Dear NZ Human Rights Commission and Maori Television – You’re Failing Us.

I’m writing this as an open letter to NZHRC and Maori Television in relation to Maori TVs  decision to air the series “Jonah From Tonga”. It will also be submitted to the Human Rights Commission as a formal complaint.

Even the damn font is offensive.

Dear Human Rights Commission,

I’m writing to formally complain about Maori Television’s decision to broadcast the program “Jonah from Tonga”. It is my position that the programme discriminates on the grounds of race. I also wish to express my disappointment at your own current response to this issue, and call upon you to reconsider this issue, and take a stronger public position on racist forms of humour.

The programme “Jonah From Tonga” is no stranger to controversy. It has been widely criticised by Tongan, and international, communities for its racism.

The Tonga Herald has covered the problems with this show extensively:

Chris Lilley on Causing Harm: “That’s the fun bit for me”

“I just thought, it’s going to provoke people, it’s going to be headlined — and certainly everyone in Australia fell into that trap. It was all over the place, like, ‘Blackface! He’s doing it!’ … I think I wanted to do it because I thought it was a challenging, new, interesting idea, and mostly I just thought it was a really funny character.”

Air New Zealand Pulls Jonah from Tonga from In-Flight Entertainment

Major US Civil Rights Organizations Slam ABC/HBO’s Jonah From Tonga

“As ABC’s show Jonah from Tonga airs on HBO in the US and Canada, enormous support has been voiced for Tonga and Tongans. A range of major American civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, National Hispanic Media Coalition, American Indians in Film/TV, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities and The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (which itself includes the Asian American Justice Center, Asian Pacific American Advocates, Japanese American Citizens League, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, National Federation of Filipino American Associations, and more) have written to HBO expressing their “deep concern” about the show.
This groundbreaking show of solidarity with Tonga and Tongans has been an important counter to the show’s racism.”

Japanese Americans urge HBO to pull “racist” ‘Jonah from Tonga’

As mentioned by the Tonga Herald, the show has also been decried as racist from a raft of minority organisations, and Tongan communities overseas. Air New Zealand received so many complaints that they were forced to pull it from their entertainment system. Tongan communities began a an online campaign headed by the hashtag #IAmNotJonah. A petition to HBO calling for the programme to be taken down gathered over eleven thousand signatures. A simple internet search on the controversy this programme has caused outlines its clear problems. The racism has been repeatedly, and articulately, identified.

So it therefore came as some surprise that your position on this was to call upon Maori Television to simply consult Tongan communities on this. Of course the Tongan community should be consulted on all matters that impact upon them – but to leave it at this rests your position upon the dangerous logic that racism is a matter of opinion. Painting your face brown and mocking races is racist, and it is your job to take a position on racism, not abdicate that decision to the community at hand. That is problematic for a number of reasons:

1. This type of humour, if permitted, sends the wrong message to NZers about accepting racist stereotypes. This is completely at odds with your own campaign to “Give nothing to racism” that urges us to take racism seriously and, specifically, to challenge racist humour. This does not just impact upon the Tongan community but all marginalised communities who have to deal with bigoted humour.

2. The racism is also directed at other groups. During this series racial slurs feature as humour devices including “fobs” “wogs” “curries” and “ching chongs”. I cannot believe that I am even having to write to you to ask you to call this type of humour out, given your current campaign.

3. These discussions, if they are to be fully informed, should not just be held with the communities at hand, but should be held within the context of racist humour, its history, and its impacts. To not do that is to expect communities to be experts on the impacts of racism simply by virtue of being of a particular race themselves – which is, in and of itself, a problematic and racist assumption.

4. Furthermore, given the earlier points about the broader impacts upon marginalised communities, the opinions of marginalised communities should also be taken into account.

5. This recommendation clearly overlooks the already significant history of opposition to this program, both from Tongan communities and marginalised groups at large.

