Can we make progress if we never question our Māori traditions?

by Hautahi Kingi
Sun 10 Sep 2017
9 min read
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In this essay from Ora Nui 3, Going Global, Hautahi Kingi, a Whanganui-born economist now working in Washington DC, explores a brand of Māori conservatism he calls "Waihotanga" — which "chips silently away at Māori progress by suppressing open debate, ridiculing alternative viewpoints through emotional blackmail, and alienating young Māori from embracing their own culture".

 

What does it mean to take pride in Māori culture?

On the one hand, it makes little sense to boast about something you were merely born into. Even if you make a conscious choice to identify as Māori, you can hardly count yourself responsible for the characteristics of that culture. Yet there is an undeniable sense of enjoyment to belonging, however accidentally, to something with so much to celebrate.

It is in this spirit that I am proud of our emphasis on whanaungatanga, of our respect for the environment, of our unique sense of humour. I am proud of the importance we place on language and the oratory arts. I am even proud of Māori identity itself, and its role in Māori progress.

The 1970s sovereignty movement, for example, was able to skilfully channel a shared oppressive experience into a collective identity. With this identity came a louder voice that was more effective in expressing grievances, raising consciousness, and fostering a general understanding of Māori as an intrinsic part of New Zealand society — a significant political achievement in the broader context of indigenous people. We can now look forward optimistically, according to Hugh Kawharu, “in a way undreamed of a century ago”.

At the core of this success was a strong sense of self-determination born from a resistance to colonisation and Pākehā cultural encroachment.

An ironic by-product of this radical independence is a particularly Māori type of conservatism rooted in an understandable reluctance to abandon an identity that has proven so successful.

It has the usual conservative trappings — resistance to change, devotion to tradition, wariness of the young — on top of a peculiar “toe-the-party-line” attitude that aggressively casts suspicion on those who question, or engage in activities outside of, the established norms of Māoridom.

I will call this brand of Māori conservatism “Waihotanga”, which roughly translates to “leaving it alone”. I hope to demonstrate the prevalence and corrosiveness of Waihotanga using three examples, each from a different level of Māori society — the national, iwi, and marae level.

Throughout these examples, I also hope to convey that the effects of Waihotanga are ultimately felt at the personal level. After all, “He aha te mea nui o te ao?”

Waihotanga at the national level played out during a lengthy investigation into the financial mismanagement of kōhanga reo by Māori Television’s Native Affairs show between 2013 and 2015.

Led by Mihingarangi Forbes, the investigation uncovered a trail of suspicious financial transactions involving members of Te Kōhanga Reo Trust Board — a body of seven life-appointed members that manages around $80 million a year for the Ministry of Education — and staff of its subsidiary company, Te Pataka Ohanga.

The questionable activities included the payment of $111,000 in directors’ fees to a non-director, the payment of unapproved bonuses to managerial staff, the use of credit cards to purchase personal items, and the granting of low-interest personal loans to board members. A subsequent review by Internal Affairs described the events as “gross mismanagement.”

The initial reports entitled “A Question of Trust” and “Feathering the Nest”, which only aired in September 2013 after the Trust Board failed to block them with a court injunction, went on to win the award for Best Investigative Reporting at the World Indigenous Journalism Awards.

In a time when serious investigative journalism is under threat, the Native Affairs story was commended as “an excellent example of the rigour with which we need to conduct ourselves as journalists.”

Among the dross of New Zealand current affairs, it represented all that is good about the fourth estate’s role in holding the powerful to account — thorough investigation, careful analysis, dignified reporting.

Rather than commending these exemplary efforts, however, many in the Māori community condemned Forbes in particular for daring to speak out. The collective moral outrage of Māori leaders — from members of parliament to veteran broadcasters — was not directed toward the misdeeds of the Trust Board but rather to the team that exposed them.

Native Affairs was accused of creating a "Pākehā-fication" of Māori journalism, of betraying Māori tikanga, of undermining Māori development, and of disrespecting the mana of a respected kuia — the kōhanga reo matriarch Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi.

