There are many social justice issues simmering under the surface in New Zealand, a story familiar to all colonized countries, and although New Zealand has a reputation for having good race relations and equal opportunities, many would say that is overstated. Māori make up over 50% of the prison population, despite being 15% of the population. They have considerably worse health and education statistics, lower life expectancy, and experience more poverty. At the same time, they have been undergoing a vibrant cultural renaissance since the 1970’s and possess a profoundly rich culture that the rest of us have much to learn from. The Māori language is currently enjoying a surge in popularity, not only among Māori. Māori are represented in Parliament and have several TV stations.
We on the Sufi path in Aotearoa hold a strong desire for closer links and a deeper understanding of the Māori world – te ao Māori -, and so we have begun a series of Zoom programs to that end.
In the first, Dr. Aroha Spinks led us through a brief history and overview, covering tangata: the people; Tiriti: The Treaty of Waitangi; and taiao: the environment. Māori people arrived in Aotearoa, meaning the land of the long white cloud, in the early 1300’s, latecomers in the great wave of exploration by Polynesian peoples, who populated the islands of the Pacific over the previous 1000 years.
Five hundred years later, the first Europeans to settle in New Zealand were whalers and sealers, followed by traders. Thus, the process of colonization began, culminating in 1840 by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, (the name of the locality where it was signed) New Zealand’s defining document. More Europeans arrived and as the main settlement of Auckland grew, the pressure for more land became intense. This led almost inevitably to open warfare which lasted twenty-seven years, as Māori resisted the invasion and loss of their land. There was much injustice and suffering as Māori land was confiscated and bought by the Crown. Massacres occurred, and diseases (e.g., measles and influenza,) introduced by Pakeha; (i.e., white settlers,) took their toll. In time, political suppression of Māori language and culture became the norm.
Happily, we can say that we live in more enlightened times, but the legacy of colonization, and the injustice it has brought, live on. Since it is frequently the norm, it may be unconscious, and the recognition and acknowledgment of this can trigger uneasy reactions. How do both Māori and Pakeha live with this? What can and should we do about this uncomfortable situation we all find ourselves in?
One option is to deepen in the exploration of the injustice caused by colonization, to learn more of the Doctrine of Discovery, (an outdated legal concept which allowed Pakeha to lay claim to territories uninhabited by Christians), and its contemporary legal rulings, to sit with the grief and to work towards healing. This sits as a challenge that may be addressed in the future. However, this time the path we took was to celebrate the glorious depth of Māori culture, and to work at friendship within it.
This is why we did with the second Zoom program, held in May. The themes were whakapapa (lineage), whanaungatanga (kinship) and wairua (spirit). The presenter was Papa Hone Mathews. The Māori language—te reo—is not easily translated into English. Like other languages, a word or two in translation does not do justice to the depth of these concepts. Māori, it is often said, think in pictures and phrases. In his explanation, Papa Hone drew all three values together, creating a living framework that places Māori in a harmonious relationship with each other and the living world around us. This is whanaungatanga, which can roughly be translated as kinship, and is the defining principle of te ao Māori, where all the elements of creation within the living and spiritual realms are interrelated.
There are many, many parallels between Māori and Sufi beliefs, and it was fascinating to hear of Aio, the Supreme Being, who is peace and serenity, and how Māori may hear the words, but also see the wairua, the spirit with which those words come. It is one thing to be able to speak te reo, but what matters is the authenticity and mana those words carry. Papa Hone ended by using a house—whare—as a metaphor for his family, each member with a place, and each one necessary for the integrity of the structure.
There are more presentations to come, but the work of building mutual trust and respect between races; i.e., friendship, and the work of learning from and appreciating the taonga (the treasure) that is te ao Māori (the world of Māori) is an individual and lifelong duty for all in Aotearoa.