Monday, September 26, 2011

A Note From Alan

Hi All,

Hope things are starting to hum around ESST and Acadia. There is tons of stuff happening here. Here is one of my adventures and things I am thinking about…

On my way home from a magical trip to the Hamilton Gardens, I was drawn to a large number of big white tents and a sign for a Maori cultural and arts festival across from the Gardens parking lot. There were displays, workshops, war canoe rides, carving etc. So I was bumbling about taking the displays in when a woman asked if I wanted to go to the Haka. Haka is the name for a Maori dance, which comes in a wide variation of forms. Not knowing much, but up for anything, I said yes and headed outside to wait with a Maori guide in a grassy area, and we started to chat. He explained very little and then asked/told me that I would sort of be “the white chief” for the Haka, which meant I was the spokesperson for the audience. It seems that one must first be challenged outside by the warrior dancers, and if one accepts the challenge properly and appropriately, everyone is then invited inside for the full performance.

So I sat waiting out front of everyone. From the tent, three Maori warriors with full face paint and war clubs ceremoniously advanced on me, stopping just a couple of feet in front of me with war clubs flying by my face in a martial arts sort of way. My Maori guide explained what to do and politely suggested that I not move forward before he instructed me to (unfortunately he was whispering in my bad ear, but don’t worry, there was little chance of me challenging the war clubs which were zinging by my face). Eventually, the last warrior laid a rose on the ground between us, stepped back, and then I was told to fetch it and return to my spot. Presto, the intensely hostile and intimidating faces turned welcoming and we all followed the warriors inside to a tent theatre and were treated to a wonderful performance of various forms of dances. By the end I was dragged up on stage to practice the specific Haka that the New Zealand Rugby team (the All Blacks) performs in front of their opponents before every match. It was pretty funny. The performance troop had been together for many years (about 25 of them) and made the finals of the Maori national competition, which is a huge yearly event with regional qualifying, etc. They were good. These pictures are not of the performers but are from the web (it was not an appropriate time or place for pictures). These web pictures look very similar and at least give you the feel.
I have been reading a bit of New Zealand history and appreciating the differences between the Maori place in New Zealand culture vs aboriginal presence in Canadian culture. Though Maori are economically and socially disadvantaged relative to “pakehas”, it is nowhere near as bad as Canada. Maori culture is seen as a proud foundation for mainstream New Zealand culture. Can you imagine Team Canada proudly performing an aboriginal war dance just after O Canada at every Olympic hockey game?  But that’s what the New Zealand rugby team does as well as every other New Zealand national team. The Rugby All Blacks are even more famous here than Team Canada would be in Canada (rugby rules!).
 The fact that that the Maori word “pakeha” exists and is used by pakeha suggests the fundamental difference. Pakeha means “people who came from across the sea (i.e., British/European).” It is a constant implicit reminder that white New Zealanders were not the first peoples of this land, which everyone recognizes. In Canada, First Nations people often remind others that they are the first peoples, but there is no word that non-aboriginal Canadians use to describe themselves as not of this land. Can you imagine non-aboriginal Canadians describing themselves as “Second Canadians”? This is an important distinction. This sense of Maori presence is always about as most place names are Maori except those of the major cities (everyone groans when I butcher another Maori name despite my best efforts). All the formal events we have been to are opened by a Maori welcome. Also most institutions, even if they are pakeha, have a “Kumatua”. This is a Maori elder or advisor, sort of in the role of a chaplain.

I am starting to explore how and why there is such a different ethic here. So far I have uncovered a bunch of things. The Maori never really lost on the battle field where they fought aggressively against the British. There were heavy casualties on both sides.  They were instead marginalized from the huge numbers of British landing and through the devastation of population loss due to no immunity to European germs. They also all spoke the same language, united in the face of the British invasion, and were more settled on land. They “missed out” on residential schools and an “Indian Act” though there was a lot of racism and discrimination. A strong aggressive posture won them more respect from the British even if there are lots of challenges and social issues before them today. Something to think about.


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