Views My Own

This Māori Language Week We Deserve More Than Token Gestures

Te Reo Māori-speaking Moana and painted police cars fail to address the real issues facing Māori.
September 11, 2017, 4:35am

This week is Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, or Māori Language Week. It is always a week of celebration and jubilance, giving visibility to a language that, within mainstream New Zealand, is restricted to obligatory gesture or ceremony. Te Taura Whiti i te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission, has been industrious in co-ordinating several events to mark the occasion. Disney's Moana was recorded in te reo and will screen throughout the week. The New Zealand Police independently announced new "koru-esque" designs with "pirihimana", transliterated from police, plastered on squad cars. Both are spokes in the wheel of colonial sites of power. It is an invitation to pierce the skin of Te Ao Māori without ever having to acknowledge the wound festering underneath, placating Māori anger and assuaging settler guilt.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush with the pirihimana (police) car. Image courtesy of NZ Police.

I must acknowledge the mahi of Te Taura Whiti i te Reo Māori. I do not wish to discredit their tireless efforts to rejuvenate a language confined by the limits the Crown defines. Representation in our media is crucial for our rangatahi who are conditioned to accept negative misconceptions about themselves. And yet, Moana remains a contentious topic within Pacific Island and Māori communities. The problem lies with the systemic commodification and appropriation of indigenous stories. In creating Moana, Disney plucked elements of multi-faceted Poly communities and blended them into one homogenous body. Maui is depicted as selfish, consumed by personal glory. In Māori stories, he had cheek but most acts were done for the benefit of his people. This may differ for Samoans, or Kanaka Maoli. It is dangerous to homogenise our unique traditions because we are still fighting to reclaim ownership over them.

For many Māori, the New Zealand police are an extension of the colonial institution designed to suppress the desire for tino rangatiratanga, and maintain the current hegemony. The new designs for the squad cars is a hollow, performative gesture that presents a façade of inclusion to the public. It is a popular narrative that allows the public to view Māori as aggressive. As Māori, the rates of incarceration are etched into memory. Fifteen percent of the population, but over half of the total prison population. For wāhine, 60 percent. My own interactions with the police have been horrific. I have been harassed and followed to and from work. I have been arrested for challenging what I know is illegal conduct. I have been punched in the head. I have been refused medical care despite a long-term heart condition. And I pass as white. Being brown in this country garners a much more traumatic experience.

Māori alternatives need to be employed in both sectors. Māori scholar Dr. Angela Moewaka-Barnes has contributed immensely to the development of kaupapa Māori film theory. Kaupapa Māori film theory is an approach to production grounded in the Māori world view, founded on our unique epistemological and metaphysical traditions. The principles, identified by Hingangaroa Smith, include tino rangatiratanga, taonga tuku iho (cultural aspirations), ako Māori (culturally preferred pedagogy), kia piki ake i ngā raruraru i te kainga (socio-economic mediation), whānau and kaupapa. It is an approach you can find in films like Mt Zion and Poi-E directed by Tearepa Kahi, which guarantee the voices of Māori are empowered in their storytelling capacity, and ensures profit is distributed equally to enhance the realities of the communities involved.

There is no such easy solution for koru-esque designs adopted by police. For many Māori, they are, and always will be, an occupying force serving the will of the Crown. Short term initiatives, such as cultural training and employing more Māori police officers, don't go far enough in addressing the deep-rooted systemic problems. The only solution which will benefit Māori is acknowledgement of our role as tangata whenua, entrenchment of Te Tiriti and the establishment of a working constitution which protects the rights of Māori.

To settle for performative gestures is to accept that they will bring little material benefit for Māori. To change the outcomes for Māori, decolonisation is a necessity. Decolonisation is dismantling the colonial state and its institutions, and fighting to build a society founded on inclusion of all. It is a difficult, but necessary, conversation which forces us all to confront the ugly truth in our collective history. Painting a Māori face on a colonial body isn't dynamic. It is only more of the same.

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