Cultural Appreciation

Kiaora tātau

Ko Ysgyryd Fach Te Maunga (Abergavenny in Wales)

Ko afon wysg Te Awa (Abergavenny in Wales) 

Nō Takapuna, Tamaki Makaurau Ahau

Ko Rubick-Edwards-Trask Tōku Whānau

Ko Rotorua tōku kainga ināianei

Ko Jane Tōku Ingoa

I was born in Takapuna, Auckland where I spent the first eight years of my life. My whanau moved to Rotorua when I was eight and apart from University and travelling overseas, it has been home ever since.

I’ve always said if you have good friends and family surrounding you in Rotorua, then there really is no better place to live.

My father is English / Welsh and my mother is a fourth generation New Zealander.

My DNA results show that I am English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Northern European, German, Yugoslavian and Northern African.  

0% Māori.  

Even though it is not my own culture, I feel drawn to it. I feel growing up in Rotorua, you cannot help but feel attached and a part of Māori culture that surrounds us and informs our cultural living, learning and working environments.

Recently on social media and in the news ‘Cultural Appropriation’ has been once again highlighted. There has been an excellent discussion led by Makaia Carr and Taaniko Nordstrom on Instagram and a well written article by Debra Hunt titled “Hey, white women: Māori culture is not your birthright”, which both prompted and encouraged me to explore my uncomfortable feelings and beliefs around Māori culture and my journey in te ao Māori. (The world of Māori).

I chatted with a good friend, Sophie Williams, who holds a Doctorate in Dance, researching Māori Practices carried into Theatre Spaces,  (Dance is a passion we share) and is currently completing her secondary school teachers training. Sophie is someone I trust and love knowing that what I shared would be safe and respected as discussion and with encouragement to do better.

When we know better, we do better right?

We discussed three pieces of artwork I have in my home. Three pieces that up until yesterday I loved simply because they are of three beautiful Māori people.  She got me to question why I had such artwork in my home. My reply was that I love them, I feel drawn to them. I love the woman baby wearing her baby, something that I loved doing with my own boys when they were young.  I love the two of the older Kuia and Kaumatūa that have for the past five years graced my walls. I have nothing but adoration for them.   But my friend’s questions made me feel uncomfortable that perhaps I have them for the wrong reasons?

How would I feel about my grandparents portraits hanging in the halls of a complete stranger’s home? Were the original paintings done under the promise that they would never be sold for profit? And if so, then, had I bought into that by buying prints many years later?  I have done some investigating and found that although many of the Māori subjects being painted were happy to do so, paid for their time and loved the paintings of themselves for their whānau, they had no idea that in the future these would be sold for profit to complete strangers with absolutely no ties to them or their whānau. Many descendants of these portraits are in mixed minds. Some are completely against the selling of prints as artwork and some love to know that their ancestors are gracing the homes, museums and walls of many a stranger’s home.

Did whānau give permission for these to be reproduced as they have been for many years? And just because they have been, does it make it right?

I know I’m not so sure about having these artworks in my home anymore and that is something I will work through. Although I love them, I don’t want to be celebrating someone’s artwork if it causes another’s distress.

It made me question why? Why do I have these portraits of someone else’s whānau on my walls and not the portraits of my own? I thank my friend for her patience with my own learning and her guidance with my questions.  

It is not that we cannot or should not own or purchase Māori artworks but to have consciousness and awareness that the artworks chosen come from Māori artists who are happy to sell their own art.

Cultural Appropriation means ‘the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.’

I don’t want a part in that anymore. 

Cultural Appreciation ‘is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally.’

That is what I want to be a part of.

Digging deeper into my own thoughts and history, regardless of how I feel now, I have ancestors that settled here in the mid 1800’s, a part of New Zealand colonisation and a part of my own cultural uncomfortableness. I acknowledge that this is a part of my history, even though it makes me feel all kinds of emotions.

My father’s family arrived much later in the 1960’s after first settling in Australia from the United Kingdom.

I’m taking a look into my own uncomfortable feelings.  I’m acknowledging my ancestors for their part, regardless of my love for them and their part in my journey of being here. I don’t hate them for their journey, after all they would have known no different.

