New Zealand notes, #2

    Another NZ piece I wanted to post earlier. But I’m home now, so once I get myself sorted out a bit after the trip I should be back to more regular posting.

Mike Roberts is a successful man. You can watch him adeptly
co-anchoring the hour-long evening news magazine on TV-3, or you can
see his face on billboards throughout the country. He has, by
his own reckoning “about one-third” Maori blood. But he
self-identifies strongly and confidently as a Maori.

Back in 1999 he decided to make a documentary about the life of his
(mostly Maori) father. He titled it “White sheep” He told me a bit about it:

My Dad grew up in one of the mainly
Maori communities on the rural east coast of the North Island, speaking
Maori at home. But back in those days, in the 1950s and even the
1960s, the government had a program to take Maori boys at age 14 and
put them in a trade school in a city somewhere. My Dad was one of
200 boys taken down to Christchurch, in the South Island. They
lived in group homes there, with about 20 boys in each. The
Pakeha there had never seen many Maori people, and my father remembers
how the Pakeha families would drive past the ‘home’ there on a Sunday
just to stare at them.

Of course it was all English-speaking down there. Back then, if
kids spoke Maori in school they were disciplined.

My Dad lost his ability to speak Maori. That’s one of his biggest

In the documentary, he talked about how it was when he went back to his
family on his annual leave. Of course, being in the city, in the
cooler part of the country, his skin color became paler than his
brothers’ back home. One time when he was visiting the family, one of
his brothers said to hi, ‘Face it: You’re just the white sheep of the

Roberts said the piece had been aired a number of times since he first
made it. “And I still get this fantastic response from viewers
who say, ‘That’s exactly how it was.'”

His mother is a Pakeha, and so is his wife. “No, I can’t
really speak Maori much, at all,” he said. In Auckland, where he
now lives with his wife and two young kids, there are a number of Maori
“language nests”– pre-school programs where young kids can have a
Maori immersion experience. “We’ve tried that for both our
kids. My son didn’t take to it. But my daughter, who’s
three, really seems to enjoy it. Maybe it’ll work for her.”

So does he think Maori culture and language is going to survive now, in
New Zealand?

“If you’d asked me ten years ago, I would have said No. Now, I’m
more optimistic. I think it will.”

What’s made the difference?

“Our Maori-language TV,” he said firmly. “We’ve had some bad
management problems there. But the prgoraming is basically good,
and it’s making a real difference. We also have some good local
radio stations– Maori hip-hop stations and some other formats. So yes,
now I think we’ll survive.”


I’d heard a different, more pessimistic view some hours earlier from a
Warwick Tie, a sociology professor and a dedicated observer of the NZ
scene. “Until five years ago, most New Zealanders would have
happily described the country as ‘bi-cultural’, and would have been
quite proud of that,” he said. But more recently…

there’s been a big swing towards people seeing ‘culture’ as
unnecessary. It’s a hyper-liberal view, of course. Ten
years ago, you could have seen the country as heading toward being as
bicultural as Canada. But not now.

I’ll give you an example. In publications in the field of
education, you used to see a lot of very deliberately used Maori
motifs, and pictures of happy Maori students working alongside Pakeha
in a lab or
classroom, or whatever. But now, the view these publications are
portraying is much more one of
education as an export commodity: how many Asian students can you cram
into one classroom?

The whole discourse here has changed, really, from one concerned with
culture to one dominated by economics and markets. And this has
affected what’s been happening in Pakeha-Maori relations. For
example, in response to the Maori claims through the
Waitangi Tribunal to the resources of the foreshore [the inter-tidal
zone] and sea-bed, their claims to the foreshore– which were seen as
being based primarily on a sense of Maori cultural connectedness to
it– were denied. But then the government turned round and gave
them control over 20 percent of the country’s aquaculture– fish

You could say that 20% is fairly generous. But
still, that decision kept the policy much more firmly in the realm of
than of ‘culture’.

Tie noted, too, that many people had thought that Maori stewardship of
the foreshore would have provided a good guarantee of general public
access to it. “We probably needed to spell that principle out,”
he said ruefully. “Shortly after the decision came out on the
foreshore issue, the government announced it was talking to a big steel
company about mining long stretches of beach for ore-bearing
sands. There’s a huge uproar about that!”


Nearly all public institutions of any size in today’s New Zealand have
a special space designated as a marae
that is, a Maori-style meeting-place.

In traditional Maori culture, the marae
was a place of great spiritual as well as social and political
significance (and there was often a huge taboo against Pakeha–
non-Maoris– being allowed to enter them.) A traditional marae
would be an enclosed area of grass near the front of the Maori village
or town. It would be entered through an elaborately carved wooden
gateway, and at the back of the open space would be a meeting house and
a totem pole and also, perhaps, a smaller elevated structure to house
the people’s treasures.

Anyone wanting to visit a traditional marae would have to wait outside
the gate until the people outside decided to admit them; but before
admittance was granted there would be a lengthy exchange of information
designed to establish the identity and test the intentions of the new
arrivals. A big feature of this exchange would be a ritualized
challenge to the newcomers enacted by some of the young men of the
village. This would take the form of a dance designed to show the
expertise of the young men in various martial arts and also to scare
away anyone of bad intention. At the height of this display, one
of the young men would toss a peace offering onto the grass beside the
“chief” of the visitors. If the chief stooped to pick up the
peace offering and offered words of peace, then the interaction could
be continued– with much additional dancing and singing– and
admittance would eventually be granted. If the chief refused to
do this, the young men of the village would sound the alarm, and the
whole village would prepare for battle.

The welcome, once granted, would be generous. The whole interaction
that constitutes the welcoming is known as a powhiri (po-fi-ri).

In modern New Zealand, most public institutions of any size organize
the staging of a powhiri to
mark the passage of members of the institution through any significant
life-passage. The gorgeous new National Museum stages a powhiri
every few months in its big, modern-style marae, to welcome all those
who have joined its staff since the last one was held. The bigger
prisons organize powhiris to mark the transition of inmates out of
prison and back to “noraml” life. Schools and universities stage
powhiris to welcome new students, and also to mark their graduations…

Most Pakeha New Zealanders seem fairly familiar with what is expected
during the various stages of a powhiri– and at the Maori places where
powhiris are staged as part of a broader, tourist-oriented “cultural
experience”, the main Maori guide working with groups of visitors is
happy to instruct the tourists as to what to do. The visitors
must have a designated “chief” (who must, I think, be male). The
chief needs to prepare a few suitable words to say at relevant points,
and know how to pick up the peace offering, when it gets offered.
The other members of the group need to sing a song or two at the
relevant times. At the tourist-focused cultural evening I went to, our
guide imparted all this instruction seriously, but with good humor; and
the attitude of the visitors– from Canada, Australia, the UK, and US–
was appropriately respectful…

3 thoughts on “New Zealand notes, #2”

  1. One fact perhaps worth commenting on is that something approaching 10% of New Zealand citizens at any given time are actually resident in Australia.
    New Zealanders of Maori descent are presumably there in proportion, learning to say “Seedney, feesh ‘n cheeps and seeks pack.”
    May not be a new phenomenon. I seem to remember reading somewhere that by 1840 about a thousand Maori had already visited Seedney.

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