The wrong way to promote Maori culture

A haka welcome from a Maori warrior at Rugby Park, Gisborne, where Queen Elizabeth II and the Duek of Edinburgh were given a New Zealand Maori welcome at the opening of the Royal New Zealand Polynesian Festival.

About five years ago my youngest was coming to the end of his school days. As he was awesome at something and was receiving a prize, we felt we should attend his senior school prize giving to support him and celebrate his achievements, (even though he was mortified that he would have to stand up on the stage and get looked at by everyone!)

Now we had been to the senior prize giving at this school before with our eldest child a year or so earlier. What struck me was the massive difference between the two celebrations.

There had been a change of Principal in the meantime and oh boy what a change.

I couldn?t believe how our school had gone from a typical school, with a healthy, minor focus on Maori culture etc, to one that seemed to be completely oriented to Maori over and above all other cultures.

This particular town only has a pretty small percentage of people of Maori descent. Being way down south, it has never been an area that was highly populated by Maori. There is a small Maori cultural tourist industry there and the local Iwi is one of the most successful in the country maintaining a really well run major tourism portfolio. However, the reality is there are more South Americans living in town than there are Maori. Out of a school population of approximately 600, there were no more than a couple of dozen Maori kids.

So I was stunned to see how the school prize giving had changed over the few years my kids were there.

First up we had a waiata from the girls? side of the school kapa haka group, we then had a local Iwi representative give us a long welcome speech, completely in Maori, with no translation. Then the Principal came up and butchered another long speech, again completely in Maori, with no translation, and then we had a haka from the rest of the large kapa haka group.

This all took up a full twenty minutes at the start of proceedings. Twenty minutes of barely an English word being spoken. I doubt that anybody in the audience understood more than a word or two, including the Maori kids. I just sat there wondering what had happened to education in our country. It felt very awkward.

So the celebration of the kids’ achievements went on as you might expect with one major, glaring difference.??When a child who appeared to be of Maori descent won an award, a small group of the few actual Maori kids in the kapa haka group, (who had moved up to the top of the bleachers at the rear of the hall), broke into an impromptu haka. The first time this happened, the crowd all turned and watched quietly, applauding their apparent heartfelt pride in their fellow student.

But as the show went on, every time a child that had vaguely brown skin got called up to the stage, we got another haka. (Strangely the pale skinned kids from the kapa haka group didn?t seem to be honoured in this way when they won an award.) By the end of it, the audience had completely lost their previous good grace. I was not the only one who had given up turning to watch the latest haka and not the only one who felt it was unnecessary to applaud these kids every time they jumped up to put another halt on proceedings.

Thirteen?haka, waiata and Te Reo speeches were performed! This all put a real damper on the evening, drawing out the time frame to hours. If you?ve ever sat for 2 ? hours on a hard school chair as an adult, you will know my pain. As an audience, we were over it.

Today it still goes on. A family member of mine is currently a teacher at a small north Auckland primary school. That school is predominantly attended by white kids. They literally only have about five Maori kids, but when the school recently had a new deputy principal starting, the deputy Principal?s previous school demanded that her new school have a big Powhiri for her. It didn?t matter that there were almost no Maori kids or that the new school didn?t feel it was necessary. Because the woman?s previous school had a higher Maori population, and staff that were inclined to push their agenda, it was pushed onto the new school to make a big deal out of it. This was as well as the woman?s leaving ceremony at the previous school. Quite why the new school?s Principal went along with it all is anyone?s guess. I would suggest that it would seem to stem from the desire to not be seen as rocking the boat. All costs, of course, were met out of the new school?s budget!

So how has it come to this? I understand the benefit of having a little Maori education in our schools. I actually like learning a little Te Reo. I like trying to figure out the meanings of place names, I like knowing about Maori history and what happened in different areas etc.

There is a real benefit to our country in knowing our shared history. There are huge lessons to be learnt from the past and no reason to hide anything. The best holiday I have recently had was made truly awesome by having a local Maori guide while canoeing down the Whanganui River. His knowledge of the area, his ability to speak fluent Maori while welcoming us onto the river each day, (followed by an English translation so we could understand what he was saying), his amazing welcome onto his Marae etc completely made the trip into an unforgettable experience.

Yeti Tours Whanganui River Canoe Trips
Photo: Yeti Tours

But what is the opportunity cost involved in having a major focus on Maori issues in schools? There is only so much time in a school day. What will not be being taught that may be of more use to our kids? I learnt more from that three-day canoeing trip than all my years in school, and I grew up in a town in Northland with a high Maori population.

It seems to me that things have gone over the top at our local school. By effectively pushing everything down our throats during that prize giving, how much damage to the cause was done? How many people felt put off by the fact that it had been so heavily Maori oriented? How many of those people were wondering why their own culture was not represented?

Are there better ways to get the message out there or should we be making the learning of Maori language and culture compulsory in schools? If we should be doing that, what should we be leaving out?

It seems to me that there is a real push on at the moment. I?m sure whoever is pushing it all has great intentions, but to be honest, it just puts me off.

I suspect I?m not the only one.