Table Manners

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I’m going to describe a few scenarios – all of them are real, and all of them have happened recently, and all of them relate to each other.

Scenario 1:

I’m at the 2016 Pacific Climate Change Conference, as a member of a panel on Climate Change, Social Justice and Gender Rights. It’s the end of the first day. The entire panel is filled with other indigenous wāhine and as we bring people into the room I start to feel the emotion and it occurs to me that this is the first all – indigenous panel to speak at that conference. The bulk of the speakers, up to that point (and indeed the bulk of the speakers throughout the conference) were not indigenous – and at times I struggled with the dominance of the heavily christian, hetero-normative views espoused even by my own Tagaloa relations who seemed loathe to draw the connection between  Christianity, colonization, and indigenous dispossession, and many who also seemed simply happy to be involved in the conversation.

So there we are in a large grey lecture hall, I’m staring at the walls and try to visualise tukutuku panels, and carved pou, to make myself feel more comfortable for what I have to say. When my sister from Kiribati gets up to speak, her voice is thick with emotion. She has come so far, and there is so much on the line for her people, for their way of life, and it is all so immediate for them… she had come here with such hope – and yet there she is, face flushed and tears of frustration rolling down her cheeks, because at the end of day one, she could barely understand one word of what had been spoken. The graphs, the numbers, the statistics… all of it was in another language. My heart breaks for her because she is so damn right.

Scenario 2:

I’m sitting in a meeting room in my town surrounded by industry interests and notables – councillors, businessmen, corporate academics, all non-Maori save for a handful of us. The proposal on the table? A regional research center that will create a sustainable “Bioregion” economy. I understand a Bioregion to be an ecologically distinct area that allows for safe translocation of species… but from the look of the crowd (not one conservationist, mainly corporate interests) I’m guessing they’re not talking about our native bats. So I ask three pretty obvious questions:

“Who is driving this conversation?”

“What do you mean by sustainability?”

“What do you mean by a Bioregion?”

The answers are quite telling –

The Bioregion is not clearly defined at all but the inference is that a set of production standards are to be set that will create a profile of sustainable practice for our region. Ok – still a little muddy but let’s carry on… Nobody wants to put their hand up and admit that they are driving the conversation. My warning bells start ringing. The response is that it’s been “organic” and has “driven itself”. Nothing drives itself for five years. Now the bells are clanging and the only driving I can see is in the direction of a very familiar cliff. The group’s definition of sustainability?

“To be able to get the same product from the same soil in 100 or 1000 years”.  They all look quite chuffed at themselves, and I’m pretty sure they think they’re all being quite green and innovative.

Here’s where we come undone. You see, the bulk of the land they are talking about is not actually their land. SOME in the room have had a very concerning approach to land-lease – consuming, destroying topsoil and arability, and moving on. An approach I like to think of as “Monsanto-locust”. I’m trying hard to give them the benefit of the doubt but it’s looking more and more like market-model greenwashing than genuine desire for a healthy region. I take a big breath, stand, and point out the following issues with the proposal:

  1. It’s largely Maori land they are talking about, upon which the natural resource economy of our region is based.
  2. Maori experience the sharp end of the socio-economic challenges that we face in our region, including poor housing, ill health, education outcomes and joblessness. I see this as a clear result of a system that is not designed to meet Maori needs, and certainly not the distinctive Maori needs in our region.
  3. Our region is distinctive from everywhere else in Aotearoa (which has a 15% Maori population) in that our region ranges between 50% to 0ver 95% Maori population.
  4. Because sustainability and social justice go hand in hand – any discussion about sustainability in a colonized land should include one about indigenous rights , and so Maori futures hold a central role in this project – but that is not reflected in who is holding the conversation, or where it is being held.
  5. All of the points above mean that Maori should be at the center of this discussion, not the periphery – because essentially – this is Maori research they are proposing to do.

So I oppose the vote for endorsement, and the meeting concludes without the vote going ahead. When the minutes come out, my concerns are erased, and instead a happy picture of community endorsement is presented. I ask for my concerns to be noted. The corporate researcher for Massey University who was taking the minutes and the Dame who was seated at the same table both claim to have “no memory” of the concerns.

THIS is the group spearheading sustainability for our region.

(n.b. Their proposal was declined by the funders, but of course they have already committed to continuing “the journey towards a sustainable and prosperous region”).

Scenario 3

Now we’re moving from little old colonial Gisborne over to big bright Los Angeles, and the #oscarssowhite campaign.

I fully support the stand made. Storytelling is probably the oldest form of social control there is – where we lay down acceptable behaviour, create the norms, define the heroes and condemn the wicked. Right now the dominant narrative system is white, and male, and that is whom it stands to benefit.I don’t see this just as being about actors, or writers, it’s the Hollywood system as a whole.

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So I found it quite interesting that Taika Waititi commented publicly on this issue, given his relationship to arguably the granddaddy of cultural appropriation, Disney.

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One of these things, Taika likes to call out. The other, he likes to collaborate with.

So I challenged him… the response? Well it moved from surprise, to solidarity, to defence, then Taika took a weird left turn and got personal, and stopped off briefly at “the pacific is too diverse to please everyone anyway” before winding up at “you do your thing, I’ll do mine”. Here’s the link to the whole conversation if you’re interested.

So what’s the binding thread that runs through all of these scenarios?

