Poll Dancer by Keith Ng

Revolution, in Maori Time

Two weeks ago, Pita Sharples called for an inquiry into the use of Maori tikanga by government agencies and questioned whether it was done “for the benefit of the state more than for the benefit of the people”. Is political correctness alienating even Maori now? National seemed to think so, with the irrepressible Dr Wayne Mapp claiming that the length of Maori ceremonies meant that they would “actually make people less tolerant of Maori culture”.

So what was Sharples pissed off about? Unfortunately, the Maori Party’s press unit looks like its still finding its feet – its original press release forgot to mention *why* Sharples wanted a review of the state sector’s use of tikanga.

Obviously, he wasn’t suggesting like Mapp that Maori ceremonies are a waste of time. But nor was it just a simple matter that the ceremonies weren’t done quite right.

It comes from someone who is a leader of the Maori renaissance, at a time when Maori cultural expression is facing increasing pressure from liberal and faux-liberal quarters, and it’s about simultaneously preserving and evolving Maori culture by focusing on the core of those cultural expressions.

[Note: Commentary to come. I’ll let it simmer for a few days first. Plus I’m hungry.]

What are your concerns over the use of Maori tikanga (customs) by the state sector?

It's really very simple, tikanga is being used by various organisations and because it's sometimes not followed to the letter, or on a marae setting, then often there is abuse of the tikanga, either by the host, or the visitors.

Take the powhiri – [it] embodies some of our deepest spiritual and cultural concepts and beliefs. We recognise that institutions and organisations have encouraged the use of these tikanga out of respect for us, but the problem is the misuse of them, for whatever reason.

By misuse, do you mean not doing them right?

I mean doing it for the wrong reasons, or not doing it right, or being open to abuse from the public.

What do you mean by abuse from the public?

If a school tells a woman to stand behind the men, there is no protection for the school if people complain. They leave themselves wide open to be attacked. They're not on a Maori place and perhaps they haven't got any Maori elders present who know enough about the customs to explain them.

The point is [that] we the Maori cannot afford to have those institutions destroyed. So what do we do? We either take them out and keep them to our own situations, or we try and help the organisations do it for the right reasons and in the right manner. It is not something that you can just do physically - you have to do it mentally and spiritually.

What do you think are the reasons they are done now?

Oh, there're many reasons that are claimed, and a lot of them are crap. It began with the right reason - to incorporate tangata whenua custom into the local institutions, whether it's a school, whether it's a sports club, or whether it's a government department.

We've called for [government departments] to supply us with what kaupapa (regulations or instructions) they have written down about the tikanga that they use. The idea is to ensure that the reasons are appropriate and that the manner it's carried out is authentic in terms of the ceremony itself.

If we take [the powhiri], is about tangata whenua manuhiri (host and guests). Those concepts have to be present before you can have a powhiri. It is about te hunga mate, te hunga ora - the living and the dead. Reference has to be made to those, otherwise you don't have a powhiri.

It's like this: if there's a marae - that's the ground in front of the meeting house - that's noa, that's just ordinary. And the dogs can play and chase each other, the children can play. But the moment someone (not of the marae) stands at the gate, the ground becomes tapu (sacred), and a ceremony has to prevail to lift the tapu before it can be noa again.

So kids and dogs aside, ceremony comes into play, lifting the tapu, touching and meeting of people, sharing of breath and cooked food, ceremony over, noa again. It's an old custom, but it's related to our spiritual beliefs and cultural beliefs, that the person has a spiritual presence as well as physical presence.

The powhiri is about lifting of tapu on one group [by] the other, the coming together of two groups to be one so they can operate person-to-person without the spiritual and cultural restraints.

What are the ‘wrong reasons’?

It began as a desire to be authentic and to embrace Maori, but I think a lot of people do it now for number of reasons: one is because they've always done it; another one is because they have a lot of Maori staff and they want to show them off as being pretty cool; another one is because they think it's ‘the thing to do’ - in other words, PC.

I think there're many reasons why people do the powhiri without thinking [about] why they're doing it, or what they're doing.

