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Ko Wai Au
May 31, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Ko Wai Au?

Life begins with a naked form. Tōku mata is blank. Fast-forward 20 years, and you have a somewhat developed identity. Neither Pākehā nor Māori at its core, but an amalgamation of ancestral influences. Without tangible cultural markers, many ‘white’ or ‘fair’ Māori face serious cultural confusion, social misrepresentation and a harsh inferiority complex – all as a result of displaying the diversifying face of Māori.

Down, cause I ain’t brown

You may laugh, but the struggle of a fair Māori is real.

I had spent the afternoon with a ‘brown’-looking Māori, puzzled as to why other Māori people in the street would acknowledge my colleague in a different manner to me as they passed by. What made me different from her? Sure, I lack the physical features of my tūpuna, but what right does that give Māori and non-Māori alike to question my whakapapa?

From an early age, I had felt like an inferior Māori. A majority of these feelings came from physical insecurities, as if to say I would be respected more as a Māori if I looked like other Māori. Albeit, if I were born a few generations earlier, I would have been at an advantage compared to my ‘brown’ cousins. But in this day and age, I look like your average Kiwi, forged in a giant ethnic melting pot.

I’ve spent countless hours in the sun, exercising poor sun-safety practices in an attempt to obtain ‘the Māori look’. However, to my dismay, my sun-kissed skin only emphasised my French heritage.

I have had instances where I have been pulled aside and pushed away as a result of my non-Māori appearance. It truly is sad to think that I celebrated being recognised as a Māori after participating in an ‘us’ and ‘them’ racial divide; I was just glad to be included.

Proud? Or just loud?

Apparently, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The Prime Minister’s daughter is well versed in the art of flattery if we use these standards. Wearing a war headdress does not make her anymore of a Native American than it would without the headdress. The same goes for tā moko, having one does not make you more or less Māori.

Loud symbols of cultural identity are everywhere. We imitate other cultures on a regular basis, picking and choosing the visual symbols that suit us and disregarding everything that doesn’t. Regardless of its traditional origin and the context of its use, it seems normal to be loud about cultural ‘products’.

There is a time and a place for cultural displays, and it often should not be done without the consultation of those well versed in that specific culture’s tikanga. Feathered headdresses show their magical and spiritual importance for ceremonial purposes. Tā moko maps an identity.

The purpose of tā moko is ultimately to tell a story, the story of the wearer’s life. Moko is an organic process: as a life progresses with various special events, milestones and rites of passage reached, the identity of the wearer develops. Ideally, moko is to develop with the wearer. Every drop of ink is a physical embodiment of a link to whakapapa.

Although the notion of interconnectedness between the past, present and future may be a nice concept, there is additional pressure to wear your identity on your sleeve when you are seen as culturally displaced. As a fair Māori, I often feel the pressure to have a tā moko, with the thought that if I had a tā moko people would stop assuming that I am Pākehā. Maybe it’s the same logic as our cuzzies on The GC: “it’s cool to have a tā moko so everyone knows that you are Māori.” These social pressures to have tā moko take away from the essence and true cultural representation of what is Māori.

Tūpuna vs Ancestors

I have heard the criticism that many Māori outwardly express and participate in tikanga Māori, but fail to pay the same etiquette for their non-Māori heritage.  My justification for this can be best explained in a waiata composed by Eru Timoko Ihaka:

“Nō nga tūpuna
Tuku iho, tuku iho”

An emphasis is put on the practice of tūpuna passing down mātauranga Māori and the significance of preserving all things for future generations. Our tūpuna have insured that we remember them. We are educated through stories of our tūpuna embedded in mōteatea, waiata and toi whakairo, to name a few.

On the other hand, my northwest-European ancestors’ essence has remained in their homeland. The ancestors left their homeland with the prospects of a new life, leaving behind luxuries and customs of their people. That being said, many Europeans were accustomed to continually changing ideals. Their territories were invaded and their core religions changed. They were essentially an adaptable people at the mercy of the dominant authority of the time.

Western culture is notorious for its pressure to assimilate. Various European entities have forced assimilation on one another; it is something that they are used to. It is a core feature of social Darwinism; if you want to survive, you assimilate. Māori were never forced to face this issue prior to colonisation, relatively unchallenged in their own whenua before the arrival of Pākehā.

This is where a distinction between the developments of the two peoples is apparent; Europeans were willing to assimilate to survive, even if it meant neglecting aspects of their heritage. Māori were interested in new technologies of the Europeans; however, not all Māori were and are willing to disregard features of Māoridom that have been passed down from our tūpuna.

Hupane, kaupane, whiti te ra

Obvious symbols of cultural identity do not create any greater association with a culture itself. But life in this ethnic melting pot is producing a diverse generation that struggles to identify with a singular culture. As a consequence, many of us will have to make judgments on which parts of our respective cultures to accept, as many will have conflicting ideas. My Pākehā heritage tells me to refrain from printing marks on my skin, but this clashes with the physical representation of my Māori identity.

These problems are going to become dominant in the lives of all New Zealanders. We live in the dawn of a new era where physical ethnic markers of culture will not become the core focus of culture itself. When we are stripped naked of these tangible symbols, we are left with the true essence of culture.

Ko tōu reo
Ko tōku reo
Te tuakiri tangata
Tīhei uriuri
Tīhei nakonako

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