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May 19, 2008 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Te Ao Whanui

The Dunedin poet and linguist David Karena-Holmes once demonstrated that the Maori homeland Hawaiiki is in Italy. Karena-Holmes traced Dante’s journey with Virgil through Hell in the fourteenth century to the Maori arrival in Aotearoa, also around the fourteenth century. He noted that Dante left Hell by scaling the hairy legs of Satan, which may be the mountainous legs of Hine-nui-te-pō that Maui climbed through in his search for immortality. Given this similarity, as well as the musical nature of both the Italian and Maori languages, Karena-Holmes postulated that the Maori were Italian followers of Dante who, having strayed through these legs as the Black Plague hit Europe, remained behind in Aotearoa to create a new culture.

This thesis is of course utter bollocks, and I believe Mr. Karena- Holmes never intended it to be taken seriously. But it is really no sillier than many other explanations for the “the origins of the Maori” that have been put forward, in all earnestness, by Pakeha scholars. Considering the origins of the Maori in 1819, the missionary Rev. Samuel Marsden wrote “I am inclined to believe that they have sprung from some dispersed Jews” due to similarities in custom. Then in The Aryan Maori (1885), Edward Treager argued that the Maori language was the most pure form of the Aryan language; his colleague Alfred Kingcombe Newman was certain that many secret Maori symbols derived from the swastika. One hundred years earlier, ethnographers working for the British East India Company realised that the Sanskrit language of upper-caste (Aryan) Indians was similar to Europe’s Romantic and Germanic languages. They wove a grand theory of an ancient Aryan race conquering the world, and by making Maori part of this master race, Treager suggested they were ‘honorary whites’, erasing racial differences to justify colonisation. (For more on these quaint racial theories, see Tony Ballantyne’s Orientalism and Race: Aryanism and the British Empire).

However, the Maori prophets of Pai Marire rejected their ‘honorary white’ Aryan pedigree, as they preferred to identify with the Old Testament Jews who fought against Egyptian captivity just as they fought the Pakeha state. Subsequently, Te Kooti saw himself as the Maori Moses leading his people from captivity, while Te Whiti and Rua Kenana both referred to their followers as Israelites. This goes to show that despite a ruler’s attempts to categorise and direct his subjects, they will ultimately evade him and seek to choose their own fate. Maori culture does not merely react to a dominant Pakeha culture – it reaches out to embrace other subject peoples, from the Jews to black Americans.

The success of Maori reaching out beyond either Polynesia or Britain can be seen in exchanges between Maori health providers and Cuban teachers, in Hone Harawira’s journey to the Aboriginal areas of the Northern Territories, in Canadian First Nations people using Maori advances as an example to emulate, and in two performances in the recent Fringe and International Arts Festivals. Tahu, in the Fringe, combined taonga puoro (traditional Maori instruments) with classical guitar, while Green Fire Islands combined taonga puoro as well as karakia and kapa haka with fiddle-driven Celtic music. These performances show practitioners of traditional Maori crafts bypassing mainstream Pakeha culture to engage with other ideas from te ao whanui (the wider world). However, while Tahu’s sole classical guitar interacted on an even level with some of the stronger taonga puoro, in Green Fire Irelands the sonic power of the Irish strings reduced the Maori component to a series of wind and percussion textures around the edges.

When a marginalised culture attempts to engage with other cultures, the exchange can be uneven, as Green Fire Islands demonstrated. Similarly, when young urban Maori take up black American hip-hop culture, there is always a risk that they are simply recolonising themselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way: Warren Maxwell has always managed to effortlessly blend Maori elements into dub (Trinity Roots) and rock (Little Bushman) without cheapening or tokenising his roots.

And of course it’s completely shallow for an effete white boy like myself to tell young Maori kids that they are being “fake” when they adopt US gangsta culture, because the simply fact is that we bourgeois whities are scared of gangsta rap and will say anything to keep it at arm’s length. This was demonstrated recently when Napier District Court Judge Tony Adeane gave a tagger a two-month jail term, stating that tagging “offends people culturally, people whose culture involves the accumulation of attractive property and creating a nice environment.” Of course Adeane didn’t bother to consider that the largely-poor, largely-brown kids who tag might be offended that the Rangatiratanga stolen from their ancestors has now been “attractively” accumulated by invaders and fenced off. Unsurprisingly, the Sunday Star Times’ columnist Michael Laws ejaculated in delight at Adeane’s judgement, calling it a triumph for Pakeha culture. Like Marsden, Treager and Newman, Laws is fond of concocting bizarre racial theories – as he’ll tell you over Radio Live, the world’s population is bifurcating into two distinct lines – a tall, pale intelligent one and a short, fat, brown one. It’s sad that little men like Laws won’t stop trying to force other people into made-up categories, but I guess they can be delusional if they really want to. Whatever floats your boat.


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments (1)

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  1. Kerry says:

    ‘tall, pale, intelligent’
    – well, that rules out Laws and Perigo, there must be ‘third way’ category for ‘short, nasty & brutishly bigoted’ randian writers!

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