The words of Jana Schmieding (pictured) inspired writer Tainui Stephens to remember there is joy in the struggle for Indigenous rights. (Photo: Kevin Scanlon)

Indigenous people survive and thrive, writes Tainui Stephens, because somehow, “despite all that we’ve lost, we still know of joy”.


About 30 years ago, I went through a period of mild depression. It can happen if you have low levels of a chemical called serotonin. It has an influence on your moods. The doctor told me that I suffered from a lack of “happy juices”. My condition wasn’t bad enough to require medication, and he advised me to just practice being happy. In this way, I’d be able to trigger the production of more of those happy juices.

But happy can be a bit crappy. We live in a material world that persuades us we can make, find, buy, rent, or log-in to happiness. The reality about happiness is that the more you chase it, the more it eludes you. It’s called “happy” because it “happens” to you.

I’m good with happy, but it’s a selfish kind of emotion. The pleasure is all yours, and it doesn’t hang around. I’ve found, after significant life lessons, equal pleasure in being content. Contentment lasts longer than happy, but it takes a while to get there.

But joy? Āe mārika, yes! Joy is where it’s at. It’s a burst of extreme pleasure and extreme clarity all at the same time. And you never forget it.

One of my shortcuts to joy is music. It’s just the way I’ve been tuned. I can see joy in those who love sports, and who relish the thrill of a fine victory. Scorelines don’t do it for me, but the right vibrations in my ears sure do.

In 1973, my high school class was offered 50-cent tickets to go to a symphony concert at the Christchurch Town Hall. It was the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the world’s greatest. I remember the ecstasy of hearing the music I loved being performed live, and how the lush sounds of the string section flowed over the stage and wrapped the 15-year-old me in a warm blanket. That moment of joy in the front row has never left me. I’ve worn that blanket all my life.

Three years later, I went to my very first hui. I met with fellow Māori university students, and they taught me to sing my very first waiata-ā-ringa. We were all recent escapees from home and parents — adults who could do what we damn well liked. As I struggled with the words and the actions, a shiver went up and down my spine. It electrified me for a long, slow-motion moment. In those few seconds, I knew the connections I made that night would turn me into the Māori I thought I wanted to be.

It was my first taste of Indigenous joy, when being Māori gave me a sense of belonging, excitement, and a cause to believe in. I knew that night that I had much to learn.

The most important thing I’ve learned since then is that you can’t be Māori by yourself. As you connect with your whānau and tribe, you understand how much we’ve lost or had stolen from us. You then appreciate that colonisation and oppression have distorted our people. You realise, too, that this Indigenous struggle is worldwide, but that everyone is fighting back. And that, somehow, we’ve held on to joy.

I was grateful for those global connections recently when Māoriland welcomed two filmmakers from Turtle Island as artists in residence.

Tazbah Rose Chavez is a performance poet of the Owens Valley Paiute, Navajo and San Carlos Apache tribes, who is now a writer, director, and one of the producers of the outstanding television series Reservation Dogs. Jana Schmieding is a Lakota teacher and standup comic turned actor and writer. In the series, she plays Bev, the sassy and sarcastic receptionist at the local Indian Health Service clinic.

Reservation Dogs was created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. It’s a brilliant drama comedy set in small town Oklahoma, in the Muscogee Nation. This tale of four Indigenous teenagers aching to escape “the Rez” is a major achievement in Indigenous screen storytelling. Over three seasons, profound issues like grief and intergenerational trauma are explored with native surrealism and an acute sense of humour. The work has been rightly praised for its affectionate portrayal of the realities of urban Indigenous life.

Jana Schmieding and Tazbah Rose Chavez in the Māoriland kitchen, Ōtaki, on Indian Taco day. (Photo supplied)

Jana and Tazbah on the set of Reservation Dogs. (Photo supplied)

“We are more than the histories we have survived,” says Tazbah (right) with Jana. (Photo supplied)

Jana spoke of the Indigenous joy she felt at being on the other side of the world, and of going through rituals of welcome that enabled us to be one family. “Even over here, we’re speaking the same language. There’s joy in the struggle. There’s liberation in joy, and a release in joy, that comes from suffering. You can’t have one without the other.”