I expect so much more of you than to simply recommend that the Tongan community be consulted. If we cannot rely upon you to demonstrate leadership in identifying racist humour then what is the POINT of your “Give Nothing To Racism” campaign? If we cannot look to yourselves, and Maori Television, for racial acuity, then how can you possibly expect it from others?

Already, even as those of us who model the behaviour you encourage in your campaign, refuse to laugh at this humour, we are being told we simply don’t get the joke, and lack humour, and need to “lighten up”. Well I think Maori Television have “lightened up” plenty enough for all of us…. And ironically I would also say that your own lack of action on this issue has compounded the problem for us who choose to take the issue of race seriously.

I therefore ask that you reconsider your position on this, and formally request that Maori Television reconsider their decision to continue airing this program.

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Appropriation, Volcano Bay, and Us.

So a little while ago – some of our very best, and brightest, stars from Aotearoa gathered with other relations from across Te Moananui a Kiwa, and together, in a visual, musical extravaganza, launched a new tourism venture at Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida. Entrancing. And for some of us… concerning.

I struggled, over that week, to figure out why this was not an issue for so many other people. At times I wondered if WAI262 was actually a thing, or maybe it was a figment of my imagination. At one point I pondered at what point appropriation wasn’t an issue any more, and why I missed that memo.

I think before we go any further, it’s helpful to unpack this issue a bit – not least because some of the media exposure around it has been unhelpfully confusing. At least one media source edited my comments to make it seem as though I was focusing upon the performers who supported the opening. Some seemed to assume that I was accusing our own of appropriation. Editorials like this one missed the point entirely and were unhelpfully misleading.

By far and away – the issue is the park, itself. That’s not to say that having our own perform at the park is not problematic – but in order to determine that, you first need to consider whether there was any appropriation going on in the first place. So let’s unpack.

What is cultural appropriation?
Well as even the experts note, it’s not easily summed up in one sentence – it’s much more than simply using someone else’s cultural property, and definitely involves a relative power relationship. Usually it involves one group, who exerts dominance over another, taking from that culture and using as they see fit. More often than not it is a one-sided (or at least severely imbalanced) transaction. It is often defended as being “a homage”; “honoring”; “paying tribute” and “a cultural exchange”. It is, of course none of these things. It is a colonial exercise in entitlement and privilege. It is an act of colonial violence, an extension of the theft of land, brutalizing of bodies, and generations of legislation and policies of cultural erasure and replacement. Appropriation sometimes occurs when people are trying to look like a specific culture, and sometimes occurs when people blend cultures for a particular exotic look. Probably the most comprehensive collection of essays, blogposts and research on cultural appropriation can be found at

Is it a problem?
Short answer: Yes.
Which is why indigenous leaders all over the world are gathered right now searching for ways to halt cultural appropriation.

appropriation article
More often than not, appropriation is borne out of one of two drivers (sometimes both): Fetish or Profit. This is largely because non-white culture is seen as exotic – by virtue of its other-ness. In being the “other”, the non-white culture is conceptualised as edgy, unusual and different. This is what makes it marketable, and desirable. The two, together, is what leads to hypersexualised, eroticised depictions of indigenous women that contributes, in no small part, to the sad statistics about the frighteningly high rates of abuse, abduction and murder for indigenous women around the world.
As a part of the “packaging” process, it’s not uncommon for the colonizing culture to take bits and pieces from one, or a number, of indigenous cultures, and meld them together. Cultural distinctiveness doesn’t really matter, what matters is achieving the right amount of otherness, in order to achieve peak exoticism. The removing, and displacing, of cultural markers is a problem because it forms a part of a larger process of assimilation – and because the very act of one group defining another, reaffirms who is the alpha, and bolsters the power relationship.

Straight up, it’s theft. We can go on further with all of the damage it does – you can also google studies or get books out on it, there is a wealth of information out on the issue.

Is Volcano Bay appropriative?

What we see for sale in Orlando is classic “tiki lounge” culture.


