In a pre-match warm-up for this election year, the Speaker and the NZ Herald have stretched their conservative credentials by cleverly feigning outrage at both the misogynistic and outdated cultural processes of Māori people and the spectre of political correctness that requires Parliament to follow those very processes.
All of this apparently began at the pōwhiri for the Youth Parliament last year at which Annette King and Maryan Street arrived late, sat on the paepae tapu (the speakers’ bench) and were asked to shift back a row. According to the Speaker and the NZ Herald, they would have been humiliated. I actually haven’t heard from either Annette nor Maryan as to whether they were humiliated. I personally would have been more embarrassed about turning up late to a pōwhiri and wandering across the marae atea (the area between the two groups) in front of everyone, but each to their own.
This has prompted Carter to say that the tikanga used in Parliament needs to be updated. It has prompted the NZ Herald to say that iwi should “move with the times.”
No-one who has made any comment from Parliament or the media seems to have any idea what the tikanga in a pōwhiri is actually about. The presumption is that it is a greeting process generated out of a patriarchal domination system. However a pōwhiri, its structure, its process, is a communication of meaning. Pōwhiri is a multi-layered story.
If you can picture a marae space in your head, the story begins at the gate.
The first layer of meaning is the threat and possibility inherent in new relationships. When you arrive, you are an unknown quantity. Your intentions may be violent. So the pōwhiri is a prescribed process to carry you and the hosts through a ritualised verbal dance that brings you closer, step by step, both in word and in actuality, to the point of physically touching in the hongi (touching of noses) and spiritually touching in sharing your mauri (your essence) with the other person. This dance is full of danger. Both physically and spiritually it is full of threat.
So there are important roles. The women’s role as the voice of the karanga (the call) starts the process with a recognition of its life and death implications, because only women can bring forth life, and women are the personification of death and the diminishment of mana (power and authority) in Hine nui te pō. From that initial lead by women, men then move to the front, because you never put the future of your iwi, your hapū, your whānau at risk. Men are, in this sense, at the front because they are expendable in a conflict, and whaikōrero (speeches) are a form of conflict in which our tūpuna (ancestors) meet and wrestle for dominance in whakapapa (genealogy) and kaupapa (purpose).
Yet deeper than this is the idea the pōwhiri is the story of creation. At the gate, the process starts with Te Kore (the nothingness). It is the voice of the women that calls forth Te Pō (the night), the actualisation of the creative possibility, and the movement onto and into the pōwhiri enacts the creative act. Again the conflict of whaikōrero enacts the conflict of atua (gods – sort of) in the movement from Te Pō to Te Ao Mārama (the world of light and understanding) in which they wrestle for the authority to join their mana with Papatūānuku and Ranginui to create everything we hold dear. This conflict is ended, again, with the hongi, which remembers the first mana tangata (authority of people) in our creation, which was mana wahine (authority of women), the creation of Hineahuone.
Beyond this again is the central tenet of the Māori world view: tapu (sacredness, set apart for a purpose, inherent worth). The proscribed roles, the process, the ritual are all about a movement of two groups negotiating the interaction of their tapu to achieve a respectful whakanoa (reduction or diminishment of tapu) that allows those two groups to become one group who are bound by a relationship that enhances each of their respective tapu. It can only be achieved by the harmony of the roles that men and women play in this process.
Pōwhiri is story. A beautiful, powerful story that tells us we need to value our current relationships, be brave enough to build new relationships, but wise enough to protect ourselves from those who would take advantage of us.
What needs transformation in Parliament is not the tikanga of pōwhiri but the inability of our society’s institutions to understand holistic knowledge held in and communicated by story. A pōwhiri is not a series of parts that can be dismantled and put back together for the pleasure of Parliament. It is an holistic story that communicates truth to its informed listeners.
If we are guilty of anything as the collective ‘Māori’ we are portrayed as by the media, it is seeing hope in society’s institutions using our cultural processes. I know that along with many of my relatives, I really hope it shows a new mindset, a new openness, a renewed commitment to our partnership under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, whenever I see an institution trying to use tikanga Māori. Perhaps we shouldn’t fool ourselves. If people do not have the ears to hear the truth in our stories, we shouldn’t share our stories and our people with those institutions. We should stop throwing the best of who we are as tāngata whenua into a relationship with people who keep consuming, but never sharing. It might be time to take back our pearls from the swine.