She tells me of the time her beloved great-great-grandmother passed. It’s the Lakota way for the deceased to be at home, and for the body to be cared for by the women. Jana was about six years old when she heard the sounds of her kuia being cleaned. She crept into the room expecting sadness. Instead, she saw her mum and aunties washing an old woman’s naked body, all the time laughing and in hysterics. “My little mind couldn’t compute. The women in my family were laughing their way through such sadness. There is a joy in such moments of communion.”

Like Jana, Tazbah was taught the stories and songs and dances of her tribes. She grew up acquiring a worldview of life that’s shaped by a balance with nature, and which comes from a basis of joy. She believes that the histories of our oppressions are all-consuming, but also separate from the essence of who we really are. When she seeks her own joy, she reaches back into the period before the darkness. “We are more than the histories we have survived.”

Her earliest memories of Indigenous joy are as a child wrapped with her mother in the sweat lodge. Or seated with her elders listening to their stories. She knows now that Indigenous joy is inherent.

“When I’m with my reservation community, joy is present, it’s palpable. Even in poverty and in hard times, there’s the wit and the laughter. The way people spend time with each other is what I want to write about and show to the world. When I do my work, I only think about how the community I come from thinks and feels about it.”

After a successful pilot episode for Reservation Dogs, Tazbah said she experienced her most joyous moment in television. “We got together on Zoom for a table-read for episode two. The monitor was filled with many, many little screens. It was packed full of Indigenous actors and creatives. In that moment, we all felt such joy, because there was no white person in the room telling us what to do.”

Many years ago, I found a small piece of paper in a Bible belonging to one of my elders, Ephraim Te Paa. On it, he’d written two sentences in Māori and then English. The first was: “Tēnā koe me ngā āhuatanga o te wā. I acknowledge you within the circumstances of the moment.”

This is one of the most common greetings in Māori. His simple but profound translation prodded me. Why had we spoken and written this phrase repeatedly for hundreds of years? In every generation, words lose their meaning, become redundant and die. Yet these somewhat formal ones were holding on, and still getting a lot of traction. Our tūpuna, through our own utterances, were telling us something obvious: Be alert to the now, and whatever’s in it.

In a single moment, joy can make life worth living — and that moment is designed by you alone. For most people, the birth of their children is one of those moments. Others find joy in the artistry and architecture of nature. Many know joy when their hands are in the soil of Hineahuone or engaged in acts of creation. Excellence in anything can be joyful.

For Indigenous people, our rituals are a shortcut to joy. When we connect and when we share, we secure our sense of belonging. I see and feel Indigenous joy in all the occasions our people gather, because we’ve overcome so much in order to achieve. Kapa haka and arts festivals, tangihanga, birthdays, weddings, wānanga and whānau reunions are all joyous affirmations of who we have become . . . so far.

A recent moment of Indigenous joy happened on my birthday. My darling had scored tickets for a sold-out concert at the Wellington Opera House. Some thoroughly musical mates of ours calling themselves the Bill Withers Social Club were performing the songs of the beloved ‘70s R&B artist. Along with Dallas, Ryan, Iraia, Rio, LA, Adán, and Daniel, Troy Kingi gave me a dose of pure joy.

About two-thirds of the way into the show, Troy dedicated the song Hope She’ll Be Happier to his elusive father. At one point in the song, he hits a high note that hovers for an age. During that long, glorious note, I felt joy for what I was hearing and feeling.

I thought of my own elusive father. I thought of my late wife Wiha who loved Bill Withers’ music with a passion. I thought of the mihi offered by drummer Iraia at the start of the gig, and how his kaumātua Te Karauna Whakamoe would have been proud of him too. I thought of the abundance of musical excellence on stage (and controlled my own feelings of envy about that). I thought of entire generations of our people turning to every style of music to entertain and to heal. I thought of the Māori showband era, and more recent artists performing around the world, often to greater acclaim than here at home.

But things are changing, and they were changing right in front of me.

The Indigenous voice of today is informed, eloquent, and utterly unafraid to tell stories and sing songs about anything and everything in the world. We dance where we wish to, with the permission only of our humble hearts.

The second sentence written by my kaumātua on that piece of paper was: “Maranga tahi me te rā. Be at one with the new day.” There are many moments in a day — and each one offers an opportunity to savour the joy of our Indigenous common cause. There’s a lot of that joy around.


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.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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