Jul 31, 2013

Moon and Maori: our complicated relationship

It isn’t said enough: don’t be a douchebag. Presumably no one told Paul Moon. Writing in the Herald:

Since the 1880s Whakarewarewa… has been where tourists have gone to see an "authentic", "living" Maori village…

Whakarewarewa is not a "village" in the conventional sense. Its main reason for existence is not the social needs of the community but the gaze of outsiders.

Whakarewarewa is a home. It might have a dual purpose – as a home and as a tourist attraction – but that doesn’t negate its authenticity. Its residents won’t take kindly to being told that their lifestyle is not authentic. More broadly, Te Arawa identity is woven in the history of Whakarewarewa. If their ties to Whakarewarewa don’t lend authenticity, heaven knows what does.

The whole contrivance is a throwback to Victorian preferences for the role and placement of native peoples: smiling performers of their "primitive" cultures rolled out for the entertainment of the "civilised" visitor… The natives are locked in a state of perpetual but picturesque decrepitude. The result is an overwrought form of exotica - culture packaged to tantalise the imagination of spectators.

Perhaps paradoxically, I agree with Moon. 19th and 20th century expectations of Maori culture are weaved throughout several tourist attractions. Not so much Whakarewarewa, but others. Take the Tamaki Maori Village. The Village is a glossy representation of pre-European Maori society. The Village plays to the expectations or, more cynically, the prejudices of its customers. But that’s what happens when culture is commodified for consumption. It’s packaged for the dominant group. Another article quotes Moon arguing that:

The use of the haka on the sports field, he said, had turned it into an entertainment spectacle. 

"Is it appropriate for a sports match? This is a professional team, a business, performing a haka as part of the entertainment."

The Haka and sports is different. Ka Mate and the All Blacks is a prominent example of cultural reappropriation in New Zealand. In its former guise, Ka Mate was used to satisfy the “Victorian” expectations of New Zealand and New Zealanders. It was used disparagingly. Ka Mate’s reclaimation was a form of socio-cultural empowerment. The haka is now an empowering ritual across New Zealand sport.

Moon… said he cringed at a powhiri he attended at a government department.

"There was not one Maori involved in the whole process, and I was sitting there watching it and thinking, there are two groups of Europeans engaging in a process about which they know very little.

"I'd hesitate to use the word 'fake', but there's certainly an element of the culture being corrupted."

This is more difficult. The situation where a room full of non-Maori are performing a powhiri opens difficult questions around whether powhiri is a part of New Zealand culture or, cynically speaking, is it a form of PC appeasement/liberal guilt/cultural appropriation/etc. I prefer the former. Personally, I don’t find any issue with non-Maori conducting a powhiri in a New Zealand context. Odd, yeah, offensive, no. Do you agree?

Post-script: this isn’t an attack on Paul Moon. He does good work, if sometimes (well, a lot of the time) he takes an offensive tone and many Maori disagree with him. His book - Tohunga: Hohepa Kereopa - is very interesting. 


  1. How do you get a section of government department with no Maori? That's the more concerning thing in this instance.

    1. True. I hadn't questioned that. With that in mind, I wonder whether the group did include Maori, but they (for want of a better term) were European-looking.

    2. Yeah I would guess this is the most likely scenario. Too many people immediately judge someone's identity based on their skin colour. I can't imagine a Government department holding a powhiri with no Maori around. Maybe us white Maoris aren't 'authentic' enough for Moon. lol.

  2. The main issue I have with Paul Moon is that he is overused in the media as a commentator on Maori issues. Surely the media can find some other commentators who are actually Maori to talk about some of the issues Paul Moon comments on.

    1. Indeed, Samson...

      And having seen one young chap on THINK TANK just recently, I can offer up one articulate and well informed person...

      Morgan - that's you, mate.

      As to your question "Personally, I don’t find any issue with non-Maori conducting a powhiri in a New Zealand context. Odd, yeah, offensive, no. Do you agree?"

      The only thing I can add to that is if someone greeted me in my parent's native language (they're Eastern European). How would I view it?

      First thing is - context.

      Secondly, are they trying to be "clever", or have made a genuine effort?

      I agree, it might seem a bit odd...

      But then again, our local fish and chip owners (a delightful couple from Cambodia) are slowly teaching me a few words of Khmer every time I go in for an order of 'shark'n'tatties', and I greet them in their native tongue.

      I think they appreciate my effort. Though I have to watch the husband - the Khmer phrases he tries to teach me are X-rated and mostly certainly do not mean "how is your day"?

  3. Whether it is the former or the latter depends very much on the participants, by which I mean not just the speakers but also the audience who might or might not identify with the ritual, or consider it relevant to the context.

    Those who don't identify with a ritual - whether cultural or religious - find its repetition a tedious and alienating imposition. To what extent non-Maori NZers identify with the powhiri and consider it relevant to which contexts, I don't know and, in my experience, are never asked.

    Kiwi Dave

  4. Paul often says things that Maori don't agree with and he also says things Pakeha don't agree with I genuinely think he takes his perspectives from a pure historical perspective.



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