Culture is a double-edged sword and a “human creation”

Māori people are often assumed to be an ethnic representative of a people – and a proponent of, and knowledgeable in, Māori culture to some degree. Photo: Getty Images

Culture can unify us but it can also constrain us. It is created by humans as no one is born following or believing cultural norms. If I had been adopted by a family from another culture their culture would be my culture regardless of the colour of my skin and my genetic makeup.

Victoria University’s Māmari Stephens has examined the double-edged sword of culture in the digital magazine e-Tangata.  She says that we should reject the idea that Māori are defined by an unchanging set of characteristics and behaviours.

[…] I had one of those ‘only Māori in the room’ moments recently. I have a lot of those. These moments don’t offend me. I work in mainstream tertiary education, I’m Māori and I profess to know something about things Māori. So what did I expect? Despite all that, these moments can be awkward.

I was in a meeting about a research funding proposal with very clued-up academics from various faculties. The heads swivelled in my direction as I’m asked my opinion on what I think the best direction for Māori would be, in regard to X or Y of the proposal.

There is a pause. Expectations hang heavy in the air. The words I say are to be weighed and perhaps given a weight disproportionate to their value. Or perhaps the reverse.

[…] I just snorted, laughed and said: “Well, I don’t know!”

[…] I really don’t know what Māori need, what Māori want, what direction would be best for Māori – how best to cater to, provide for, uphold and respect all things Māori. I have no portal into the Māori hive-mind. I take educated guesses in context. That’s all I can ever do.

[…] I’m not just assumed to be an ethnic representative of a people or peoples at moments like this. I’m expected to be a proponent of, and knowledgeable in, Māori culture to some degree.
[…] Ah, culture. You marvellous double-edged sword, you.

After my meeting, I came home to a Facebook post that underscored the deep ambivalence I have towards our dominant notions of Māori culture. It was from an article outlining recent efforts being made to get young Māori into information technology:

Computer graphics company Animation Research’s founder Ian Taylor [Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāpuhi] said the lack of Māori engagement in ICT was disappointing, as in his experience when Māori got their hands on technology they adapted very quickly.

“I believe that Steve Jobs, he didn’t realise it – but he designed the iPad for young Māori. It wasn’t in our DNA to use paper and pen, never has been. We use our hands, we carve, we tell stories. We’re great storytellers and technology has allowed us to engage in that way.”

Reading this reminded me of another such moment in 2014 and another public statement from the prominent Māori educator Terehia Channings, of the recently closed Turakina Māori Girls’ College. Speaking on the benefits of kapa haka for kids, she said (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Well, Māori are practical people. We have problems with maths and science, we learn best with our hands.”

In both cases – and you don’t have to search too far to find other such presumptions bubbling up among friends and whānau – an ossified understanding of Māori culture is held up and venerated.

Māori people are practical. We make things and do things. We tell stories, we perform stories, but we don’t write them down for others to read. And we probably don’t read them either.

Forgive me if I take a moment off-screen to bash my over-educated head against a rather inviting red-brick wall.

Okay, I’m back.

I remember interviewing the actor and all-round extraordinary bloke Wi Kuki Kaa in 1992. He mused that people had often said to him that Māori were ‘naturals’ at acting, rugby and kapa haka.

“Nah,” he reckoned. In his view, if he had been raised in another family and in another culture, he would have been good at the things in those cultures. Māori weren’t ‘natural’ at kapa haka. They were taught to be that way. There may be a genetic inheritance at work, but that can always be retooled in other cultures.

Culture is a human creation – that is all. It is the product of generations of people doing, saying, writing, thinking, eating, acting, singing, playing and being together. Rinse and repeat.

[…] On the one hand, we might tend to view culture as a mysterious unifying quality that marks out one set of human beings from another set of human beings. On the other hand, culture is a constraint. Once the hallmarks of a given culture are identified, reinforced and repeated, it becomes really difficult to challenge. Innovation and change pose huge risks to those who identify particularly with an indigenous or minority culture.

So, the very moment we call on culture to help us advance a position, identify solutions to political problems, create unity and affirm kinship, it bites us on the backside and orders us back into the box of our own bloody making.

There is no phrase that fills me with more dread than “Māori are . . .” And yet sometimes I use it. Because how else do we target and speak to Māori without identifying who we think Māori are? How do we employ Māori knowledge or seek it, without being open to seeing such knowledge is peculiarly Māori in the first place? How do we challenge Māori culture without first acknowledging that it exists?

I guess the answer is in common sense and moderation. We should reject essentialism – the idea that as Māori we’re defined by an unchanging set of characteristics and behaviours – and the constraints it places on our evolution as a people.[…]



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