Noah Mackie | 14.10.22
In July we launched our first Whatu Kura Toi course- a twelve week journey that explores the myriad of wonder in Te Ao Māori in both the past and the present. In the beginning, one of the first things we thought of was ‘will this course be the first step in creating a platform for Māori education that’s different?’ Absolutely not, the amount of Reo classes and courses available now is staggering, where one can be immersed in the beauty of the Māori worldview through language. However, the focus of our kaupapa wasn’t solely language- it was a component, but not the core focus. Whatu Kura Toi was more visual and more creative; toi is in itself a language that speaks to the viewer and can convey the role of intellect in moments of the past that have shaped our whakapapa today.
We had no idea what the mahi tauira would create was going to look like let alone what it would convey. We moved through whakapapa, taonga, kaitiakitanga, and manaakitanga- and in each of these modules were creative tasks that explain one’s connection to these concepts. Week after week we were blown away by the level of detail and artistic flair- what our tauira encapsulated in their mahi was visually remarkable. But one thing that stuck out was the kōrero which accompanied the creative mahi- stories and moments from the past that had influenced why tauira had chosen to create what they did. In many ways, I felt incredibly humbled by it- where I often imagined our tūpuna smiling over from the shores of Hawaiki. When we engage in Māori spaces you really feel the connection between each other, even if you’ve never met kanohi ki te kanohi before. It’s the heartfelt nature of following an uncanny mauri, that in some moment in the distant past- our tūpuna may have crossed into each other’s lives and experienced something similar.
A few weeks ago, I was out having a couple of drinks with a friend who asked me “why are you so interested in history?”. I’ve never been asked a pātai like this before, so it caught me slightly off guard, but it ended up in me rambling on until my glass was empty. History reminds us of our insignificance in the broad scale of time, something which many of us seemingly forget today where being faced with your own mortality can feel quite harrowing and easily escapable. At the same time, history encourages us to use our imagination- things were different 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 300 years ago and so forth- where sometimes we’re struck by questions such as ‘imagine growing up in the 70s’ or ‘imagine being a medieval peasant’. Imagining the past can really often be as alien as imagining the future, even the history itself can almost feel like quite an outdated term, I like to think of it more in the sense of why certain things happened, not just things that happened. In many ways, history has come to inform us more on human nature, but as cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker said: ‘You can’t make a living on studying human nature, you’ve got to pick something tractable’. For Pinker it was language, for me it’s been cultural anthropology.
In recent centuries, domination, competitiveness, and hierarchy have been described as being a core part of human nature and has acted as the formula for our societal organisation. This harkens back to Hobbesian idea that humans by nature are competitive creatures designed to live in a kurī eat kurī world, and by putting in minimal effort for maximum reward you follow the pursuit of happiness. This idea has obviously rung true in our recent timeline of events and still exists today. Take the common allure of owning private property, and by that extension potential investment properties afterwards, where the idea of earning six figures can be achieved by simply doing nothing at all. Or take agriculture, which we commonly think of as a leap in technological advancement, whereby leading an ox to toil the field, was much more efficient than chasing down a deer. Of course, domination plays a part in these things because someone, whether that be human or animal, will always be at the expense of whoever achieves the desired result. Every Airbnb rental is a potential home for someone who doesn’t have one; and every cow, pig, and chicken in a factory farm that never sees daylight, their young, or even grass is the tapu bargain in order for us to enjoy meat for the sake of enjoying meat- without having to worry about the guts and gizzards. And I’m sure many would agree, that if majority of people today raised a pig, and one day had to say haere rā before sticking a knife through its jugular, they wouldn’t just be sick to their stomach, but emotionally and spiritually distraught.
Over the recent trajectory of time, a messy chain of events has unfolded in which we’ve come to accept things such as inequality as being the price to pay, in order for us to live in larger more complex societies. Take for example, in London there are 942, 562 CCTV cameras (and counting), meaning there is one camera for every ten people. Contrastingly, in 2020, the community of Takaka objected to just a few CCTV cameras being installed on a single street, stating it was ‘unnecessary’ and an invasion of privacy. Both show the difference that, large complex societies and inequality seem to be inseparable. However, none of this is actually true, our history really tends to focus on the tiniest fraction of our existence, and this makes us feel very small. We tend to think of ‘human history’ beginning at the invention of the wheel, then the invention of agriculture, the industrial revolution, and now the technological age. But when we compare these series of events in the broader timeline of homo sapiens history (which extends back 300,000 years ago) it’s only a tiny glimpse in the various other ways humans have constructed societies, and through recent discoveries, they don’t follow the linear path to converge at the points of progress which we’ve assumed they did.
