Being Māori & feeling the threat of LA: Te Aitanga a Pōkai Whenua 6

We left Flagstaff, AZ, yesterday for the long drive across Arizona and California to Los Angeles. Seven hours driving, two rest stops, and one more dramatic stop for a broken awning and we hit the traffic on the I-15 and I-10 towards San Bernadino. I had thought I had driven in busy traffic before, but I was wrong in the fullest sense of the world.

Nose to tail in a 32 foot RV, being pushed along by all the traffic around you to go faster than 65 miles an hour, faster, faster. If you go in the truck lane on the right, you have infuriated truck drivers within a metre of you behind and then passing you less than an arm’s length away. Everywhere there is traffic and you are caught, for miles upon miles of road, until you hit a snarl. Then everyone stops and a passive aggressive game of chess starts. An indicator is a message of intent ignored until you move your vehicle threateningly into the next vehicle; time stops, the world takes a breath as all the gods wait to see who will bow first. And then you are off, going from five miles to 70 as quickly as possible, willing the revs to translate to speed.

I had the most exhilirating, the most exciting time of my driving career. It is a trick I learnt from Wash; I am a leaf on the wind.

This afternoon, we took the tamariki on the Metrolink and then the Metro subway to downtown LA, getting off at 5th Ave. We walked down to 2nd and 3rd Ave to the Grand Central Market, a series of food and market stalls. Along the street we passed those left behind by society: a woman lying on her side, crying and weeping; a man screaming his displeasure at the world; a woman promising us all Jesus’ forgiveness.

LA skyline
LA skyline

I enjoyed a Mexican dish from one of the stalls at the back, bedecked in the Mexican flag, information about the approaching World Cup in Spanish, and a vague lack of interest in my existence. When the cook turned his attention to me, he asked in thickly accented English what I wanted. I replied in thickly accented English that I had no idea. He explained to me in Spanish what the dishes were. I explained to him in Māori that I didn’t have a clue and suggested he pick. He did. We both laughed. He ripped me off a bit by only giving me notes and keeping the change. He gave me about twelve tortilla, so we’ll call it a draw.

Panic and culture shock had begun to set in for most by then, so people were keen to leave. There was a suggestion of going to see Broadway, but when a local hispanic woman explained we should get off the streets before dark or go to Hollywood for its record of good safety, the general feeling was to leave. Our tamariki felt that the LA downtown was dangerous, dirty, smelt bad, and too strange. They struggled with the beauty of the high rises juxtaposed with the poverty of the street.

LA is all of the things they felt and more, I suspect. But my reflection after this short trip into town is that the feeling and the fear that many in our group experienced says more about us than it does about LA.

Māori are raised in a culture with a variety of processes that operate from an expectation of threat. Our full pōwhiri process includes the wero, the karanga, the whaikōrero, waiata and the laying of koha all before you get within arms length of any of us. We are ready for you to represent a bodily threat to our existence, and ready to respond in kind. Our creation mythologies are about attacking and subduing threats: Tane separating Rangi and Papa; Tawhirimatea attacking his brothers for the act of separation; Māui searching for his mother; Māui fishing up our whenua; Māui slowing the sun; and on and on. Then our history has taught us we were right to perceive everything as threat; the stranger arrived and brought colonisation, disease, and death.

I am an avid student of our tikanga, of our cultural processes. They are the structure in which my whānau and I work out our values and make decisions about our lives. Our tikanga is life giving. Yet it also starts from expectation of threat. All of our tamariki attend a kura kaupapa Māori. They are immersed in their language and in their cultural processes. So they are immersed in an environment that teaches them to see others, to see the stranger as a threat. That is what I saw today.

I wonder what might happen if we addressed these blind spot in our tikanga. What if we taught them to hold both threat and opportunity together. What if we taught them to love the other, to love the stranger; not blindly, not foolishly, not unrealistically, but with a hope that those who have great hearts do great things.

I have a faith aspect to my attitude to all of this. The city is a thread that runs strongly through the word of God. The first city is founded by Cain after the murder of Abel, and is built by him as a defiance of God and an assertion of his own strength. Cities like Sodom, the Canaanite city states like Jericho are then periodically found wanting in the face of God’s power. Then, Jerusalem is created, and God looks for new relationship with the city in which He dwells there. He periodically abandons his new seat due to the faithlessness of the people. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem for its failure to live up to its hope. Then in Revelation, God renews Jerusalem, it descends from above, and He makes it His dwelling place forever.

The city is going to be a part of all of our lives. Over half the world’s population and rising live in cities. The big cities are just getting bigger. I would not have my daughter fear the homeless, fear the stranger, fear the city. My short exegesis simply affirms for me that I would have her see the hope and possibility in the people of a city, and for them to see that in her.