How are Māori supposed to respond to the misuse and appropriation of tikanga? Kim Mcbreen on “fauxwhiri” and other cultural insults.
Before 9am on the first day, 20 or so of us arrive in ones and twos and gather in the carpark at the house. We’re here for a 10-day course at a Pākehā organisation. We mill around, self-consciously introducing ourselves, hands outstretched. “Kia ora, I’m Kim.” More than half of us are from overseas, only a few from New Zealand, and only two of us are Māori.
Nine o’clock comes and goes. I don’t know the tikanga — should we go in? A guy comes out of the house, smiling. “Hello! Hi!” Doing the rounds. We still stand outside, and no invitation in.
More minutes pass, then Smiling Guy shoos us off back down the driveway and out to the road. He walks with us, and then we all stand self-consciously there. Are we going to be called on, I wonder. No one I’ve seen so far looks Māori, not that that means anything.
A pregnant woman comes out of the house to the top of the driveway and calls: “Haere mai, haere mai.”
Smiling Guy calls back on our behalf. “We’re coming! We’re coming up!” He waves at us to follow him up the driveway to the house.
An older man and woman wait for us outside the house. In English, the man says welcome. He tells us where he’s from (he is Pākehā). He tells us about the land, the sacred mountain, the sacred river. Gestures with his walking stick. Walks back and forth. Clears his throat after every sentence.
Is this for real? I wonder if I can cut my losses and sneak back down the driveway. When he finishes, the one tāne Māori in our group is kind enough to respond to this strange mihi. He is a better person than me.
I don’t know what the point of this “pōwhiri” (fauxwhiri?) was. If it was an attempt to acknowledge and honour tangata whenua, it failed. Imitating people (badly) isn’t usually the best way to honour them. Two of us there are Māori. The tāne who spoke for us visitors (who is actually from that whenua) was comfortable enough to respond to our hosts with generosity.
I was not comfortable. I was embarrassed to be there, trapped between the humiliation of leaving and the insult of staying.
There’s a fine line between appropriation and respect. This was nowhere near that line.
I’m sure our hosts were telling themselves they were honouring tangata whenua. But I suspect they want to be tangata whenua. It’s uncomfortable being a coloniser. So instead of thinking through the best way to acknowledge that they are manuhiri and there are other tangata who belong to this whenua, they scratched their colonising wannabe-Indigenous itch.
I see milder versions of this way too often. Meetings and courses hosted by government and NGOs, facilitated by Pākehā, using karakia as bookends to the business. Usually it’s the only tikanga (of course, we don’t have time for mihimihi, again). Tikanga Māori is a pick-and-mix, and karakia is the favourite flavour.
But without mihimihi, how do we know who is in the room? Who actually is tangata whenua? How do we acknowledge that this tikanga has a whakapapa, and that there may be people here who are more entwined with that whakapapa than the facilitator.
If the tikanga is severed from its mātauranga, it has been appropriated. What is the purpose of the karakia in those meetings?
I am uncomfortable in those meetings. I feel alienated and invisible as we say karakia that I’ve been saying for decades. And, to be honest, I don’t feel much better when we do have time for mihimihi because it so often lurches between perfunctory (“Nate, Auckland,” “Shirley, Wellington”) and performative (long, rambling stories about how people got to these whenua and why they care about all things Māori, and finally the pepeha they’ve been learning and dying for a chance to share).
I know I’m being unkind. But come on. Why is it that when we’re using tikanga or “centring Māori”, it still feels like either an inconvenience to be rushed through or a chance to celebrate Pākehā journeys?
At a recent course by a government-funded organisation, I learned all about board meeting etiquette — Pākehā etiquette, of course, but that went without saying. We started and finished with a karakia led by the Pākehā facilitator. Was I the only person who felt smothered by the irony of it?
It was a perfect example of how cross-cultural communication and diversity training can completely miss the point. To be clear, Māori aren’t marginalised and under-represented on boards by the lack of karakia in meetings. We’re marginalised by colonisation.
How are the Māori in the room supposed to respond? Obviously, with grace and generosity like my mate at the “pōwhiri”. But I’m not built for that.
I can’t be the only one feeling ungrateful and silenced by the misuse of our tikanga.
Instead of taking our tikanga, reo and mātauranga like it’s theirs, I reckon tauiwi need to earn use-rights — through relationships and action to support tino rangatiratanga. Then when people break out a karakia or waiata at their hui, I’ll know that they know the kaupapa.
It will mean that I’ll have a lot of meetings without any acknowledgment of Māori, but maybe that will make the Pākehā in the room uncomfortable. And at least I’ll know where I stand.
Kim Mcbreen is Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu and Pākehā. She lives with her partner and two children in a small coastal town. She is a kaimahi with the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, and occasionally teaches at Te Wānanga o Raukawa.
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