Is it a case of ‘if they aren't doing it right, they shouldn't do it at all’?

If they aren't doing it right, they should be instructed in what they're doing and given help to do it right, or not to do it at all.

Do you think that it’s valuable just as a gesture of respect towards tangata whenua?

I recognise that what they're doing is good, showing respect and doing it, but it doesn't make it culturally safe for the people operating it or for the manuhiri (guests) that are coming in that don't know anything about it. You have to have more than just the heart to do it - you have to have the knowledge that goes with it, which allows it to be protected and to be implemented correctly.

Do you think that the state sector can use Maori tikanga properly?

You can do any [Maori] custom, as far as I'm concerned, so long as it's done for that right reason.

In Parliament, they have a group singing a welcome to people when they go into ceremonies - and there's nothing wrong with that. It's not making any claims, and it's not breaking any tapu, traditions. It is singing, and there's a feeling of being welcomed, but they're not making claims of lifting the tapu off you, or that you have to be new to the area or anything like that.

Do you find it offensive to see tikanga being exercised without the right reasons?

It's not really relevant whether I find it offensive or not. What is relevant is that this opens the door to the powhiri being brought into contempt and ridicule, and [that leads to] the decay of such a very important tradition to us Maori.

You get cases like Josie Bullock. Why would she want to sit in front of the men if she was told it was cultural sensitivity for her to sit somewhere else? Why would she want to force that issue? [National MP] Judith Collins [was] asked to sit in the second row, and [felt] offended by it. The point is, she either has to accept that custom or walk away from it. She has to accept that the people are applying a custom in terms of knowledge that she doesn't know anything about.

When I go to a different tribe and they've got a different etiquette, I observe their etiquette - I don't force mine on them.

[And] all these explanations about the men sitting in front to protect the women who are the givers of life - that's rubbish. That's absolutely incorrect. The men were traditionally the orators, and only the orators sat in front. It is a sacred group, because they are vested in the role of lifting tapu, and so they have to be seated away from everybody else.

That's how it comes that men sit in front of women. And until Maori change that custom, it's got to stay, because it's not for anybody else - whether it's Trevor Mallard or the lady down the road - to say ‘bad, bad – change’. Having said that, I am one personally who want that custom changed. I want women to sit [up front] and speak, because the role that men had as the orators on the marae was coupled the division of labour as it was in those olden times.

How do you go about changing a custom?

It's like a revolution. It's behaviour...

Aren't revolutions about breaking the rules?

That's right. But the ones who know about it have to break those rules. The ones who own it have to break those rules.

How are people from other marae finding this idea?

Oh, there's a lot of support for it, but it's very hard to break a custom. And [it] would have to be broken by marae, after marae, after marae, individually. You can only do it on your own marae, and then others have got to take up that thing.

It's similar with the women challenging us. [On] all the marae I have some dealing with and some say, we allow women to wield [the taiaha (long club)]. And because I'm still alive and because I'm a recognised master (of Maori weaponry use), there's not too much flak.

The reasons [behind] some customs have changed, and we need to change with it - the customs need to change. That allows them to be protected and to be preserved. If you don't, then they stand out like a sore thumb, as being archaic and without rationale.

[Having women speakers] is not about sex, it's about the best speakers in an age where the language is changing. There are many marae who put up speakers because they are male, who sometimes don't have the eloquence of language that their [women] elders have.

The women [also] tend to outlive the men, so you've got many widows on every marae. And often those widows not only have eloquent language, but they have the history and they have the knowledge behind various customs, whereas a young man of 26 may have done a university degree and learn to speak Maori, but his kaupapa is of today.

Are you optimistic that these changes will happen?

Well, I think they really have to, otherwise the ceremonies are going to come under bombardment every year and dwindle away. The change has come about because of the contemporary society in which those customs are embedded, and the pressure on them to 'be real' with the modern world. That's the dilemma, and it's something that will continue to feature.

If government departments stop using the powhiri because of the flak, it's a loss because they were prepared to embrace tikanga Maori and share something Maori. But on the other hand, it's fine by me so long as the custom remains in our settings.