While I was writing Whatu Kura Toi I began reading a book called The Dawn of Everything, co-authored by archaeologist David Wengrow and the late anthropologist David Graeber. Most people that I know will probably attest to the fact that I haven’t been able to shut up about this book for some months. There’s a reason for this, with its 704 pages, 63 page bibliography and winning the Orwell Prize for Political Writing, it is a brilliant combination of applying evidence to theory. Many of the popular books on the progress of civilization, such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Sapiens, are critiqued for their narrow mindedness of theorising about human nature, often making comparing our ancestors to apes rather than actual humans. The difference is that humans choose to live the way they do, whereas apes do not- and that despite having modern brains, our early ancestors decided to live like apes anyway. Much of this is riddled with the notion that our current state of affairs was inevitable, that every person and culture would end up at the same point eventually, and everything before the wheel was some innocent dream. This was a strong belief held by the British Empire when they began colonising the New World- whereby assimilating the natives into European modernity, was a favour towards speeding up the process they were bound for anyway. They believed all humans followed the same path, from being in tiny hunter-gatherer bands, then to chiefdoms, and then states. And it was by abandoning egalitarian freedoms which acquired the ability for us to live in more complex large-scale civilizations. However, as both Wengrow and Graeber point out in the book- from the Indigenous tribes on the Great Plains of North America to the migratory bands of foragers who constructed Stonehenge, humans have been conscious political actors in thinking of new possibilities that go against the grain of our longstanding linear conception of ‘progress’.
Through the evidence they offer, this shift in understanding human history sat with me, whether I was conducting rangahau on the archaeological sites in te Waipounamu, or on the frameworks of Māori concepts, this course became a project of discovery. Most of us know Māori as the warrior culture, I think the haka is a clear example of this being a well-known performance in the stage of sport that put our cultural uniqueness on the map. And this is most definitely true, male heroism is a pioneering theme throughout Polynesian oral narratives; aggression, masculinity, and savagery have come to play the part in articulating the uniqueness of Māori culture. This isn’t to say the haka or a pūkana are necessarily bad things, they definitely are not, but they simply take centre stage and are often the first things that come to mind when the subject of ‘Māori’ comes into conversation. People know Jake Heke’s face more than they do Apirana Ngata’s. And this is where utu came into play- in Te Aka Māori Dictionary, when you type in utu the immediate nouns to appear are revenge, vengeance, retaliation, payback– all of which we deeply associate with the subject of violence. Yet the function of utu is really a means to restore balance- if one is offered a gift, the other would be obliged to return some sort of gift at a point in time through a relationship of open reciprocation and whakapono. In no way shape or form does this imply a sense of hostility, in fact, it implies the exact opposite. So if we return to the ambitious nature of a warrior, their mastery of combat isn’t just to vanquish a foe and to look really good while doing it, it’s a duty that serves just as much to helping those they care about.
“The ultimate aim of martial arts is not having to use them”
This is something we tried to emphasise in Whatu Kura Toi (not martial arts but the human capacity to care), and it became a magical connection of analysing archaeological sites that reflect what many Māori concepts have been designed to do: care for one another. Te Waipounamu iwi, hapū and whānau over several centuries were a perfect demonstration of this, and it’s the kōrero (under Ngāti Wheke) that we decided to tell. I like to think of te Waipounamu tūpuna as wanderers, they had to forego focusing on horticulture as a means of kai production, the harsh terrain of the taiao and cold climate is hard to farm year round, and no one before them had experience doing it- they had gone as far south as any Polynesian had before, at least for the long term. Instead, they underwent seasonal migrations following moa trails in the spring, dispersing in various hapū and whānau, establishing various kāika nohoaka (seasonal camps) involving giant feasts, and in winter congregated with cousins telling stories of Hawaiki or Rākaihautū with their acquired surplus. What it shows is that this branch of our tūpuna were conscious political actors in their social structures- they made collective decisions to benefit everyone involved. Our tūpuna played at the hand of possibility and political freedom- involving exploration, networking, and discovery. When we think about the whakataukī:
Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua
I walk into the backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on the past
it not only encapsulates the way we view time and the connection to the past, but also that when things go awry, other possibilities are on the horizon.
Thinking about the future today can be incredibly blurry, institutions and governments grow increasingly untrustworthy and unstable- and I believe that if they closed up shop tomorrow, we would be more than capable of organising the communities we are a part of ourselves. This doesn’t mean we have to go back to living an Indigenous way of life, such as going off grid which we often assume is the only solution- cities, towns and civilization can still exist harmoniously- they have before, and in many ways, they’ve been just as effective than our current versions- from public housing to giant artistic projects. The more we learn about not just what our tūpuna did but why they did certain things, can we then imagine our future differently. This is why Māori whakapapa is a vital thing to learn, it has a profound effect not just individually, but collectively. We initially ran Whatu Kura Toi with the intention of it operating a few times in the year with a limited intake of tauira. But this meant that people miss out, instead, within the next month or so, Whatu Kura Toi will be an open access course for anyone at any time.
It’s time that Māori education is by Māori for Māori- and with our limitless means to access education we no longer have to dodge the boot or desperately find room to wiggle in it when The Ministry of Education deliver another report that shows little to no improvement for Māori education outcomes. To wrap this pānui up, we’ll end with an acknowledgement of the pukapuka which fanned our ahi kā:
‘Scientists in 2020 are not (as readers of mid-twentieth-century science fiction might have hoped) encountering alien civilizations in distant star systems; but they are encountering radically different forms of society under their own feet, some forgotten and newly rediscovered, others more familiar, but now understood in entirely new ways. In developing the scientific means to know our own past, we have exposed the mythical substructure of our ‘social science’ – what once appeared unassailable axioms, the stable points around which our self-knowledge is organized, are scattering like mice. What is the purpose of all this new knowledge, if not to reshape our conceptions of who we are and what we might yet become? If not, in other words, to rediscover the meaning of our third basic freedom: the freedom to create new and different forms of social reality?’
-Waharoa image: Rhueben Meredith