Chauvinism is a sense of superiority or even hostility towards other people — male chauvinism, for example. Indigenous chauvinism can also be a thing, writes Tainui Stephens, if being Māori makes you feel superior.
There are times in your life when you make such a fool of yourself, that you have no option but to change your ways.
My own male chauvinism was first punctured in my early 20s. I was giving a talk to a group of librarians in Christchurch about my investigation work in the Race Relations Office.
One case had involved racist language, and before repeating the foul comments, I said: “I’d like to apologise to the ladies for the words I’m about to use.” A hand shot up and a gentle but forthright woman asked: “Why do you have to warn us so-called ladies about bad language?”
I never forgot it.
Anyone who’s a chauvinist has an inflated view of themselves because of their gender, their nationality, or their religious or political beliefs. They can be arrogant, elitist, and utterly lacking in self-awareness.
A second puncture occurred when I’d once developed the affectation of taking off my shoes when I got to my feet to give a speech. I somehow felt that standing on Papatūānuku in bare feet gave me more mana as a speaker.
One day at a hui, where we were hosting guests, I stood up barefooted as usual to offer a speech of welcome. Afterwards, floating on a cloud of my own verbal smarts, I followed the guests in for kai. I sat down with them to eat. My ego was outed when I ended up being served first. Although it was done with a big laugh from the kitchen, I knew my place was to be serving the guests, and not eating with them.
Didn’t forget that one either.
History suggests chauvinism started with a French soldier called Nicholas Chauvin. He’d been loyal to his emperor and had suffered much in the Napoleonic wars. When Napoleon (like Donald Trump) became a loser, Chauvin still believed in the disgraced leader, and (like the MAGA base) was ridiculed for his excessive loyalty. His name became a byword for fanatical nationalism, and then later a term for blind devotion to any gender, attitude, or cause.
I once encountered nationalistic chauvinism in France. They’re a people who have elevated patriotism to an artform.
Not long after French agents had blown up Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour and killed a man on board, I was in Paris with my producer Mōrehu McDonald. He had an unfortunate habit of introducing us as “Les Rainbow Warriors de Nouvelle-Zélande” to any strangers we’d meet. I kept saying: “Shut the f*** up, bro!” The looks we got from waiters weren’t pleasant. Service was slow.
On our first night in the French capital, we found a cheap hotel in the murky part of Rue Saint-Denis. The building was ancient and dark. It stank of centuries of potent, unfiltered tobacco. The concierge was an old guy who was pissed off that we’d come in so late. Mōrehu enquired about a room for a couple of nights. My mate’s French language skills were limited. The words were okay, but the pronunciation hurt the ear.
The old fulla decided that he wouldn’t understand Mōrehu and said so loudly. Then his dog popped out and started barking at us. So Mōrehu says: “Monsieur, votre chien parle bien Français!” (Sir, your dog speaks very good French!)
Well, everything exploded! The old man got his anger on. He yelled at us in language I didn’t get but sure felt. I also felt his foot in my arse as he booted us out onto the street and slammed the door. Mōrehu and I collapsed in the street, helpless with laughter.
Māori can be like that too. We may be inclined to exalt our language and culture above all others. To be fair, we’ve had to, in order to protect our way of life.
Sometimes, though, our own Māori chauvinism towards Pākehā can intrude. When we refer to the English language as “Te reo parāoa” there’s an understanding that this language of bread (and butter) is vital to make a living. There’s also an implication that bread is a lowly kai, and so too is the tongue of the oppressor.
We may resent Pākehā for learning te reo better than us — and even more so for perhaps doing it only as a hobby or to gain a qualification. When someone says they’ve married a Pākehā, the next word is often “but”, followed by a justification for the colourblind ways of love.
And we sometimes have a go at our own. Especially if we believe that someone’s words or actions are “not Māori enough”.
A cousin of mine wants to get a moko kauae. She doesn’t speak te reo fluently and was initially reluctant because of some Māori language advocates who say you should “moko your tongue before you moko your face”.
Despite the sincere plea for the language, the catchy phrase hides Indigenous chauvinism. Firstly, it buys into the loaded question: “How Māori are you?” And secondly, it raises the uncomfortable truth that some Māori feel more Māori than others, because of their superior ease in the language and culture.
My cousin is now of the view that no one is going to tell her how Māori she is or isn’t, and she refuses to be embarrassed for the theft of her language.
Many Māori were gifted their language by parents and teachers who overcame their own embarrassment and ignorance to be able to do so. For these fortunate young ones, the language was a normal part of growing up. Whether they know it or not, some are more impatient than they have any right to be, about those who are still learning.
A friend at the beginning of his language journey once told me of the shame he’d endured, thanks to a younger man who was fluent in te reo. My friend had been chosen to speak at a marae welcome. His elders knew it was to be his first formal speech.
At the marae, and just as the karanga was about to start, the younger man — who was one of the organisers of the hui — objected that a learner was being permitted to speak. He argued that his own reputation and the mana of the hui was at risk if that occurred. The outburst continued even as the small team moved on to the marae.
My friend was shaken by the bad energy he’d just encountered, but knew he had to pay his heartfelt respect to the hosts. He stood to speak and, although he lost his way a little, he made it to the end, and his team sang his waiata.
Then the clever young thing stood up right away to deliver a standard speech that he had uttered many times before. Rather than wait for the team to sing his song in support, he quickly sang his own. This was a deliberate affront, designed to say: “I know my stuff and don’t need you.”
Afterwards, local kaumātua approached my friend to share their own experiences of giving their first speech. Their full understanding and support turned what could have been a traumatic experience into a memory to treasure.
Māori people may feel things very deeply. Sometimes too deeply. We can be divided by real and imagined insults. We inherit the pains of previous generations that are difficult to heal in this one. We struggle to normalise being Indigenous in a competitive world where you survive by being better than someone else.
As human beings, we have many ways by which we can assume superior positions over our fellows. Materialism, religious belief, politics, and sexual and cultural identity offer many opportunities for the blind arrogance of the chauvinist.
One antidote to Indigenous chauvinism is found within the Māori world itself. The tikanga of the marae where honest discourse is encouraged, show that transparency and accountability still matter. In the forum of the marae, despite what you might or might not say, you often reveal yourself.
I once listened in on a discussion that Wiha, my late wife, had with Tīmoti Kāretu and Wharehuia Milroy. Three beloved Māori language experts talking (as they often did) of the merits of various students and schools.
They understood the sheer privilege that young Māori growing up with their language enjoyed. They knew that some would take unfair advantage of their good fortune. But their bottom line was: “Me mōhio hoki rātou ki te whakamā.” They must also know of shame.
Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling Indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.
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