A Privileged Source of Information


Michaela Moura-Koçoglu


Recent claims that the Maori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, carry a so-called ‘warrior gene’ that is associated with anti-social behavior such as gambling, addiction and aggression are, needless to say, untenable. However, the wider debate on the cultural roots of identity and social behavior sheds some light on the fissures that still exist in contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand society. While the cultural revival of the 1960s and 1970s was an impetus for the acceptance of the Maori as tangata whenua, people aboriginal to the land, they are still obliged to fight for status and recognition. This is reflected in the cultural output of the Maori, and especially in contemporary writing, which tends to place indigenous heritage and traditions to the fore in its attempt to establish viable spaces for ethnic identification within a modern socio-cultural framework.

Like other indigenous people such as the San across Southern Africa, the Métis in Canada, or indigenous majority people such as the Aymara in South America, the Maori in the South Pacific are an aboriginal people that inhabited a specific territory before the arrival of another, ultimately dominant culture. They were then subjected to a period of colonialism with the concomitant repression and disenfranchisement. Well into the postcolonial era, such indigenous cultures were witness to the emergence of nations and national identities modeled solely on the traditions and institutions of the dominant culture. These nations suppressed expressions of indigenous identity on the grounds that they represented obstacles to the construction of a homogenous state.

Against this background, the repression of indigenous language can be counted as one of the most fundamental consequences of colonialism, as the case of Aotearoa New Zealand proves. Today, about ninety percent of the Maori live in urban surroundings and do not grow up as active speakers of te reo (Maori language). Indisputably, te reo represents an essential aspect in the kaleidoscope of Maori identity. However, the proportion of Polynesian minority members who are fluent Maori speakers declined sharply over the last century, plummeting to eighteen percent according to a 1973 census. This process of decline was partly due to an assimilation policy entailing language suppression which lasted well into the 20th century, and partly to rapid urbanization in the postwar period. Alienation from the native language and the continuing loss of ancestral land and traditional lifestyle patterns generated disillusionment and demoralization and led to a severe narrowing of the parameters of indigenous identity.

It was only after the demise of colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s that the process of installing a monocultural Anglo-Celtic nation was subject to any significant challenge. Echoing events in Canada and Australia, ethnic tensions arose in Aotearoa New Zealand. The Maori, who had been reduced to a minority soon after James Cook’s landfall in 1769, vociferously disputed and contested Anglo-Celtic dominance. As indigenous cultural tradition began to seep through the cracks of an imagined homogeneity, the so-called ‘Maori Renaissance’ took hold. As a consequence, a politics of biculturalism was embraced, a process which fundamentally changed the socio-political climate by generating a revitalization and reconstruction of indigenous identity. As a result, the Maori today are acknowledged as tangata whenua – people of the land. Te reo was granted the status of official language in 1987, with initiatives at pre-school level (kahanga reo) supporting its revitalization. As a result, the number of native language speakers has been rising slowly, reaching 25 percent in 2001.

The fight for the recognition of the status of the indigenous people and the resurgence of Maori confidence has not only permeated the socio-cultural and political arenas, but also reverberates strongly in literature. It is no coincidence that the 1970s marked the emergence of Maori writing in English. Paving the way for a distinct Maori voice, the most prominent authors were Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera and Hone Tuwhare. Since this time, the Polynesian minority has zealously sought to regain and retain socio-political agency by reactivating and reinforcing an indigenous identity. From the outset, Maori literature in English has elicited the predicaments of cultural syncretism, manifesting a fragmentation of indigenous identification. In the period immediately after World War II, Maori authors focused on imaginative reconstructions of traditions and customs to provide a framework for indigenous identity. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, the relationship between Maori and P?keh? (descendants of European colonizers) moved into the thematic foreground, with authors critically addressing socio-political concerns and unraveling the intrinsic dilemma of cultural clashes in a society dominated by the white settler-descendants.

Today, Maori writing increasingly places the intersection of traditional and modern cultural practices to the fore. Rather than using ‘pure’ concepts of cultural tradition to anchor an unchanging conception of Maori identity in the face of the powerful and ever-changing gusts of modernity, novel concepts of indigenous identity are constructed in the process of aligning traditional concepts with blended values and lifestyles, appropriating European elements within indigenous cultural forms as a result. In Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Uncle’s Story (2000), for example, the central characters are entangled in the process of negotiating and re-constructing their Maori identities through the discovery of the cultural blend on which they are built. The author does not reject the traditional concept of the Maori warrior, but refuses to accept such an unmodified cultural notion as a modern identity. Instead, the m?na (prestige; honor) that indigenous warriors gained in combat in the pre-colonial era is projected onto contemporary life. Warriordom no longer constitutes tribal warfare but a re-valorization of indigenous identity contributing to a transcultural social reality on the inter-tribal and inter-ethnic levels. In this light, the concept of the warrior has become manifest as an altered and re-validated tradition.

Such reconstructions and revalorizations of indigenous traditions represent the pre-eminent issues in contemporary Maori fiction. By challenging long-established notions of tradition and culture, indigenous writing in Aotearoa New Zealand has succeeded in capturing the cultural dynamics of contemporary social spaces. And while the arena of cultural production is a site for both the negotiation and exposure of ongoing power dialectics within society, Maori writing has acquired a new quality by revealing a transcultural aesthetics that rises above essentialized notions of tradition, providing a framework for Maori identity that remains connected to its cultural roots at the same time as it moves with the buffeting gusts of modernity.