Māori made up more than 90 percent of the acting leads, crew, and trainees on ‘Vegas’, on TVNZ 2. (Photo supplied)


It’s hard not to be affected by the news sometimes, especially when you’re Māori. That was the case for me this week.

First there was the strong reaction to Vegas, the new Māori drama that aired on Monday night. Then, on Wednesday morning, we got hit with the announcement of the health reforms. And then there was the guilty verdict handed to Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

It’s been full on. Particularly for me, given my family connections to Vegas — my brother, Piripi, is the associate producer, another brother, Ritchie, was the camera op, and a niece and two of my nephews trained on the set.

Then there are my professional connections to the health reforms given that I’m a Māori public health medicine specialist. And, like everyone committed to social justice, I can’t help shaking my head every time I see another news story of racism and murder at the hands of police in the US.

But across all the significant events last week is the need to delve deeper, to reflect more, and to allow ourselves to look beyond the surface imagery — because the devil is in the detail.

Vegas is a six-episode drama screening on TVNZ 2 on Monday nights. It’s written by writer and director Michael Bennett (Te Arawa). And it centres on a fictitious gang trying to free itself from using and dealing methamphetamine.

Funded by NZ On Air’s Te Rautaki Māori Strategy, Vegas is groundbreaking as it has allowed for Māori creative leadership led by Rotorua’s Steambox Film Collective and Michael Bennett’s 10,000 Company (alongside a Pākehā production house, Greenstone TV). And more than 90 percent of its lead actors, crew and trainees were Māori.

What has resulted is a first for TV in Aotearoa New Zealand — significant funding for a beautifully crafted drama with complex characters and plots with te āo Māori at its centre, both in storyline and production.

The trouble is that, despite all of this, the context of Vegas is gang culture and its associated violence. At a surface level, the dreaded representation of Māori (males in particular) as angry, violent and dangerous is potentially perpetuated — and the “here we go again” feeling is easy to buy into.

And this is what I experienced on Monday night as friends and colleagues began posting their utter disgust at the series on social media. They saw it as reinforcing stereotypes and cementing the perception that “this is what being Māori looks like, sounds like, behaves like”.

I understand where this is coming from. Over the years, I’ve done many presentations where I have rejected the “once were warriors” representation and promoted the “once were scientists” (or even gardeners as noted by our esteemed Indigenous rights advocate Moana Jackson).

So I get it.

But I also get what Michael Bennett is trying to achieve, something he has eloquently expressed in his response to Leonie Hayden’s critique of Vegas on Spinoff:

I believe it is false and fake and a betrayal to pretend that gang issues do not exist in our country, in our neighbourhoods, in our communities, in our whānau. If there is a problem, deal with it. But before you can deal with it, face it. And facing it means talking about it. And telling stories about it.

I agree with this too.

I had the privilege of growing up in a safe and secure whare with food on the table, supportive parents, access to my culture and iwi as well as tertiary education and the resulting socio-economic benefits that accrue from that.

But this doesn’t mean that I can’t see the impact of colonisation and how this has led to the theft of our land, intergenerational socio-economic deprivation, general subjugation of our culture and denial of our political power. It’s the perfect environment for gangs to be born in and flourish.

We can’t pretend that this aspect of our society and our whānau is not here — even if it’s not our personal experience as Māori.

While I support our right to representions that move beyond the violent, angry Māori stereotypes, this shouldn’t stop us from engaging in storytelling, led by Māori, that is prepared to respectfully engage in the complex lives of our whānau living in gangs, alienated from the racist society we exist in.

This is the gold in Vegas that I’m prepared to engage in.

I’m also hoping (tentatively) for gold in the health reforms announced on Wednesday morning.

The government’s move — to replace all 20 district health boards with a national entity now known as Health NZ which will have just four regional divisions, and to establish a new Māori Health Authority (with independent commissioning rights), and a new Public Health Agency — was somewhat unexpected within the health sector.

This is primarily because the proposed changes have gone further than the recommendations made by the New Zealand Health and Disability Review led by Helen Clark’s former chief of staff, Heather Simpson. These reforms represent the red pen that should have been applied to the Simpson report — particularly given that report’s rejection of the alternative view from Māori who were engaged to provide advice to this original process.

The announcement was also suprising because of the way in which it was delivered. The Minister of Health, Andrew Little, shone out for me with his refreshing and respectful readiness to foreground Māori health and inequities. Clearly and deliberately, rather than the bottom bullet point of his ministerial points to cover off.

The Treaty was there. The vision was there.

But is this going to make a difference?

It depends. Moving to a co-ordinated national approach should get rid of the stagnation associated with the fragmentation of 20 district health boards which have largely failed to address ethnic inequities or to invest adequately in primary health and community care.

But it must do more than replicate the same structures and bureaucracy, albeit in a streamlined package. It must be brave enough to also tackle the underlying values that determine how our health system operates — values that Dr Rhys Jones describes as “colonial, patriarchial and neoliberal”.

It must also work to address the basic drivers of Māori health inequities, including poverty, racism and Pākehā privilege. This will require radical shifts away from the current “business as usual” model so that Māori have control over the health services to be funded and the way in which they should be delivered.

For some services, it may mean that Pākehā receive less and Māori receive more (so inequity gaps are not maintained but reduced). There will need to be more than just an Iwi-Māori Partnership Board.

As always, the devil is in the detail — and that detail has not been provided.

Overall, the health reforms must also be accompanied by a more nuanced understanding, from ministers to health policymakers and health workers on the ground, as to what is really driving Māori health inequities.

I was disappointed to hear Peeni Henare, the associate health minister (Māori health) highlight the “Māori don’t want to go to the hospital” message. This is not always the case — and this framing can lead to victim-blaming where Māori behaviour is seen as the problem.

The real problem is that, when we make it to the hospital (or primary healthcare provider), we get lower quality care, differential management, and poorer health outcomes than non-Māori (which can’t be explained by clinical factors).

Racism in how our systems operate, in how our health professionals engage with Māori patients and their whānau, and the management decisions they make, is an important determinant of health that must be addressed.

If it isn’t directly named and addressed, this racism will continue regardless of how many health authorities or health entities we create. We will need this detail sorted if we are to have the vision realised with these new health reforms.

This last week has made me stop and pause as I’ve felt my own reaction to the shared disgust at Vegas and my nervous hopefulness that the health sector has turned a corner.

Ultimately, I hope that, as Māori, we will always have the freedom to express our lived reality — and to receive the healthcare we need and deserve.


Dr Elana Curtis (Te Arawa) grew up in Massey, West Auckland, and went to school at Carmel College. She graduated from university as a medical doctor, has specialised in public health medicine and is an associate professor at the University of Auckland with teaching and research expertise in Māori and ethnic health inequities.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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