Moana Jackson points to the futility of a debate about taonga and rights when the country is “still struggling with the truths of its own violent past” — and when colonisers have a kind of “shop till you drop” mentality.
Debates without a history are a dead end. The recent argument about a Pākehā woman’s decision to get a moko kauae because she was being “called” as a bridge between cultures was such a debate.
It sparked an outpouring of racist and sexist vitriol aimed at the Māori women who questioned her decision, and only proved how easily our values and our people can still be dismissed and demeaned.
The racism and sexism was sadly not surprising. Neither was the lack of historical context in a country still struggling with the truths of its own violent past.
Yet everything has a context or a whakapapa, and every apparent difference between Māori and Pākehā can be understood only within the history of colonisation and the taking that it has always involved.
In many ways, the history of colonisation has been like a journey through a shopping mall for the violent and the power hungry. It has been acted out in a supermarket of racism and greed, where the colonisers assumed that everything from precious jewels to human bodies were either on special or a free giveaway just for them.
If “shop till you drop” is the current neoliberal mantra, the exhortation to “take whatever you like” was its colonising precedent.
Sometimes the taking was obvious, as in the seizure of millions of acres of indigenous lands and the massacres of any peoples who stood in the colonisers’ way.
Often, though, it was cloaked in the fanciful deniability of legal doctrines that made it seem something else: a lawful transfer rather than a theft.
Thus, the declarations that vast areas of Māori land were “wasted” and therefore able to be acquired by the colonisers, was a taking masquerading as legitimacy.
At other times, the taking has occurred not with legal subterfuge but moral silence.
The rape of Māori children in church and other colonising institutions was a taking away of innocence that was rarely acknowledged until the recent courageous efforts of survivors.
Similarly, the disproportionate rate of imprisonment of Māori men and women has been a quiet and race-based taking of freedom obscured in the bellicose demands for law and order.
The Treaty of Waitangi has involved a special taking. Its original colonising description as a statement of Crown honour depended on taking away the independent authority of Māori.
Its current iteration as a partnership is a different taking that acknowledges tino rangatiratanga, but subjects it still to the overarching sovereignty of the Crown.
Often, the taking occurs without the takers being aware or even caring about what they’re doing. In London, every year on Waitangi Day, many “Kiwis” celebrate by embarking on a pub crawl on the Underground to Westminster. When they are finally poured out in front of parliament, they usually perform an obscene version of the haka Ka Mate.
A few years ago, one of the young Pākehā men involved was interviewed on TV. When asked why he had performed the haka he replied: “Because it’s us. It’s what makes us Kiwis.”
In his befuddled state, he perhaps unwittingly expressed not just a disregard for the haka and the people of Ngāti Toa Rangatira, to whom it belongs, but a more deep-seated difficulty that colonisers always face in making themselves at home in a place they have taken from someone else.
No matter where colonisers have gone, they’ve taken what they saw as the unthreatening aspects of indigenous cultures for their own benefit. They’ve used them partly to salve their consciences for the harm they were doing, and partly to give themselves a new non-colonising identity.
In this country, the co-option of various aspects of Māori culture has been a key part of the colonisers’ struggle to find what the poet Allen Curnow called “the trick of standing upright here”.
Claiming the haka as part of what makes a Kiwi is just one example of how standing upright has meant taking and standing on what makes Māori unique.
The formation of what is still an uncertain sense of Kiwi identity has had profound personal and collective consequences for Māori. The more obvious takings that it has involved are now acknowledged by many Pākehā. But the less obvious and silenced ones are still not fully appreciated or understood.
The damage done to the tapu and mana of Māori women is one of those. Of course, colonisation by its very nature depends on demeaning the worth of everyone it dispossessed in a racist rhetoric of indigenous inferiority.
However, the particular race-based perceptions of indigenous women were always compounded by a sexist oppression fuelled in misogyny and patriarchy.
It is that history which has made the moko kauae issue so hurtful and problematic for many Māori, and for many Māori women in particular.
So much has already been taken that the recent reclaiming of the moko kauae by our people has been both a recognition of its unique beauty as a representation of whakapapa, and a taking back to protect it from further damage.
Because history is still with us, a Pākehā woman’s use of the moko kauae may properly be seen as another taking. Her professed good intentions don’t necessarily explain or excuse the taking. A nineteenth-century coloniser who farmed confiscated land may have had good intentions in subsequently employing Māori labourers, but that did not justify the taking.
But because a belief in good intentions is such a crucial part of Kiwi identity, it quickly clouded the tenor of the debate over moko kauae. As a result, much of the discussion degenerated into the same racist misogyny that led to the near destruction of the moko kauae tradition in the first place.
