, 2017, this piece comes in at number 24 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2017.

“An object of cultural significance – which looked like a wooden baseball bat.”

That’s how a taiaha was described recently in a news article.

The year is 2017, a full 177 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and still Te Ao Māori and Te Ao Pākehā may as well be situated in different galaxies. The examples of the gaping chasm between the Māori and Pākehā worlds are numerous. The butchering of Māori place names. Pākehā media asking Pākehā panellists with little grounding in complex Māori issues for reckons on the notoriously fraught Ngāpuhi Treaty settlement negotiations without including anyone from Ngāpuhi in the conversation. Complaints against Tamati Coffey, Guyon Espiner and Jack Tame for daring to use te reo Māori on television and on the radio. A state of affairs that meant that an important traditional Māori weapon could be ham-fistedly compared to sporting equipment used in a game most commonly played in the United States.

We like to tell ourselves that we’ve come a long way, but our self-congratulatory complacency suggests otherwise. Decades after the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, the Land Hikoi, the occupation of Bastion Point and countless other significant historical events, it is still possible to live in New Zealand and be largely ignorant of all but the shallowest understandings of Māori culture. We are quick to pat ourselves on the back, to compare our race relations with Australia and laud our apparent progressiveness. We are similarly quick to bristle when someone corrects our Pākehā pronunciation of a Māori name.

Until recently, I’d been labouring under the misconception that there was a certain level of understanding of Māori culture that all New Zealanders possessed. I’ve now realised that I was wrong.

How many people can count in te reo Māori? How many can name the days of the week? (And I’m not talking about Mane, Turei, Wenerei, etc.) How many people could identify a patu or a pukaea? How many could correctly pronounce Whangaparāoa?

More importantly, how many people actually care?

Hang on, that’s not fair! I can almost hear the protestations now. Every time I write an article like this, I have in the back of my mind a worry that my words will make people uncomfortable. I second-guess myself, wondering whether I should just soften my tone, broaden my aim, write about something else. I argue with myself about alienating well-meaning people, even when they get it badly wrong. I oscillate between ‘they’ve got to start somewhere’ and ‘this is ridiculous’.

At the end of the internal struggle, I’m left with this: our society should’ve started making a concerted effort to understand Māori culture a long time ago, and we should be much further down the track than we are. This is ridiculous. Caring about Māori culture is one thing, but caring enough to take action to educate ourselves is a step beyond what most New Zealanders are willing to take.

I recently found myself debating the merits of an article detailing the 20 things about Māori culture that every New Zealander should know. On a surface level, I can understand the attraction of such a story. It falls firmly onto the ‘we’ve got to start somewhere’ side of my internal monologue, and could empower people to actually take the first step to start learning about the Māori world. On a deeper level, the idea of such an article made me sad. Indignant, even. Why should we have to condense our culture into a listicle? How could it be possible that such an article could be necessary centuries after Māori and Pākehā came into contact? How on earth would you select just rua tekau things?

As a person of Māori descent, I am far more ambitious for our country. We don’t need to know 20 things about Māori culture, we need to know something new about it every single day. And I include myself in that. I was brought up in the Pākehā world, and my knowledge of my own culture is full of holes. My ignorance has become increasingly apparent to me as I’ve sought out knowledge of the world of my Māori ancestors, and one of my deepest regrets is that I didn’t start this journey sooner.

So I end this musing with a challenge. We could even give it a hashtag. Let’s all learn one new thing about Te Ao Māori every day. It could be a new word. A new custom. A new story. It could be reading a new chapter of a book about the history of Aotearoa. Let’s do it together. #Māori365.


  • Maori /
  • Te Ao Maori /
  • Te Ao Pākehā /
  • New Zealand /
  • Aotearoa /
  • Te Reo Maori /
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Comments ( 1 )

  • Aiiyan's picture

    Aiiyan - Tue, 2017-11-21 11:47

    While I do think some allowances need to be made, knowing how to count to 10 or the days of the week aren't indicative of knowing a culture. That shows you know the language, which is different. While the two are intertwined (That is, you can learn culture through learning language), knowing a culture or history of a country does not mean you can say "How are you", in that language. I could then ask about other cultures that have significant population numbers in this country like the Chinese. How many can count to 10 in Mandarin, know colors of days of the week? Unfortunately, though, culture and history just aren't appealing to some people. I know British history isn't really fascinating to Maori, but shouldn't it be? I mean, 'Pakeha', as we're often called (A term I don't like being called) have a significant presence here too. How many Maori are aware of the histories of England, or Ireland, Scotland or even Wales... or does that not matter? Today's world is very multicultural and New Zealand houses a lot of different ethnicities, languages, and cultures and I think everyone, Maori included, could do with opening themselves up to learning something about other people, regardless of where they're from because discussions and communications lead to understanding and acceptance; something I think a lot of New Zealand needs to learn.
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