So Disney has pulled the most ill-conceived merchandise idea of the year (perhaps decade) — the Maui skin suit — and issued a “sorry-some-of-you-were-offended” non-apology. While the decision to pull the suit was obviously the best one given the circumstances, the non-apology and the decision to run with that merchandise choice in the first place …
In Aotearoa we have a native praying mantis, te whē. Te whē provides us with a number of services, not least of which is keeping our maara, our food gardens, pest free. In order to have whē, we require a range of elements to be present, and in balance.
Whē requires other whē to mate with, whē requires insects to eat. Whē enjoys native, leafy shrubbery to hide under. That shrub requires loose, aerated, rich soil. The soil has it’s own needs. Bacteria. Warmth. Aeration. The spiders and ants aerate the soil and allow for the spread of the roots. The ants and spiders in turn have their own needs. The shrub also requires clean water and sunlight to grow. The water also has its needs. The shrub will require birds to spread its seed across the forest floor. Those birds will also have their needs.
You remove one of these elements… the sunlight, the water, the other insects, the birds – even the bacteria from the soil – and the other aspects of that system will be impacted upon.
I guess that’s the point that I want to start this post on. The complexity, and interdependence of our systems. How beautiful that is. How sacred and worthy of protection. How right nature gets it (through millions of years of practice). You can take this model of complexity and apply it to many other contexts. That of water. That of politics.
That of culture.
As any storyteller of merit can tell you – storytelling doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is inextricably linked to other elements of our world, including language, protocols, values, sacred spaces, and sovereignty. Our representations are an inherently political issue to us. The mining of our lands, and the mining of our knowledge and culture through appropriation is one and the same act. The forced dispossession of our representations sits within a broader experience of forced dispossession of language, lands, and loved ones.
Muriel Rukeyser said that “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms”. As a species, humans are constantly asking questions such as “what is this all about and why are we here”, and our stories are the answers to those questions. As indigenous peoples, our storytelling is bound within contexts and values that protect who we are, that protect the world we live in. It is symbiotic and its extraction holds consequences. Our tales are passed down within a context of language and meaning. Within a context of human, and non-human kinship relationships and protocols. A spiritual, political, and cultural context that recognises the power of the word, the power of the storyteller. A system that impels you to be responsible and accountable with this power.
I returned home from Hawai’i last week to see this:
I knew the merchandising was coming. It was an inevitability… but wearing someone’s skin is just… next level, and it’s predictably creeped a LOT of people out (you don’t have to understand cultural appropriation to know that wearing a skinsuit is just plain wrong). I’ve blogged about the Moana movie a couple of times now and a part of me felt that I’d probably said everything I needed to say. And I’m SO thankful to the likes of Tēvita Ka’ili, Vincent Diaz, Keala Kelly, Karlo Mila, and Teresia Teaiwa for their articulate responses to this space. Still – looking at this image honestly shocked me to tears. This little tama, clad in impropriety, blissfully ignorant of the potent symbolism of his act. His beautiful smile in such stark contrast to the weeping I felt for, and from, our ancestors. I sat in my car, staring at that image, with angry tears spilling over my cheeks. I swore a lot in the following 24hrs. At random things. I’ve carried the rage around like a righteous prickly coat. It’s time I talk it off.
You see, Disney also sits within a broader system. It sits within a system of mass-appropriation. A system of warping cultural pillars to appeal to the humour of their dominant audience. A system of cultural subversion, where they get to redefine history, and everyone in it. A system that includes industrial mass-production lines of plastic merchandise sold within a hyper-consumptive system that compels us, and our children, to buy, buy, buy, and then throw away, throw away, throw away. A system that models the thoughtless consumption of collective property and is ultimately destructive of all we hold sacred. This is the system within which Disney – and the broader industrial storytelling complex of Hollywood – exists. These are the invasive species that have been introduced to our storytelling landscape.
And they have been planted by our own hands.
Our own hands who are only too swift to protest that “it’ll be different this time”.
You wanna tell me that the same company who still, to this day, perpetuates racist stereotypes in their merchandise and theme parks, have all of a sudden changed?
You wanna tell me that the same company who would wrap my child in this obscene mockery of our ancestor and Atua – that subverts not only the story of Maui but also the traditions of tatau and moko – that actively participates in cultural genocide through targeting our children – that THIS business is now conscionable?
This “Oceanic Story Trust“, in all it’s expertise, finds it acceptable for our children to dress up in a costume that mocks our ways for European humour, bound in a European construct, a cog of the European economy built on the exploitation of indigenous representations. And that’s ok to this “Oceanic Story Trust”. That’s authentic. A costume that will be used for probably less than a year before being tossed away, to bulk up land fill and increase the toxification of our lands, or wind up in our oceans, killing Tangaroa. The irony of this in relation to a movie called “Moana” is thicker than toxic sludge.
I cannot accept that this violation is beyond the groups who were approached by Disney to validate this process. The importance of storytelling cannot possibly be news to them – nor could the impact of cultural appropriation. They cannot deem to be experts in their field and be unaware of the interconnected nature of our stories, representations, and the political implications. All I am left with when I consider what they know, is that they were knowingly complicit in this act of cultural mining. That they assessed the situation – and in an opportunistic and purposeful manner, permitted themselves to sell off our collectively held traditions to a known abuser. The hands that have planted these species in our maara are brown. Tragically… so will be the eventual pest species.