We do not choose who we are born to. We do not choose our whānau or our family history that we had no part of. We do not choose the colour of our skin upon birth nor our upbringing or experiences that we have no control over.  But we can choose to steer our souls on a journey of acceptance and appreciation of other cultures. Understanding that being white does bring privilege regardless of others thinking it doesn’t. Flipping the coin when you hear something you don’t agree with or that doesn’t fit well with your thinking. Be brave and question. Challenge and be heard.  

I love te ao Māori . I love the culture, the language (which I must admit I have attempted to start learning about three times now and never seen it through because of life’s interruptions) and the way it weaves into our town Rotorua.

I feel vulnerable, courageous and scared but reflective in my learning. I have a long way to go.

I also reached out to Cian Eylse White, Wahine Maori Artist, who had the following korero to help support my kaupapa.

Cian says, “growing up in Rotorua, I was surrounded by Te Reo me ōna tikanga (Te Reo Māori and it’s principles), Marae, Iwi, hapū and cultural practise such as tangihanga (funerals), Pōhiri (traditional welcoming) and whānau hui (family meetings). It was also true that standing in the front row of my primary school kapa haka next to me was my Samoan best friend to the left, and my pākeha friend to the right. Over the years I’ve delved deeply into my cultural roots, having studied Te Reo Māori at university and utilising my arts and Te Reo Māori degree to create my own theatre and film company for wahine Māori voices, WAITĪ Productions.”

She had this to say about cultural appropriation in our country.  

“Over the years I have also supported my pākeha mates who have grown a fondness and a mutual respect for te ao Māori. However, as time goes by and I see the uptake of Te Reo Rangatira by pākeha women in positions of power, I can’t help but feel duel feelings- of pride and anguish. Pride, because I feel when pākeha feel connected to our culture, Māori create strong relationships and allies to continue to promote our unique fundamentals and revive our language. Anguish- because some Pākeha women in said positions of power do not understand that while the culture is to be respected, understood and valued, it is not to be owned, appropriated and/ or assimilated. Ka riro i te wahine Māori tērā (The role is for the Māori Woman to carry out).” 

“These days, I have little patience for Pākeha fragility IE “Why CAN’T I own it though? Isn’t it kiwi culture?!”, and more aroha for those, like yourself, who are learning how to embrace, elevate and engage with the culture without claiming it as your own (you can appreciate it without appropriating it). At the end of the day, I’m still learning too, we are all on a never ending journey of learning. With that learning journey comes moments of elation, devastation, humiliation and celebration. How do I help my Pākeha mates to feel safe in the discomfort of understanding their role in the history of NZ? I love, unconditionally and strive to be honest and truthful with them i runga i te aroha (in a loving manner).” 

Cian agreed that in terms of buying Māori artworks or products that “at the ore of it all, it’s about consciousness. Being aware of the process and [being] respectful.”

My friend, neighbour and local Te Arawa Rotorua Councilor Mercia-Dawn Yates assured me that reaching out is part of our continual learning.

“My Nana and Papa role modeled how to share our language and culture, so I try to emulate the same way of being.  It is simply by being present to your surroundings and who you’re with. Treat others as you would have them treat you.   Offer tautoko / support instead of criticism, be available to help and if possible offer to record the correct pronunciation for your friends if they ask, especially for Te Reo.  With regards to our culture, this too is part and parcel of ensuring my friends understand ‘the why’. Often situations are less intimidating when you have a sense of what’s going on.”

With inspiring, confident and caring Māori women standing alongside me on my journey I feel well supported to ask questions and delve into learning’s that will question my beliefs and my appreciation for all cultures.

I feel ready to continue my journey, one I can share with my own whānau and continue to have both these uncomfortable and reassuring conversations in order to move forward with our appreciation and understanding.

I must continue to remember that the Māori culture I love so much isn’t mine and to always ask for clarification and truth when I am unsure about navigating and learning through it. After all I want my boys to feel a part of the bi-cultural community they live in and to feel just as passionately as me to have cultural appreciation, not contribute to being a part of cultural appropriation.

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