We need to talk about money…

I’ve been interested by some of the comments I have heard and read about our Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust board in the past week since Native Affair’s scoop on Monday night. I recommended Morgan Godfrey’s blog in my last post, I want to do the same for Te Putatara‘s informed and informative blog. Te Putatara gives a good insight as someone with direct relationships with some of the people involved.

It was that blog and some local comments that has inspired me to begin to think more widely about how we as Māori approach the use of money and power. Te Putatara’s column asks who are the real “targets” of such an investigation, and comments that “misuse of credit cards is so commonplace it only has real news value when it involves politicians or Maori, or Maori politicians”; this is a common enough complaint amongst Māori people that there are nefarious groups within and without Māoridom who are looking for any excuse to take an advantage. Here in Tauranga Moana, a person involved with management and governance of local kōhanga reo commented that there was no problem with the use of credit cards and that they would do the same for their whanaunga, but that it had to do with supporting our whanaunga Titoki against the attacks of others.

All of which I know to be beliefs that are almost definitive in te Ao Māori. I have seen this in kura, kōhanga reo, marae, Māori agencies, Māori statutory agencies; everywhere I have worked and volunteered that is run by us, there are patterns of using money to support whānau (both blood and kaupapa-based) and using positions to employ whānau. I have heard it called whanaungatanga so many times I feel like a liar when I talk to wide-eyed students about the beauty of our kawa and tikanga. Money has become one of the strands that is able to bind people together as a whānau. Money has become entwined with mana, and that’s frightening because the capacity to give and remove mana is a real source of power.

One reason our use of money for these purposes is offensive to me is because it is not done to imbalance an injustice, but to build the mana of the leader who uses the money and to bind people to him or her. Our Māori leaders who have finally found a way through systematic oppression and generational failure to some semblance of personal success, then take over the reins from the oppressor to decide who will miss out in Māori communities and who will succeed.

I assert that our leadership reacts in this way so often when you put a credit card or petrol card in their hands because of the powerful force of cultural hegemony. Part of the colonisation of Māori has been for the Pākehā superstructure in our society (political and ideological institutions) to create a Māori leadership class who are taught that they are born to rule and to save their oppressed Māori brothers and sisters. These leaders are born to dispense mana, and in a tautology, that they make these decisions affirms their authority to make these decisions. Antonio Gramsci describes this twisting of the oppressed’s leadership as beheading the Medusa.

The consequence is that our leadership become increasingly unaccountable to us but accountable through fear of removal of money to Pākehā institutions. Look where our leaders actually fight out their conflicts over power and authority: not on the marae, but in the courts, in tribunals, in Parliament. The final arbiter for Māori leaders to resolve their conflicts is in Pākehā legal structures, as this is who invested power in these Māori leaders in the first place. Our leadership is unaccountable to Māori communities because Māori communities have no authority to give or take away.

Money is a poison chalice: we use it as koha instead of kai or resources; we use it to reward instead of hakari and other celebrations; we regard it as the mark of successful leadership instead of the good opinion of others and the frequency with which we see them at the marae. It has twisted our sense of mana, and twisted some, if not many of our Māori leaders. We need to have unquestionable integrity when we use money; not because money is special and sacred, but because we must see it as the insidious lifeblood of oppression. So we need to firmly put it at arms length from tikanga Māori.  We are too easily controlled when money is the foundation of our gift economy (if you want to know what that is, check out this pdf). It’s easier to buy a wedding dress on a credit card than to make one, but I know one is going to lead to less confusion and accusation.

Finally, there have been comments that this is not just a Māori problem, but happens everywhere. True. But in the Māori world we have an alternative to money; the value and significance we place on our relationships with each other. Let’s not see that finally snuffed out after so many years of fighting colonisation.