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Monday, 11 December 2017 06:50 pm

Desire for culture prompts many Māori to reconnect

Many Māori feel disconnected from their culture and are keen to find ways to reconnect with it. KATIE MCALISTER finds out how it might be done:

THE renaissance in Māori culture over recent decades has seen increasing numbers of Māori reconnecting with their roots.

NICOLA Smith is the producer of the Māori TV Tatai Hono programme about Maori reconnecting with their people and home ground.

Nicola argues that there has been a renaissance of Māori culture in the last few decades.

“My father and grandfather grew up in a time when it wasn’t cool to be Māori. It was almost illegal and you weren’t allowed to speak Māori in schools. But people are proud again,” she says.

She says a lot of Māori apply to be on the programme, including many living in Australia.

“Whakapapa is very important for Māori. I think for a lot of people it’s in your blood to want to know.”

JAMES Houkamau, Academic Support co-ordinator for Māori students at Whitireia, agrees that there has been a renaissance in Māori culture but says that many indicators do not back this up.

Through his work in education, and talking with other Māori support people, James has seen a lot of evidence showing that a sense of belonging is critical for the development of the individual.

He has mentored troubled youths who feel a lack of identity, encouraging them to learn about their iwi, language and culture.

Once they learn more about their tūrangawaewae (a place to stand), they lose their tendency to misbehave because they have a sense of belonging, he says.

“It’s important for Māori people to be able to do that with a degree of certainty, so saying where you’re from is important,” says James (right).

NEAVIN Broughton is the education co-ordinator for the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust, an urban Māori organisation in Wellington.

Neavin says the fundamental question Māori ask themselves is “Ko wai au?” (Who am I?). Finding out their ancestry enables Māori to make a link back down to the earth.

The word “whakapapa” is made up of two words. “Whaka” means to make, to do, to bring into existence and “papa” refers to Papatūānuku (the land), so “whakapapa” literally means making a link back to the earth.

However, learning about ancestry and traditional culture is not a priority for all Māori.

“I think some people are very happy to be disconnected from being Māori,” says Neavin.

JOSH Hyde, a Māori student at Whitireia Journalism, says he did not know he was Māori until a few years ago.

“It’s pretty exciting for me. I was just one in a million before I knew and now I feel like there is this whole different part of me,” he says.

Josh’s class colleague, SIENA Yates, says she is not too bothered about feeling disconnected from Māori culture.

“I feel strong enough in who I am, in my identity. I don’t feel like I need it (Māori culture) to identify myself,” she says.

Reasons for alienation from culture

It is impossible to measure how disconnected people are from their culture because, for instance, if you can’t speak the language does that automatically mean you are disconnected?

“Being Māori isn’t really a continuum. You’re either Māori or you’re not. You can’t make yourself more Māori by learning the language or doing the kapa haka,” says Neavin.

Professor Mason Durie, well known for his contributions to Māori health, said Māori have a basic right to be as Māori as they want to be, whenever they want to be, in whatever degree they choose to be, and there should be no criticism of that. READ MORE >

Causes for Māori people disconnecting from their culture include inter-racial relationships, moving away from the marae, adoption, legislation such as the privatisation of land, and education.

The urban migration of the 1950s/60s and migration to Australia and beyond isolated many Māori from traditional practices.

Many are unable to reconnect, for example if they have not had the chance or do not know their ancestry. There are also those who actively choose not to be part of the culture.

“Up until a certain point in your life you don’t really have a choice. You are brought up in whatever culture it is,” says Neavin.

The first factor that began the alienation of many Māori from their culture was colonisation.

Traditional customs were left to the side as Māori were assimilated to live under Pakeha law and culture. An example is the law in the early twentieth century that outlawed speaking te reo in schools.

“My grandfather was strapped for speaking te reo so he stopped. He refused to teach my father and my father didn’t have the ability to teach me. So by default I was artificially separated from my culture and language because of things that happened to my grandfather in the 1900s,” says Neavin.