Well I’ll give you a hint at this point – it’s not the pakeha I’m talking to. In fact I’m kind of tired of talking to Non-Maori about these issues. I’d rather talk with my own, and I think we have a LOT to talk about. In a decolonized world – we can be the norm, we are robust enough to critically analyse each others’ work and decisions, so let’s have this discussion. So often the message to the colonizer is that indigenous people need to be involved in order to avoid appropriation. And yet here we are, in 2016, with The Rock telling us all that he’s playing Disney’s “MAUI – a big, brown tattooed demigod who tries not to screw it all up. Just like in real life”.

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Internalized colonialism at it’s finest.

Here’s some real life for you, Dwayne. I descend directly down from Maui (I could even provide the genealogy but that’s not knowledge for general consumption – yep that’s a refusal). Maui’s canoe sits atop my sacred mountain Hikurangi. He is an Atua, a deity, he is not up for trivialization – not by you, and certainly not through you, by Disney. It’s not their property to take in this way – not even when you, and Taika, and whoever else wants to help them along their way. Sorry, but in this case indigenous participation doesn’t cut it, it’s still pakeha controlling the story, telling it in their way, in their forum, for their benefit.

There’s a story that I like to tell my research students at the beginning of our journey together, and it’s a story about stories.

Probably the best known early ethnographer of Maori was Elsdon Best. From the late 19th century into the early 20th century, Best published a number of texts, many of which are still utilized today, and as some of them are observations of Maori who were yet to be assimilated in any way – they have been, and are still, considered to be the authoritative texts on Maori realities before European arrival.

Here’s his observations on Maori as workers:

“I have known Maori bush-workers, when they had the misfortune to break a timber-jack, return to their camp in a state of despondency for the balance of the day. European workmen, under similar circumstances, would have condemned their luck, but would have worked the harder to make up the loss.

To sum up: in conditions of steady, continuous work, demanding strength, endurance, and steady application, the Maori is not the equal to the European settler. The discipline that produces these qualities is the product of more advanced civilizations, and is not a feature of the lower planes of civilization.”

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So – it’s quite clear that Best has already established a hierarchical view, where Maori occupy the “lower planes of civilisation” and is merely commenting on whether we, on our lower plane, can match the work ethic of the “advanced” pakeha. It should be noted at this point that this man, upon whose ideas most of our current understandings of pre-colonial Maori were made – also volunteered in the sacking of the peaceful settlement of Parihaka.

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Parihaka Pa, November 5 1881, where peaceful resistance was met with brutal Crown force.

What Best failed to note in his observations of Maori work ethic was the ancestral tradition of tohu. Our ancestors believed fervently in watching for signs, not only in the stars, in the waterways, in the winds, but also in daily phenomena. A broken jack was often seen as an ill omen, and continuing work for that day was inadvisable.

So of course, this is what happens when you have someone making observations who is unfamiliar with the nuance of the culture he is observing. But those assumptions, learned under a western lens, were then assumed to be the accepted FACT. These “observed truths” were then used by our government to legitimise repeated violations of indigenous rights. They were used to justify the theft of our land, the degradation of our language, the trivialisation of our beliefs, and the removal of our children from their families and communities. They were used to legitimise nothing less than warfare upon our people.

Do you see now the immense role that approaches to knowledge plays in our outcomes?

The perception of our women as promiscuous, of our men as lazy and barbaric, the continuous portrayal of the customs and protocols as “primitive” also laid the groundwork for legitimising the coercive assimilation into a more “civilised” society.

And here is the appalling part – as that assimilation took place over generations – as more of our kinship ties were broken through displacement of the body, mind and soul… the internal voice of our ancestors became replaced with the voice of the colonizer – and thus – this errant portrayal also became the way that many of our own people came to understand themselves. That is the true tragedy, and the mark of success of the colonizer. When he can sit back, put his feet up, and rest assured that his work will be perpetuated by his very own products. After all, who better to perpetuate your work than those who look, and walk, just like those whom you seek to convert.

At around about the same time as Best was traipsing around the land, Te Whatahoro Jury was collecting wisdom from the great tohunga, Te Matorohanga. This was one of, if not the, first time that tohunga wisdom was captured in writing – and there were many instances where Te Matorohanga threw him and the other scribes out, and openly criticized the process. Without a doubt, there was much that he refused to share. What was shared, wound up in the hands of Percy Smith… another pakeha – who translated, edited, and published those writings – and his translation and handling of those teachings has, again, been highly criticised.

See – our tipuna already KNEW the great damage that could be visited by knowledge. They understood that it’s not just about the content – it’s about who’s telling the story, how it’s being told, where it’s being told, and for whose benefit. They put rules and restrictions in place about knowledge, because they knew that knowledge is power. That in the hands of certain people, that power can, and will, be abused. That it must be accompanied with teachings about mana, about respect, and about safety. That it can be a forceful weapon, which can be easily taken out of your hands. That’s why we had wananga, that’s why knowledge had to be earnt, that’s why access was restricted, and at times refused.

I know there is a space for our solid allies to hold this conversation – and I value them – largely because they understand that the best of allies supports and promotes indigenous voices, not replaces them.

So when I see “knowledge” about our indigenous realities being reflected back at me in a voice that is not our own – that often screams injustice to me. Whether it is through a conference that has privileged the non-indigenous voice, whether it is a research center that seeks to continue the age-old tradition of dominating Maori realities with Non-Maori voices, whether it is the industrial storytelling complex assuming the right to portray our voyaging traditions – we need to get better at seeing the structural injustice of these spaces – and demand better than just “participation” – and that includes, at times, the refusal to participate, especially when it is used to validate the voice of the colonizer.

We need to stop putting our kai up on the table for them – and we need to stop being so thankful for being invited to the damn table, when it’s our table.