Tiki lounge was borne out of the post-war era, where US servicemen returned from their time in the Pacific wanting to recreate some of what they experienced during wartime. Tiki lounge is a deliberate blend of real cultural markers to create a false culture – it looks something like Hawai’i, something like Tahiti, something like Rapa Nui, but isn’t quite. It even blends in Caribbean, African and Asian culture – ‘cause hell all non-whites are the same right? In tiki lounge you may find yourself drinking out of a mō’ai (mōkai in Māori – let’s all think for a moment on what that references). Or you may find yourself drinking out of a Tiki head. Poor old Tiki – one of the most important cultural symbols of our ocean and at the same time one of the most belittled. From plastic pendants to boozy vessels, Tiki has been dragged through the mud and back again by western capitalism.

Volcano Bay merchandise and bars

Importantly – Tiki lounge culture was borne directly out of militarised settler colonialism in the Pacific. It was an example of white men, taking what they wanted from our region, and using it how they saw fit – in this case it was to create an exotic drinking culture, which eventually became a pop-culture subset.

It is not just appropriation, it is an entire genre borne out of appropriation by military settler colonialism in the Pacific.

What impacts does that have?
There’s a word for when one culture imposes itself upon another, occupying its space and taking what it wants, in a onesided transaction. It’s called Colonization. I think we can all agree it has impacts.

In particular, appropriation feeds a mentality that is not helpful. Not when you have daughters who will eventually have to untangle who loves them, and who loves the idea of an exotic brown girl. Not when you’re too embarrassed by your “otherness” to maintain your own cultural practices. It’s not helpful with the young boy with fetishized ideas of brown girls grows up to be the policeman across the desk when your niece has to report a sexual assault.

So what about our own supporting it?

So having established what cultural appropriation is, that it does do damage, and that YES this theme park is appropriative, we’re in a much better position to consider the worth of involvement. Like they say – context is everything. Do I think the performers deliberately set out to support appropriative industry? No, I don’t. This is a group of people who dedicate their lives to celebrating indigenous culture and peoples. Either they don’t agree that it’s appropriative, or they are unaware of the appropriation. Perhaps they haven’t even seen the park in its entirety. This doesn’t change the value of the discussion.

At one point in the ceremony, there was the gifting of a mauri stone. I have seen it mentioned a number of times that the indigenous community from Orlando were invited to receive it – although the only reference to this that I’ve found is a Māori Television interview where Puerto Ricans were invited as an indigenous people to receive the stone (Puerto Rico is 2000 km away in the Dominican Republic, and the indigenous people there are the Taino).

This is nearly a whole nother article. My head filled with questions about this. Mauri wai in an area with so many water burdens (both in terms of chemical additives and allocation), mauri whenua when it is placed in a context of thieved lands and culture, alongside appropriative plastic merchandise, and when that land is built on the bones of indigenous slaughter and oppression. Anyway – all of that to the side – yet still many, many others have asked – where are the indigenous people that were supposed to receive it?

And this last part needs to be said because it is a formative part of First Nations history. In 1830 Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act – and it resulted in the mass displacement of thousands upon thousands of First Nations peoples from the South East of Turtle Island, across toward Oklahoma. In Orlando – they resisted, and were hunted down and slaughtered.

Survivors were force marched for over 1000 miles – nearly 4000 of them died. It became known as the Trail of Tears – and it is one of the most well known genocidal acts in the world. This is important so I’m going to paste a screengrab for those that don’t like to follow article links (from website


The Seminole today are resilient,  awe inspiring, and still, (like many of our indigenous brothers and sisters of Turtle Island) marginalized in their own lands. And while much has happened between 1830 and now, you know what hasn’t happened? They haven’t been given their land back. It’s still occupied. In this case, by Universal.

Now to place this in the context of appropriation – all of our cousins in Turtle Island face huge challenges with appropriation. After being forced off their own lands, stripped of their own culture, denied their language, their cultural practices criminalized – they are consistently mocked, mimicked and belittled, by the very people who stole, and continue to occupy their land.


They are turned into mascots, and costumes. The Florida Seminoles are one such example.