Māori women who argued that it was only a taonga for those with whakapapa were subjected to a level of contempt on social media that gave the lie to any illusions of good faith. Their brave attempts to explain why it was necessary to protect the tradition and reclaim its value for all Māori women, were met with slut shaming and allegations of “moko police”.
In the unreason of internet trolling, they were even accused of being racist and “less Māori”, because they were fair-skinned “born agains” who were unwilling to open the door to the culture they had only recently discovered. Iwi differences in moko kauae history were then reinterpreted into “tests” about which Māori women were entitled to have them. As if whakapapa was not enough, or mana wahine was only reserved for a few.
Such comments fed off the tiresome debates about who is a “real” Māori, which in turn can be traced back to the numerous pieces of legislation which redefined us in order to determine who was “real” enough to have interests in what little land the colonisers left us.
The comments then were not new, but their ubiquity doesn’t give them credence. Neither does it lessen the pain they cause.
Many of the men who trolled simply refused to debate at all. Instead, they seemed to believe that referring to the women as “sweetie” or “honey” was some kind of intellectually rigorous rebuttal of their stance, when it was merely a malicious putdown dragged out of the swamps of racist patriarchy.
Some contributions to the debate were more considered.
A number of Māori, for example, felt that, just as there is a genuine willingness to share the reo in the spirit of manaakitanga, so the moko kauae should be shared with anyone who respectfully desires it.
However, sharing always requires reciprocity, and a presumed right just to take is fundamentally at odds with the mutual generosity implicit in manaakitanga.
Certainly, any taking of moko kauae or other taonga for personal or business gratification would appear to have little to do with reciprocity.
The struggle by iwi and hapū to prevent the misuse of Māori images, or to protect our intellectual property rights, shows how difficult it’s been to ensure any reciprocity at all.
Whether it was trying to stop the use of tīpuna images on tea towels in the 1990s, or the ongoing attempts to ensure the authenticity of taonga sold as souvenirs, the struggle has always been how best to protect what is important to us, while opposing damaging or unethical taking.
Tama Poata, who was one of the claimants in the intellectual property claim to the Waitangi Tribunal, once remarked that the claim would not have been necessary if the colonisers had understood and respected what we were prepared to share and not share.
As he said in his original statement of claim: “You can’t talk reciprocity as long as you assume a right just to take … and you must accept that we have the right not to share when it is to safeguard what is precious to us”.
Our people have always been willing to share — and when the sharing is genuine and mutually respectful, there is some pleasure in what it can achieve. The understanding now in place between Ngāti Toa rangatira and the Rugby Union over the proper use and acknowledgment of Ka Mate by the All Blacks, is some evidence of that.
But the London pub crawl and the moko kauae issue show how much more needs to be done before the assumed right to take is replaced with a genuine reciprocity.
So, too, does the hypocrisy of the taking where people demand the use of something like moko kauae but oppose the teaching of te reo.
All that has really come out of the debate is that, as Māori, we’re still having to justify ourselves to appease those who think that what is ours should also be theirs.
In that sense, it has been a very colonising discourse, which has twisted truth until the takers have ended up being the aggrieved party and those who oppose the taking have been denigrated.
Unfortunately, the ongoing and insidious nature of that colonising context was illustrated when some Māori men joined the trolls in demeaning our women. Misremembering history can also make us misremember who we are, and colonisation has sought for too long to divide us.
It has also, for too long, created an unease that can threaten the intimate and close relationships that do exist between many Māori and Pākehā — until we run the risk of not knowing what has been done, or what we might still be doing, to each other.
That is not the sort of reciprocity envisaged in the Treaty.
Perhaps a first step to finding what a Treaty relationship might mean is to reframe the sort of debates that we have.
In the case of something like moko kauae, the issue should not just be whether well-meaning non-Māori can claim our taonga — because that seems to assume either that they have an automatic right to take, or that we have no right to control what should be shared.
Neither should it be about how “Māori” a Pākehā might be, nor what a “real” Māori is, because both subvert the meaning of whakapapa.
Rather, it should be something more fundamental, about how a proper reciprocity might occur at a level where collective Māori consent is possible. That, in turn, requires moving towards a Treaty-based relationship in constitutional as well as personal terms.
But there is also another debate which ultimately only Pākehā can have. It’s about how they see themselves in this land, and what they need to do to find the secure place the Treaty offered them, without unilaterally using Māori taonga to embellish their identity.
How, in other words, can they stand upright in their own uniqueness?
That’s a very real challenge that moves beyond the mere tinkering of a bicultural sensitivity. In the end, it may be the biggest challenge of all.