The mantle of a prophet? Mason Durie

Landmarks, Bridges and Visions: Aspects of Maori Culture
Sidney Moko Mead
Victoria University Press, $39.95
ISBN 0 86473317 8

Landmarks, Bridges and Visions is all of those things – and more. Hirini Mead has reproduced 26 essays in a single volume to create a coherent progression of ideas, events, aspirations and personal views about Maori development over the past three decades. The breadth of the material is matched by the range of audiences for whom the papers were originally intended – from a conference of language teachers, to tribal members, a submission to a Royal Commission, evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal, hui and wananga, the Australasian Museum Society, a conference on adoptions, the pupils of Turakina Maori Girls College on the evening of the college break-up, the New Zealand Association of Philanthropic Trusts, as well as the more traditional academic targets: students and academics.

The essays are grouped into six sections: education, te reo Maori, the meeting of cultures and problems of communication, sovereignty, aspects of culture, being Maori today. Five papers in the education grouping firmly reject the assimilationist polices of yesterday and argue for a secure place for Maori language and Maori Studies in schools and universities. Maori approaches to teaching and to learning are celebrated while the introduction of matauranga Maori into schools and universities is greeted with both enthusiasm and reserve – a reminder that Maori knowledge is essentially anchored outside the halls of learning; mainstream institutions performing a subsidiary rather than a principal role in its transmission and development. Though an uncompromising advocate for the introduction of Maori language and culture into the classroom, Mead emphasises the need for professionalism and high levels of literacy. Unlike some champions of the Maori cause, he does not reject the value of higher education. Quite the reverse. His main point is that the education system has rejected Maori and that new initiatives such as wananga will be necessary to reverse inequalities and cultural demise, and to improve access to educational pursuits.

The three papers on Maori language record the struggle to have te reo Maori afforded recognition in the institutions of the nation and beyond. From the dedicated efforts of Te Reo Maori Society and Nga Tamatoa to the establishment of a Maori Language Day in 1972 and then a Maori Language Week, Mead tracks progress and identifies barriers. He challenges Pakeha propensities to anglicise Maori names and entirely refutes the development of an amorphous New Zealand culture by recommending that learning Maori language should be compulsory for all Maori children. Language, he argues, is at the heart of identity and ethnic survival. In the 1970s those were bold assumptions and flew in the face of prevailing wisdom about the uselessness of te reo Maori, the utility of English, and the nature of “progress”.

Of the four papers which explore cross-cultural understanding, one questions the practice of sharing Maoritanga with Pakeha. Then (1977) it may have seemed an unduly defensive and precious attitude; now the issues surrounding intellectual property rights go some way to justifying Mead’s concerns, and his recommendation for “negotiation” as a way forward remains a sensible and much needed strategy. In the same section the Bastion Point occupation is analysed and the lessons to be learned considered. Although the harshest words are reserved for the role of Muldoon, he is also critical of Maori and urges more sophisticated organisation, consistency and greater unity at tribal and community levels. But in the following paper he is unrestrained in his criticism of non-Maori who maintain a colonial mentality, and argues that the continuing suppression of the truth by the dominant culture is simply an attempt to retain a lingering conviction of white superiority.

Maori political representation occupies a large part of the section on sovereignty and, far from accepting accusations of Maori apathy, he identifies the political system itself as the cause of low turnout at the polling booths and the significant exodus from the Maori roll. Then in a submission to the Royal Commission on Electoral Systems he proposes several options before settling on a “Minimal Partnership Option” with 20 Maori and 80 general seats. Among other things, the partnership option would provide for an integration of tribal affiliation with national politics. A Runanga Matua, a type of national Maori assembly with tribal and non-tribal appointments, is proposed as a vehicle for Maori governance and parliamentary partnership within a single nation. “A Pathway to the Future” also advocates “tribal rather than geographic representation” and in a wish-list type of “plan”, goes as far as recommending Maori control over some armed services, the police, and the courts. Somewhat optimistically, the year 2000 is seen as the year when “we should have a better measure of self-determination and autonomy than we enjoy at present”.