To expect a people to participate in a ceremony that positions Universal Studios as culturally sensitive – when they are clearly so given to rampant appropriative behaviour – is, probably, a bit much.

So there you have some of the reasons the opening ceremony were concerning. Was it beautiful? Without a doubt. Breathtakingly so. As always, our stunning culture, in the hands of the very best, captured the hearts of multitudes around the world. But what was missed (for whatever reason) was an opportunity for solidarity, and to confront and address one of the key challenges that face all indigenous peoples. One thing’s for sure – appropriation isn’t going away. It won’t fade into yesterday. The only question left is how will we choose to respond to it.



Te Reo Māori WON’T Fix Moana.

WARNING: I cuss a bit in this. Cause I’m upset.

Ok time for some real talk. I was still at the UN this week while the call for auditions went out for Te Reo Māori Disney Moana voiceovers.


Oh great/Ah rawe 😐

To be clear. I was at the UN fighting for Indigenous rights over our moana. The irony wasn’t lost on me. I was running around like mad trying to meet our obligations but was SUPER thankful that Leonie Pihama offered some sensible points of challenge to the DisMo hysteria that was re-infesting my newsfeed.

IMG_5265 It’s an intense space there at the UN – filled with challenges for us as Indigenous Peoples – but probably my highlight is that I get to spend time with some of the strongest Native Women I know. And I wanna say I am SUPER frikken humbled. Like don’t even have the words humbled, and in absolute awe, of my First Nations sisters from Turtle Island/Abya Yala. Their strength blows my mind.

I am ALREADY outraged at the unacceptable levels of violence that indigenous women around the world suffer. I’m ALREADY outraged at the unacceptable extreme violence that Māori women experience and the systemic misogynistic racism that drives it, and denies us justice.

But it deeply, profoundly hurts my soul to reflect upon all of our missing and murdered indigenous women in Turtle Island and I’m haunted by the Highway of Tears and the numbers continue to climb.

This didn’t just happen either. It took generations of chipping away at the sacredness of Native Women. Centuries of being stripped bare by the colonial gaze that turned our sisters into things you can watch, things you can objectify, things you can own, and abuse, and rape. Things you can kill – and dump by the side of the road like a doll you just broke.

Nope, this doesn’t happen overnight. This started with young boys watching cartoons of “squaws” flirting with and “running away with” white men, and continued in the form of young men watching non-native girls sexualise themselves as “pocahotties” in order to get attention from, and seduce, non-native men. And is still continued when Native sacred items are turned into fashion accessories and fun souvenirs – stripping them bare of their sacredness and ripping them from their cultural context.

And I am downright EMBARRASSED to sit with Native Women that I respect, and who I know understand the links between these murders and our representations, women who are pouring their energy into trying to keep their sisters and daughters and nieces safe and alive, and not always winning… I’m EMBARRASSED to sit with them and talk about the entry of Disney into the Pacific and how we’ve welcomed them with open arms.

Not just because of how it perpetuates colonial myths and reduces our own dimensions in the Pacific – but because Disney STILL – to THIS DAY – perpetuates the squaw stereotype in the face of the evidence that this contributes to the problem. They know – they’ve had it pointed out – but they don’t give a shit about our sisters being murdered.

So when I sit with my sisters and relate how the murders make absolutely no difference to us in how we consider Disney… When I see them shake their heads quietly but respectfully. It HURTS. Hot-shame-in-my-belly-hurts. I don’t know if they’re angry at us or disappointed in us and probably they’re too dignified to say so even if they are but I’m gonna say – I am.

I would have HOPED that we could pay attention to what has happened to them and not just stand in solidarity with them but make it COUNT as a lesson to us. At least take it into account and talk about it!? But no – nothing. Apparently this isn’t an issue worth discussing and THAT hurts.