Māori Television itself was complicit in the backlash, appointing an executive to interfere with the episodes — a decision that eventually prompted Forbes’ resignation.

This embarrassing yet illuminating saga highlighted three tactics that are commonly employed in defence of Waihotanga.

The first is to cast doubt on someone’s underlying motives. Christopher Hitchens could have been describing Waihotanga when criticising pockets of US politics whereby “quarrels ... have a tendency to become miniature treason trials, replete with all kinds of denunciation.”

The second tactic is to question someone's Māori “credentials”. Terms like “Pākehā-fication” are cynically designed to create a cruel "defensive existential crisis" in those toward whom they are aimed.

The third is to appeal to vague notions of Māoritanga, disguised within an obscurantist and intimidating language of tikanga, as an excuse for poor behaviour.

Sometimes Waihotanga is simply expressed explicitly. According to Forbes, “we all got emails and calls saying ‘just leave it alone.’”

The effects of Waihotanga were evident throughout the Native Affairs investigations, which showcased an overwhelming sense of abandonment among those who really matter in the kōhanga reo movement — kaiako, tamariki, whānau.

The compassion shown by Forbes and her team stood in contrast to the petty nastiness of the establishment, which launched complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (that were not upheld), banned Native Affairs from national hui, and mysteriously cancelled pre-booked guests.

When accountability is undermined, so too is the legitimacy of kōhanga reo. Attempting to silence this necessary discussion creates a divide in Māoridom that is far larger than any caused by exposing greed among the well-off. We needn't look very far to understand what happens to cultures where criticism is taboo.

Sadly, Waihotanga also permeates through iwi politics, including my own.

In 2011, I was accepted into an exclusive PhD programme in the United States. My tuition and living costs were paid through a combination of my own personal savings, a prestigious national scholarship, and a teaching stipend.

Student visas for the United States, however, require a financial guarantor to ensure that students are able to return to their home country should they fail a course of study. Because a guarantor is required to have a minimal level of liquid assets — a level my whānau did not have — I asked my iwi, which has millions of dollars in liquid assets, to act as guarantor.

On a cold but sunny Sunday morning in May 2011, I sat through a confusing and often heated three-hour discussion about my request during an iwi meeting at Te Wairoa Iti marae.

The argument over the merits of signing my visa document had the effect of splitting the meeting house into two groups. One side understood the significance and importance of education. I was humbled by their understanding and the spirit of manaakitanga they showed toward me.

It was the other side, however, that eventually won the argument. To the majority of the voting members of my iwi, I was seen as an unwelcome nuisance and an unhelpful distraction from core iwi business.

Predictably, their reasoning centered on the prototypical Waihotanga tactic of questioning my status as a “credible” member of the iwi. The financial exploitation by cynical individuals with dubious iwi ties may be a legitimate concern. It was not a concern in my case.

I lived on my marae until the age of 18. My childhood consisted of playing bullrush on the marae ātea, smashing wharenui windows with rugby balls, sneaking lollies from the marae pantry, and getting yelled at by scary aunties.

During this time, I attended every hui and tangi at my marae while trying to avoid teachers from my kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa. My pet dog, Tahi, was, as far as I know, the only kurī in Aotearoa allowed to wander the paepae during whaikōrero.

The basis for the questioning of my bonafides was my decision to leave my rohe and study at Victoria University in Wellington. Implicit in the discussion was the opinion that tertiary education, and the necessary iwi disconnection required to achieve it, automatically disqualified me from being considered for iwi help.

Among the excuses was an apparent concern that signing my visa document may set a dangerous precedent — as if a surplus of Ivy League educated rangatahi was a severe problem facing the iwi.

My parents’ divorce and my subsequent decision to spend more time with my Pākehā mother rather than my Māori father was cited as further bizarre evidence of my treason. Of course, it was that same Pākehā mother who would eventually mortgage her house to allow me to go.

