Before I came to Salient I worked at the Ministry of Social Development. The first position I held at the Ministry involved processing requests for Child, Youth and Family files—usually from clients, family members or lawyers. Before releasing the information, I had to read through the files and redact any information that was private to another person.
Almost without exception, the files told grim tales of hardship and suffering, with occasional shimmers of hope that, more often than not, turned out to be mirages. The average length of a file was around 200 pages, although once I had to process a 20,000-page file—an unrelenting, generation-spanning account of abuse. For the first few weeks my colleagues and I—we were almost all recent graduates, most from nice homes—had troubling dreams about the things we’d read. Occasionally we’d need to take time out to clear our heads or have a quiet chat to Bret, our unfailingly lovely manager. Eventually we became desensitised, developed a pitch-black sense of humour, and traded war stories at the water cooler.
I was going to write something cliched here about “the darkness of the human soul”, but then I don’t believe in souls. We’re slabs of genetic material thrown together in a pot, and what we call “society” is our collective attempt to make sense of it all. The best results—when we make something useful or interesting or awe-inspiring or poignant—go by the name culture; when we screw it up, it’s called injustice.
The Te Ao Mārama issue of Salient sits at a troubling crossroads between the best and worst society has to offer. On the one hand, this issue, which is now in its 44th year, is a great opportunity to celebrate the unique and beautiful Māori culture. On the other, we wouldn’t need to produce this issue were it not for the scandalous marginalisation of said culture and the oppression, both current and historical, of the original inhabitants of this land.
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Māori were over-represented in the awful files I read at MSD, and bear the brunt of New Zealand’s screw-ups as a country. Māori are also hugely under-represented in media organisations like Salient. These are not unrelated issues. The political and economic deprivation of Māori in New Zealand and the lack of Māori voices in the media are both legacies of our colonial past. But they’re also mutually reinforcing. For as long as journalism remains a predominantly middle-class profession, it will always suffer from a lack of economically disadvantaged voices, and by extension Māori. At the same time, cultural marginalisation breeds other forms—political, economic, social. Of all the peoples, indigenous or otherwise, who were forced to assimilate into an outside, imperialist culture, none have come out the other side on a level pegging.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Māori are gaining tertiary qualifications at ever-increasing rates, and Māori TV produces the kind of journalism MediaWorks can only dream of (that is, if MediaWorks’ dreams weren’t already taken up exclusively by Paul Henry draped seductively over fat stacks of cash while crooning various Top 40 hits). But it’s important not to be complacent.
It’s also important that we at Salient are not too self-congratulatory about the fact that we’ve just produced a Te Reo issue. The reality is that Salient, the circles in which most Salient staff and contributors move, and the New Zealand print media in general are all chronically white; that Te Ao Mārama exists because, in the normal run of things, we don’t do enough to promote Māori perspectives and use of Te Reo in the magazine; and that it’s all too easy to use issues like Te Ao Mārama as a figleaf to avoid meaningful long-term change.
To those of you who have worked on this issue—especially our wonderful guest editor Te Po—thank you. Please don’t feel as though this is your one annual opportunity to contribute to Salient. The door is open and we need your voices.