So don’t – DON’T come to me with “chill out it just a kid’s show” – ESPECIALLY if you’re a Native Man. I gotta say there is a special level of hurt when I see Native Men dismissing the murders of Native Women. If you’ve got counter evidence to the body of work that proves how representations matter – or a counter argument to how the commodified Pocahontas trope isn’t problematic for Native Women, how the one dimensional depictions haven’t fed a system that places Native Women at risk then let’s have that talk but don’t just chuck “Ok” up and get back to the incredibly inane “I love seeing us up on the screen and the kids love it” diatribe.

Of COURSE they love it! That’s because Disney has a bajillion dollars that they’ve made off (and continue to make off) sexualising native women to pay for all the technology necessary to make this attractive to children alongside years of practice at knowing what seduces children’s minds. It’s called grooming.

And secondly why the hell aren’t we taking more responsibility for what goes in front of children? This is the most formative part of their development, when they are most vulnerable to suggestion, and we’re gonna say “relax it’s just a kids show” THAT’S THE POINT! This is why we’ve fought for Māori children’s literature! Because what they are exposed to MATTERS.

And lastly – children may see the issue with some of the inaccuracies but they wouldn’t have a clue about the extremities of the consequences. They don’t know about how Disney representations feed into missing and murdered native women and nor should they. That’s our job to know and respond to. ESPECIALLY as indigenous people.

Don’t just say “I don’t agree they’re linked”. You’re denying the voices of actual Native Women who have worked on this issue and say that it DOES matter. Bring me the voices of Native Women who have worked on that issue if you want to respectfully disagree.

Or talk with me about what you think is so important that we can overlook this link, overlook this horrid truth. Admit that this is what you’re doing… and then help me to understand WHY. Because I’m being 100% when I say…

I really don’t get it.

The Power of Stepping Back

So I’m at the UN at the moment, and I wanna say this:

If you are white, and want to be an ally – then please consider that possibly the most powerful act you can make as an allly is to NOT do something.

Like… NOT take up a spot on a panel for Asia-Pacific women.

Original clip here

Check your own sense of entitlement. You don’t HAVE to inject yourself into the space. If you think your presence allows for “balance” then stop fooling yourself. Your presence is the default. It saturates your own, as well as our, existence. You get every other space, so occupying a space defined for us, even alongside us, only perpetuates imbalance. We will only ever START to get NEAR balance when you stop occupying our spaces and make way for us to FILL spaces with our bodies, our faces, our realities and our experiences and solutions.

Even if you’re asked to enter a space you can refuse, you know. You can do it. Don’t be a slave to your genetic disposition to colonize spaces. You have two legs, just use them to step back rather than forward. You have a mouth, you can use it to say “thankyou but I think it’s more appropriate that non-native women take a back seat here and I’m just thankful that I can listen and learn from the native women who are more than capable of filling these spaces”. That would be a powerful ally act.


And understand that when you take a forum titled “Asia Pacific Women Heal the Ocean” – you are referring to an indigenous region steamrolled by settler colonialism so when you use it to talk about white feminism framed as “gender issues” it is another act of colonization. Don’t look now but you may as well be a white man to me – there’s NO DIFFERENCE in a white woman colonizing my space than a white man. There isn’t even a sense of betrayal because I’ve come not to expect a form of sorority from you now anyway. I’ve been colonized by you so many times that my default space is to expect it and when that DOESN’T happen I’m happily surprised. When it does (again) I just see it as your genetic disposition, a byproduct of your role in the colonial patriarchy.

When you position these discussions in your own white feminism framework you erase our indigeneity, because our struggles are DIFFERENT to white womens struggles. They’re not the same. They’re not. Some of our struggles are BECAUSE of white women. Like, you know, when they OCCUPY our spaces. Our struggles are distinct. Our strengths are distinct. Our solutions are definitely distinct so don’t title a panel “Asia Pacific women…” and spend the whole time talking about “gender issues” but meaning white feminism as if we are all the same. That’s not just racist it’s heteronormative. BIG fail.
And wahine ma – we need to step up and into these spaces too. When we sit back, our spaces get occupied and we have to stop allowing that to happen. Get in there. Get heard.

Young indigenous women are watching and learning what it is to be a leader.

Show them.