It is, of course, an iwi’s prerogative to refuse to support an iwi member, even when that support is only a signature. The point is not that my iwi should have honoured my request — although I think a strong case can be made — but rather that Waihotanga was the basis upon which it was denied.

According to the majority of my iwi executive, I had no right to feel abandoned because it was I who had abandoned them. In the post-hui aftermath, I overheard the term “plastic Māori” from the opposite corner of the dining room as I helped myself to a club sandwich.

My iwi — one of very few to not offer any educational scholarships post Treaty settlement — was probably above average in its contempt for mātauranga. But in my experience, the false trade-off between “contributing” to one's iwi and leaving to further oneself is felt widely.

I have many lasting impressions of my years with Te Rōpū Āwhina, an on-campus mentoring whānau for Māori and Pacific science students at Victoria. One was the overwhelming commitment to academic excellence shown by every one of my peers. Another was how the struggle of being away from home often interfered with this commitment, and how this struggle is yet another barrier that brown kids face.

Waihotanga of the kind exhibited by many in my iwi on that bright May morning in 2011 only serves to make this barrier worse. The curse of low expectations is a well-documented phenomenon affecting the performance of Māori students. It is not helped when they are reinforced by their own iwi.

Unsurprisingly, many in Te Rōpū Āwhina who were supported by their iwi have now returned in leadership roles. Dr Adele Whyte, for example, taught courses in biochemistry after finishing her PhD examining marine pollution. She is now the CEO at Ngāti Kahungunu.

Finally, I turn to Waihotanga at the marae level. The prestigious arena of whaikōrero remains the realm of men on the majority of marae. This antiquated relic of our culture is occasionally brought to national attention when high profile women such as Helen Clark or Annette King are unwittingly subject to it.

In these instances, the faux outrage of culturally ignorant media commentators unfortunately drowns the genuine point about gender equality in a sea of self-righteous patronisation.

Defenders of this particular aspect of Māori tikanga tend to point to critics’ lack of understanding about the full meaning of pōwhiri, and rightly so. Nevertheless, the clumsiness with which this issue is expressed does not invalidate the critique that gender continues to be relevant in the allocation of roles on a marae.

Consider the following statement by well-meaning kaumātua Sir Toby Curtis: “It's very difficult to argue intellectually that women shouldn’t speak. ... Despite all the arguments to say women should stand, my stomach doesn't feel right. My ngākau and wairua hasn’t reached that level of real acceptability.”

It is about time they did. Sir Toby was unconsciously employing the Waihotanga tactic of using murky language to justify something which, he admits, makes no sense. Indeed, it is the same tactic that is so closely examined and critiqued in the film Whale Rider. I look forward to the day when all marae publicly show respect for their wāhine by allowing them their rightful place on the marae ātea.

My three examples were designed to show how Waihotanga operates. As a consequence, they omitted many who have stood firmly against Waihotanga.

Establishment figures such as Ranginui Walker, for example, championed the rights of Native Affairs, knowing full well the repercussions they would face. Similarly, the debate in my iwi was only a debate because of those who recognised the importance of education, and wāhine of many iwi such as Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Waewae already play important roles on their respective paepae.

Nevertheless, if one is to take pride in their culture, one must also be willing to acknowledge and address its shortcomings.

Waihotanga is a shortcoming that I believe chips silently away at Māori progress by suppressing open debate, ridiculing alternative viewpoints through emotional blackmail, and alienating young Māori from embracing their own culture.

We can only truly flourish once we value a diversity in opinion and disregard this invidious form of “with us or against us” group think.

 

Hautahi Kingi (Ngā Rauru, Te Atihaunui a Papārangi) is an economist based in Washington DC. Originally from Whanganui, Hautahi studied maths and economics at Victoria University of Wellington before earning his PhD from Cornell University in New York. In addition to literary essays, he also writes about economic issues affecting New Zealand.

This essay is from the Māori literary journal Ora Nui, edited by Anton Blank and published by Oranui Press. Ora Nui 3, Going Global features Māori writing, art and photography, and includes contributions from Asian and European writers and artists.

 

© e-tangata, 2017

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