My deepest impulses are pacifist, something that seems out step with what I’m told it means to be a Maori man. We’re meant to be warriors, soldiers and athletes. Our heritage is the 28th Maori Battalion, Once Were Warriors and the Maori All Blacks.
But I’m a slouch. Even worse, I prefer thinking to doing. This isn’t what society expects from Maori men. “The life of the mind” is reserved for other people, probably people who don’t carry “the warrior gene”.
As Hone Harawira explained in the Herald, back in 2006: “I remember 30 or 40 years ago when I was a kid, people said Maori had a natural inclination to play the guitar, that Maori had a natural inclination to play rugby, [and] Maori were good on bulldozers … I’ve stopped listening to all that sort of carry on.”
He’s right. We shouldn’t listen to these ridiculous stereotypes. There’s no innate way to be Maori and, as new research out of Otago University is confirming, these stereotypes actually act as “justifications for colonialism”.
Settler colonialism needed to manufacture the myth of a “heathen savage” who must be subdued or destroyed. Without the myth, what’s the moral justification for dispossession and genocide? Expanding capitalist markets isn’t a convincing justification, even if it’s the honest answer.
But how does the myth operate today? It works as a stereotype. Maori aren’t heathens – they’re just better suited to throwing balls around than sitting in board rooms. Maori aren’t savages – they just have a predisposition for violence.
If we accept the stereotype that Maori are better athletes than they are thinkers, then Maori under-achievement in school can be explained by some innate failure in the Maori character, not a century of systematic under-investment in Maori education.
If Maori carry the “warrior gene” then violence in Maori communities can be explained by “nature” rather than circumstance. In other words, violence is a result of that innate failure in the Maori character rather than a century of manufactured poverty and the human pressures that come with it.
It has been a convenient myth, according to Professor Richard Jackson of Otago University. In the past, he says, the myth – and the stereotypes that give effect to it – justified colonialism. But today the myth and the stereotype justify the colonial hierarchy: Maori sit at the wrong end of nearly every negative statistic because they’re innately inferior, not because of almost two centuries of colonialism.
The danger is that the myth and stereotypes become self-fulfilling for many Maori. Almost two centuries of colonialism, of being told that you’re something less than your fairer friends, leave a stain. And nothing much has been done to wash it out.
In other words, we internalise the myth and stereotypes in ideas like we “once were warriors” rather than we once were philosophers, navigators, diplomats, traders, gardeners, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and hapu.
If we accept the myths, and internalise the stereotypes that spring from it, then we’re all out of step with what it means to be Maori.