Māoritanga, souvenirs and New Zealand national identity: colonisation, co-option and commodification

Guess what? It’s another university essay…

Māoritanga, souvenirs and New Zealand national identity: colonisation, co-option and commodification

New Zealanders’ sense of national identity has changed considerably over time. While once it might have been virtually inseparable from British identity, recent decades have seen a shift, with Māoritanga increasingly co-opted into the national whole. To a lesser extent this has occurred for cultural symbols from other parts of the South Pacific. The relatively recent acceptance of Māoritanga is, however, still conditional on it taking place within a Pākehā-created structural framework. This is a process of further encroaching colonisation, with the battleground now moved from land to culture. The resulting commodified Māoritanga is fed into New Zealand’s national identity, and from there is sold to the outside world. This essay will examine how Māoritanga contributes to a Pākehā dominated sense of national identity in New Zealand, through the lens of Pākehā and Māori New Zealanders’ interactions with the rest of the world.

For Pākehā New Zealanders, unique symbols of national identity are few and far between. The pavlova and Phar Lap are claimed by Australia, fish & chips by Britain, and Kiwifruit are originally from China. Despite the non-native origin of much Kiwiana, the contexts of their reproduction still serve to alienate more recent immigrants to New Zealand, those who do not “share a common past” (Bell, 177). Notably absent in most depictions of Kiwiana, however, is any acknowledgement of the one unique part of New Zealand, Māoritanga. Donna Awatere expanded on this, suggesting that “in this country white people have no real identity of their own apart from that which exists in opposition to Māori … the Pākehā has got nothing and has never realised it” (cited in Bell, 177).

Many Pākehā have talked longingly about the cultural richness of Māoritanga, implicitly comparing it to the paucity of uniquely Pākehā culture. In 1954, The Very Rev. J. G. Laughton argued that “part of the action of Māoritanga undoubtedly is the realisation and revaluation of the things that are distinctively Māori, and outstanding in that category is the language” (11). Laughton went on to state that Māori had “lavished art on carved prows and stern posts of the ocean canoe and on the door posts of the tribal houses, and developed the arts of weaving and beautiful reed work“ (Ibid). In a situation where Pākehā identity, and therefore New Zealand’s national identity, was so weak in confidence, it was perhaps inevitable that Pākehā would look to appropriate elements of Māoritanga.

It is when seeking to represent New Zealand to the rest of the world that Pākehā are perhaps most likely to put forward bastardised elements of Māoritanga. Dr. Ani Mikaere notes that “when travelling overseas, Pākehā leap forward to perform bastardised versions of the haka and ‘Pokarekare Ana’, and adorn themselves with Maori pendants in an attempt to identify themselves as New Zealanders” (3). Mikaere contrasts this with the decrying of Māoritanga by those same people when in New Zealand, which she puts down to “cultural insecurity” that “knows no bounds” (Ibid). This policing of the acceptable level and nature of exposure and acknowledgement for Māoritanga, enacted by the Pākehā majority, serves to reassert Pākehā dominance over the indigenous people of this country.

The inclusion of Māoritanga as a part of a New Zealand tourist experience is regarded as essential. Briar O’Connor questions this, noting that while Māori cultural performances (such as haka and poi) are “offered as ‘authentic New Zealand experiences’, these tend to be available on the tourist route only” (161). Certainly, many Pākehā will never see a haka outside of the sports field. Instead, Māoritanga is used as a unique selling point to draw in tourists attracted to the ‘exotic other’. Once brought to New Zealand, tourists will pay money for ‘authentic’ cultural experiences and artefacts (such as tiki), at times in ignorance of cultural offensiveness, such as in the case of plastic tiki salad severs mentioned in O’Connor’s article (168-70).

When a piece of Māoritanga is turned into a commodity, it removes it from common ownership by all Māori, and changes it into something to be bought and sold on the capitalist market, something Pākehā brought with them to this country. Some Māori activists have fought against this, with one, Teanau Tuiono, noting that as some Māori have been assimilated into the capitalist system, it has served to create “capitalism with a smiley (Māori) face. Bullshit. Watching our rangatiratanga go up and down on the stock exchange is not a good thing” (6-7)

Māoritanga plays an increasing role in New Zealand’s national identity, including Pākehā identity. This role, however, remains strictly policed, and is only acceptable two circumstances: insofar as it accepts a capitalist framework and plays a part in New Zealand’s tourism industry, and when it allows Pākehā to foster a unique sense of national identity when interacting with the rest of the world. Pākehā have moved from attempting to destroy Māoritanga, as was done in earlier days of colonisation, into attempting to take it for themselves and use it as they see fit.

List of cited works

Bell, Claudia. “Kiwiana Revisited.” Cultural Studies in Aotearoa New Zealand: Identity, Space and Place, Claudia Bell & Steve Matthewman, eds., Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2004. 177. Print.

Laughton, The Very Rev. J. G. “Maoritanga.” Te Ao Hou, Erik Schwimmer, ed., Wellington: Maori Affairs Department, 1954. 11. Print.

Mikaere, Dr. Ani. “Are we all New Zealanders now?” A Maori response to the Pakeha quest for indigeneity. 2004. 3. Print.

O’Connor, Briar. “The Dilemma of Souvenirs.” Cultural Studies in Aotearoa New Zealand: Identity, Space and Place, Claudia Bell & Steve Matthewman, eds., Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2004. 161, 168-70. Print.

Tuiono, Teanau. “Tino Rangatiratanga and Capitalism.” Thrall Spring 2002. Christchurch: Thrall, 2002. 7. Print.

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4 Responses to Māoritanga, souvenirs and New Zealand national identity: colonisation, co-option and commodification

  1. [...] Māoritanga, souvenirs and New Zealand national identity … Share and Enjoy: [...]

  2. Really enjoyed reading your blog. Perhaps your readers would be interested in visiting NZ’s #1 Online Gift Store at http://www.NooZealand.co.nz.

  3. Shari Brown says:

    Wow.. that made alot of sense. I remember the Kia Ad in Italy that had the haka being performed by women and wrong. Maoritanga shouldn’t be taken advantage.

  4. Shari Brown says:

    However, there is no bounds to one creative interpretation of maori design. Just don’t steal the design from a maori person because that’s not right.

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