The road to decolonisation can be hidden by the word itself. It’s not a word that compels us to undergo the journey. In fact, it could be argued that decolonisation is an attitude that never ends, as Tainui Stephens writes here.
There have been some alarming dog whistles coming from senior opposition politicians recently. The suggestion that colonisation has “on balance” been good for Māori is a smokescreen that is made toxic by its intent to rewrite our history.
When Debbie Ngārewa-Packer and Rāwiri Waititi performed a haka in parliament, it sent a message about decolonisation that rang out loud and clear. They’re not the first Māori MPs to protest Pākehā intransigence and get booted out of the debating chamber. Nor will they be the last. But the timing of the haka, like their personal style, was impeccable.
This declaration of indigenous authority from within the nexus of Pākehā power resonates right now in council chambers with debates about Māori wards, in hospitals where a Māori health system is being discussed, in schools devising a fair way to teach history, in places and homes where Māori assertions meet Pākehā resistance.
The message is that we Māori are not sticking to our own lane. For too long, Pākehā have hogged the highway and Māori have been relegated to the byway. One way to decolonise both ourselves and Pākehā is to accept that we have the right to drive wherever we wish. Ka mea nei au, māku anō e hanga tōku waka.
But too few of us know what decolonisation actually is. It doesn’t happen unless people want to understand it, and work towards it. The current debates around Māori representation suffer when the words we use are not easy to explain, and struggle to be liked.
It’s easy to be put off by an academic-sounding word like “decolonisation”. I much prefer Moana Jackson’s alternative phrase “the ethics of restoration”. My attempts to decolonise my own mind were all acts of restoration. Often they were triggered by small events that in some way shifted my thinking. They became GPS directions on a journey to restore things I didn’t even know I’d lost.
When I started learning te reo, I was a skinny half-caste teenager who looked more Italian or Arabic than Māori. I was conscious of this and looked for ways to identify as Māori. When I got my first cheque book I saw an opportunity. I made the decision to get my Māori name printed on the cheques.
From that day onwards, I ditched my Pākehā name of Brent, and only used my Māori one. Mum was a bit grumpy and it took her ages to get used to saying Tainui. But my Pākehā mates were very happy to oblige, and quickly stopped using nicknames like “Hori” and “Nigger”.
To be defined as Māori every time my name was uttered eased my way into the Māori world. Over the years, the familiar Pākehā world slipped away. But it was always there, and I returned to it when I needed to.
Sometimes on return trips I discovered that to be Māori was to feel like a foreigner. To pronounce names correctly or to push a pro-Māori opinion were actions that ran against the flow of acceptable behaviour.
From those early years until now, I have awoken each day and thought to myself that I am a Māori. It’s a conscious act. Every morning I may say a karakia, or I might just ponder that thought over coffee. It aligns my compass for the day’s events. To dare to be Māori requires a proactive stance. Somehow, something so small and personal becomes a political act.
As I struggled to restore my native language, it took me a while to realise that it was pointless trying to translate my English thoughts. The language that popped out of my gob was still English, and it was only dressed up in Māori words. I had to learn how to have Māori thoughts first, and then give them voice.
Ata Maxwell taught me something about this. Ata, from Kaikohe, was a mate during my Canterbury University days. She was a stalwart of the Māori club and a beautiful speaker of te reo. One day I came across her doing research in the library. I noticed she was making notes in Māori. When she explained she did it to keep the language alive in her, I knew I needed to as well. Since then, I’ve discovered that something simple like using the language on paper restores a Māori perspective to anything I need to write or think about.
In those years, the Māori world seemed very small. No one knew it was there unless you went looking for it. You could easily live your life and never know a Māori or enter a marae.
I remember being stunned in 1981 to see television presenter Selwyn Muru start the Koha programme with a eulogy to a recently deceased kaumātua. Selwyn is a wonderful speaker of his Ngāti Kurī dialect. I was used to hearing him and other orators of the era deliver amazing speeches that would normally take off and land only on the marae. You never got to hear these delights without going through strict protocols.
To hear such a flight of oratory on television this sunny Sunday afternoon in my Manurewa flat was a moment that blew my mind. This was essential Māori storytelling that had come straight from the marae into my living room. I felt the dynamics of the culture shifting beneath my feet. To hold fast to indigenous ritual in a place where it cannot be ignored was, like a haka in parliament, a statement that defines what decolonisation looks like.
At its core, decolonisation is about restoring our stories. Reclaiming the histories and narratives that define who we are. Replacing the many myths that pose as history, starting with the so-called great migration to Aotearoa in 1350AD and the callous destruction of the moa and the Moriori on our arrival. Subverting the fake news that has kept alive the notion of Māori as the noble savage — a proud child of the soil to be converted and saved.
We need our own stories. And we’re getting them. But it’s a massive challenge.
In 2020, during a radio interview about his writing on decolonisation, Ngāti Haua historian Mike Ross admitted that, as far as he was aware, no country has yet been successfully decolonised. He’s right, and that points to the size of the task before us.
It’s a big ask for any nation to come to terms with a history inevitably shaped by slaughter and other dark deeds. Colonisation remains one of the most widespread crimes against humanity.
The most selfish members of our species have long plundered lands that don’t belong to them and destroyed or overwhelmed the original populations. But colonisation’s most torrid battles take place in the mind. And here in Aotearoa, our thoughts have been held captive by misplaced perceptions of superiority and inferiority.
These psychological conflicts and their real-world consequences have exhausted people who are active at the front line of change. That theme of exhaustion was acknowledged at a recent hui in Ahipara.
My Te Rarawa tribe is undergoing the restoration of our own stories and waiata with the annual Mauri Ora Mai Tawhito wānanga. We gathered at the southern end of Te Oneroa a Tohe (Ninety Mile Beach) for a dawn ceremony to bless a pou carved by one of the women of our hapū, Te Aroha Te Paa.
The pou is called Ōhaungenge and acknowledges an ancient battle at Te Kōhanga, after which all the participants collapsed with utter exhaustion. Both sides were unable to fight or function any further.
This pou acknowledges the current moment when our economic, cultural and political battles have exhausted the considerable energies of so many of us. It’s a condition I call Chronic Kaupapa Fatigue.
We must rest, and re-evaluate the consequences of our history, to truly see the present.
Pākehā, too, have been victims of colonisation. One act of Pākehā restoration would be to retire the ridiculous term “non-Māori”. To be defined as something you are not has surely stunted the emotional development of our Treaty partners. And for too long we have written “pakeha” with a small “p”. All Pākehā deserve a capital “P” and macrons. Decolonisation will enhance their own sense of comfort with their identity and history.
Indigenous worldviews and knowledge about the environment and our shared humanity offer real solutions to a planet in clear crisis. Aotearoa can be that first country to achieve decolonisation and be in balance with its past and present.
The aberrant DNA of the bigot and the wilfully ignorant cannot hold sway when deep feelings of mana and pride are so evident among a growing number of New Zealanders.
The good thing about decolonisation is that it’s mostly about attitudinal change. It’s re-assessing the damaging ways we’ve been conditioned to think.
The difficulty about decolonisation is that it’s a personal responsibility. Ultimately, you have to achieve it by yourself. No book, no law, no prophet will do it. Nor will your conscience alone. You may discover some tools in a chance encounter, a good education, or a thoughtful Facebook post, but it remains up to you the individual, to reboot your own mind.
And to keep your foot on the accelerator.
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