Shame is another factor that disconnects Māori people from their traditional culture.

In Neavin’s generation, Māori children felt a little ashamed to be Māori because, in particular areas, being Māori was associated with drinking, gangs and violence.

“In many instances it’s easier to live the New Zealand culture than the Māori culture. If you weren’t brought up within a traditional world, learning te reo and going to the marae, you have to go through that process, which isn’t comfortable for everyone.”

Contemporary Māori culture

But what is the Māori culture of today?

Neavin says some people think Māori culture is reminiscent of Once Were Warriors: “It’s drinking, it’s violence, it’s being tough.”

“If you look at health stats, education stats, incarceration stats, Māori are disproportionately represented in all those types of stats, so that culture that they’ve connected themselves to is a really big issue.”

Others view the Māori culture as the pre-European Māori culture that is based on the law of nature. The Port Nicholson Trust tries to rejuvenate this traditional culture.

“We can take the principles of pre-European Māori culture but you are always going to have to teach them within a post European context,” says Neavin.

He says some Māori choose not to be involved either in the dark side or in the pre-European side because they’ve become comfortable in a third culture, which some call the New Zealand culture.

New forms of Māori culture have also emerged. Groups of Māori have come together in different cities and created whole new structures that are not part of traditional iwis, says Neavin.

An example is the Waipareira Trust in Auckland, which is made up of Māori from all over New Zealand that have left their traditional homelands and banded together as an urban iwi.

There are also groups that still live in a similar way to their pre-European ancestors, having little contact with others and living off the land.

One example is the Ngāi Tūhoe iwi in the eastern North Island that has a unique culture of its own.

“Tūhoe is an entity in itself and someone from the city couldn’t just rock on out there and pick up that lifestyle, they just wouldn’t accept you,” says Neavin.

What encourages Māori to reconnect with their roots?

A number of factors encourage Māori to reconnect with the Māori culture.

“Many have an intrinsic desire to reconnect and never lose that desire to learn more about their whakapapa. They talk about being lost or not fitting into their society,” says Nicola.

Neavin says life threatening experiences often encourage Māori to reconnect with their culture and relatives.

“When people get faced with their own mortality, or the mortality of people around them, it tends to help them get over whatever issues they might have that are barriers to reconnecting with their culture.”

James felt this way when his mother had a stroke.

“I had this thunderbolt that, crikey, when she dies I’ll have to take her back to her marae and as her eldest son there’ll be expectations of me,” says James.

This encouraged him to take the te reo course at Whitireia.

“When my mum did die I took her back to her home marae and I was able to stand up and take my rightful place.”

Another significant event which encourages people to reconnect with their culture is when they have children.

Māori may reconnect with their family and marae, or send their children to Kōhanga Reo or other te reo courses, and choose to learn the language themselves too, says Neavin.

“I think as a parent, you always want better for your child than you had. So that tends to have people move out of their comfort zones and say, I’ve found it really hard to reconnect with being Māori, do I want to hand that down as a legacy to my children?”

In recent decades, organisations such as Māori immersion schools, the Māori Language Commission, and trusts such as the Port Nicholson Trust have been created to provide the opportunity for Māori to reconnect with their culture.

“But it’s hard to say how Māori in general can do it, because Tūhoe do it in a different way, Taranaki do it in a different way, we all do it in such different ways,” says Neavin.

Josh says he would like to pick up the Māori language and culture because his grandparents are getting old.

He also says “sometimes it sucks just being white”.

Siena thinks it is the government’s obligation to make learning te reo compulsory in schools.

“We teach too many useless languages, like French, and our official languages, like sign language and te reo, get ignored.”

Neavin says that part of the role of the Port Nicholson Trust is to research the history of Māori people from Taranaki, both for their own knowledge and also to educate others.

“That’s our education strategy to combat the alienation of our people from their culture.”

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is a journalism student at Whitireia
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