Jokes play an important part in propping up racism, and there’s a long history of that in Aotearoa, writes Catherine Delahunty.
David Seymour is at it again. “Joking” about the Ministry of Pacific Peoples needing more security, not long after he “joked” about Guy Fawkes blowing it up.
He largely gets away with these statements as one-off examples of bad behaviour or typical political dog whistling, but we don’t have to look back very far to find that these sorts of jokes have a long history of propping up racism in our country.
Fairly well known now is the engineering students’ mock haka, a “tradition” that started in the 1950s, and was finally stopped by Hilda Halkyard Harawira and Ngā Tamatoa in 1979. The so-called proper channels had failed to shut down the offensive parody, so direct action was necessary.
What’s less well known is that this “joke” haka grew out of a much older and more widespread social activity beloved of white men in the 19th and 20th centuries — the Savage clubs. Remnants of these groups still exist in a number of small towns today.
One of my family names is Savage, and being curious about the history of this word and name in Aotearoa led me to learning more about these clubs.
They had their origins in London, where the first one was recorded in 1857. It was originally a club for bohemian creative gentlemen, inspired by a poet, Richard Savage, for whom the club was named. But it was also a reference to members being “savages” — depicted in the club’s early artwork as armed, violent, barely-human forms.
Soon the idea of Savage clubs spread throughout the British colonies, morphing into unique local structures. In Aotearoa, Savage clubs were for men only, and they developed their own rituals based on Māori cultural symbols. The senior white members were called “rangatira” and the clubrooms were decorated with fake Māori art. They sang songs using te reo phrases mixed with English. The clubs were for entertainment within their own communities but they also “raided” other clubs across the country, during which fake pōwhiri and other bizarre rituals were acted out.
An example of this was captured by the Gisborne Photo News in the 1960s, when the Waikato Savage Club (along with their sidekicks, the Orphans Club) raided the Gisborne Savage Club. After a “pōwhiri” in Gladstone Road, the Waikato leaders were captured and taken to a pie cart where they were “cooked”.
The costumes worn by the club members were a combination of fake piupiu, blackface and other outfits that they associated with the concept of savagery.
The clubs engaged in a range of activities over the years, including concerts and fundraisers. In the early 20th century, the Auckland club even attracted Māori leaders such as Te Rangi Hīroa and James Carroll, and contributed some funds to kaupapa Māori.
What’s remarkable to me is the huge amount of effort the clubs put into their offensive identity, appropriation and racism. So much time and effort was spent on the rituals and the crafts, revealing a colonial obsession with imitating and distorting the culture they had colonised.
It’s strange to think how this was all happening in parallel with the actual violent and legal dispossession of tangata whenua from their land and traditions. The Savage clubs were made up of white men who benefited from cultural obliteration and imposed colonial systems, who yet chose to spend their social time calling each other “rangatira”.
It’s as if joking and parody allowed the men to neutralise and legitimise the truly violent and ugly nature of what was taking place in our country. The idea being that if we can joke about it, it can’t be that bad. It also appears to me that the Savage clubs allowed men who were alienated from their own origins to create identity through very specific rituals of cultural violation and theft.
Today, that tradition of joking to appropriate and to legitimise racism continues in a different form. The co-governance hate speech tour reminds me of the Savage clubs, because virtually everything being said in those meetings is an untrue and ugly distortion. It’s just another form of incoherent entertainment with dangerous consequences.
The difference today is that the public silence is not total. Both tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti are protesting outside these social events and naming them for what they are. It’s been heartening to see some people of all ages and cultures stand up to the hate tour and respect the leadership of tangata whenua by challenging the toxic events.
But behind the continued existence of Savage clubs in Aotearoa, the Klu Klux Klan costumes, Seymour’s quips, and the 2023 hate tour, there is the actual savagery. There remains a subtext to all of this, and it’s the belief that we have the right to use violence against people who we’ve labelled as lesser. This includes the election promises for more prisons, for less reo Māori education, and shutting down the Māori Health Authority. These proposals are being fed by a well-resourced global campaign pushing far right policies — and it shouldn’t be underestimated.
In a country built on colonial racism, it takes such little encouragement and validation for racism to show its face. And then out come the white sheets and petrol cans for a laugh.
So, although Savage clubs may sound like a quaint, antiquated remnant of our past, organised racism masquerading as jokey free speech is with us, right here and now, and must be challenged every day.
Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother. Catherine was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki.
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