Eight papers explore the parameters of contemporary and traditional Maori culture introducing (in “Dimensions of Meaning in Maori Art”) a hint of suspiciousness towards science and technology (in favour of explanations offered by the myths) and drawing a somewhat dubious distinction between traditional and contemporary Maori artists. Although some accounts of custom, tikanga and kawa, run the risk of burdening cultural spontaneity with mechanical and overly prescribed rules (for example, the extent of weeping expected at funerals as distinct from unveilings), this section also contains the most scholarly work: Maori descriptors of taonga; an analysis of leadership; a framework for understanding adoptions; the significance and meaning of raupatu; and an examination of customary law and its application to inter-tribal disputed land. In contrast to much of the book, which pivots around encouraging others to recognise the logic and the justice of a guaranteed place for Maori cultural and social endeavours in New Zealand, Mead the scholar comes to the fore in chapters 21-24, providing lasting resources for students of Maori studies and, indeed, for scholars generally.

The final section is the smallest: two papers, one imploring youth and urban Maori to recommit themselves to Maori culture and the Maori cause; the other urging tribal members to support their tribe and its various activities. Their unifying point is that the survival of Maori culture, and by implication a Maori identity, will not occur without deliberate and positive efforts by Maori themselves.

Without wishing to ascribe to the author the mantle of a prophet, there is nonetheless sufficient evidence of accurate prediction to at least raise the prospect: a Maori Language Commission, a whole curriculum taught in Maori, a journal of Maori studies, a cadre of Maori doctoral candidates, the limitations of MMP, the development of wananga, the need for tribal mandates, Maori entry into radio and television, urban dispossession, iwi development. In that sense, though often appearing to laud the past, Landmarks, Bridges and Visions is very much about what can be.

Mead’s style may not find favour with all readers. Sometimes the prose has the ring of exhortation rather than carefully reasoned argument, and personal convictions (described in one essay as “articles of faith”) are not always distinguishable from the evidence of research or canvassed opinion. And in more than one chapter, the dynamism of a youthful Maori society appears constrained by a sometimes static view of a classical Maori culture. Indeed if there is a serious criticism to be made, it is that the diversity of Maori society is insufficiently explored. A focus on Maori and Pakeha, or Maori and the Crown, does not readily lend itself to a parallel debate on relationships within the Maori world, but it would be possible to gain from the book the misleading impression that Maori people think as one – or (as urban Maori are reminded) should think as one. While differences between Maori are introduced (for example, “There are far too many Maori who are playing fox, hiding in their den and displaying more loyalty to the local pub than to the Maori world.”), the illustrations favour a deficit model for explaining Maori diversity: an absence of traditional values and beliefs, rather than the evolution of a distinctly 21st century cultural identity – still Maori though not in the same style as earlier generations.

“The Maori Today” is by far the lightest of all four sections. Remember, however, that the papers which make up this book were written earlier, before the full impact of urban Maori authorities, tribal mandates, distinctions between coastal and inland tribes, hapu and iwi relationships, and MMP were to become the central issues for Maori debate.

In an electronically dominated information world where yesterday’s news is so readily confined to history (or simply trashed), it is easy to skip over the past 10 or 20 years and to presume that the current state of positive Maori development – kohanga reo, Treaty settlements, fisheries, educational opportunities, the incorporation of tradition and custom into modern contexts – has always been with us. Mead’s book reminds us that such fruits of tiny rangatiratanga as there are have grown not so much from spontaneous germination as from the roots of advocacy, determination, and deliberate and thoughtful promulgation. It was hard work, requiring the zeal of a missionary, the fluency of a scholar, the rhetoric of an orator, and the commitment of a Maori. All four are evident in Landmarks, Bridges and Visions. Moreover, the logic and passion which are so eloquently juxtaposed throughout the 26 essays leave little room to doubt the part which Mead himself has played in the cultural regrowth, and the challenges he has left to future generations of Maori academics.

This collection of essays provides a valuable contribution to the growing literature on contemporary Maori culture and development. The issues now are not the same as they were when Mead presented them, and, at least for Maori, the sense of urgency which permeates many of the chapters has been largely replaced by a sense of confidence and greater determination to effect the type of changes he highlighted. And if it all seemed radical stuff in 1978 or 1988, much of his material now rests comfortably within the Maori mainstream.

Mason Durie is Professor in the School of Maori Studies at Massey University.

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Posted in History, Māori, Review
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