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Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Open letter from Hands off our tamariki Ōtaki hui



The following letter was sent to all Māori Members of Parliament from the Hands off our tamariki Ōtaki hui, held 12 October at Te Wānanga o Raukawa.


Re: Proposed changes to the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act


Tēnā koutou i ngā tini āhuatanga o te ao,

On Wednesday, October 12, a hui in Ōtaki discussed the changes Anne Tolley has proposed to the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, removing the clauses that consider the effects of decisions on whānau, and that prioritise placing a child within their hapū or iwi.

Those clauses came out of the 1988 report Puao-te-ata-tu. After extensive research around the nation, Puao-te-ata-tu found that ‘institutional racism’ was at the root of Māori social welfare problems, and predicted that the Crown would continue to fail Māori unless this was fixed. The report found that Māori succeed when rangatiratanga is recognised and supported, and recommended that Māori should be resourced to solve the problems Māori are facing.

Two findings of Puao-te-ata-tu are particularly related to the proposed changes. Firstly, children are members of whānau and hapū, and the wellbeing of those units needs to be considered. At the time, legislation regarded the welfare of the child as the first and paramount consideration (the proposed changes will re-instate this). The report found that in the context of institutional racism, this took away the ability of whānau, hapū and iwi to take responsibility for their children. Secondly, the well-being of Māori children includes their sense of belonging to whakapapa and whānau, prioritising their wellbeing includes prioritising those connections. In the context of institutional racism, not specifically prioritising whakapapa means children are isolated from their whakapapa and culture. This is dangerous.

Puao-te-ata-tu made many recommendations, most of which have not been met. The two clauses that Anne Tolley is proposing to remove were hard won. Removing them from legislation takes away all protection for connections to whakapapa.

It is unbelievable that social workers cannot find safe and loving whānau within a child’s whakapapa. As Tariana Turia has said of her iwi “You can't tell me that within 8000 people connected by our river, you cannot find someone to care for a child.”

It is tragic whenever CYF places children in unsafe situations, including unsafe whānau. It is an example of CYF making bad decisions for our children, and why we want to make those decisions ourselves. CYF’s bad practice cannot be used as an excuse to remove provisions to protect children in the context of whānau. To make that argument is transparently racist—Māori cannot be blamed for the Crown’s bad decisions.

Removing the clauses from legislation is simply another colonising act of control. The proposed changes are inconsistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which New Zealand is a signatory. In particular, the changes are inconsistent with article 7.2 which recognises “the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.”

It is apt that this hui was held at Te Wānanga o Raukawa. From the Wānanga, for decades Whatarangi Winiata has argued for an enduring and fair solution to the many problems that Māori face as a result of colonisation, including the number of children in state care. The solution he proposes is a reallocation of resources, from the Crown to Māori. If all the resources that the Crown takes and uses to protect our children were instead given to Māori, returning all responsibility to care for our children, history and experience suggests our children would be better off. This is the long-term solution we support.

We are asking you as a Member of Parliament to do all that you can to reverse the changes to the CYPF Act that Anne Tolley is proposing. These changes come from a monocultural understanding of child welfare. They will result in dislocating Māori children from their whakapapa and all the negative outcomes that stem from that disconnection. There has been no credible reason given for the changes. They breach the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and meet the Declaration’s definition of genocide. We would expect the Crown to be moving towards honouring Te Tiriti, but these changes are a dangerous step away from rangatiratanga. They are assimilationist, racist and colonising.

We hope that you will be brave, energetic and outspoken in protecting our tamariki from these moves.

Ngā mihi,

Attendees of the Hands off our tamariki hui in Ōtaki, 12 October 2016

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The NZ state, making children vulnerable since way back

I’m going to talk about the proposed changes to the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, but before I do, I want to give a quick background. The context is necessary for understanding why the changes are so upsetting.

Traditionally, Māori society is whānau centred, and Māori whānau are child centred. Whakapapa is at the heart of our philosophy, the relationship between tūpuna and mokopuna is especially celebrated in our literature, and our metaphors for identity and belonging are all about mothering. When Europeans arrived, some were appalled enough that they wrote about what terrible parents Māori were, especially Māori men, who were far too loving and attentive to children, not at all manly behaviour. (If you are interested in traditional Māori parenting, Mana Ririki produced a fantastic report)

Over the next several decades, Europeans got stuck-in, teaching Māori parents good Christian spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child parenting, and teaching Māori men patriarchal family values. At the same time that the Crown took Māori wealth and resources, it imposed capitalism—the combined effect was impoverishment and chasing wages for survival (when my iwi, Ngāi Tahu, signed Te Tiriti they were responsible for almost all of Te Waipounamu, Rakiura and surrounding islands; between 1844 and 1860, they were forced to sell effectively all that land for less than £9000. In that short time, thousands of people who had been collectively self-supporting and self-determining became politically and financially dependent on the Europeans who had taken everything. Can you imagine how that felt?). Europeans introduced diseases that killed thousands (in the first 100 years of contact with Europeans, the Māori population fell from around 200 000 to 42 000. Can you imagine that—losing 80% of the population? How did whānau function?). The Crown dismantled Māori law and systems that kept whānau safe and healthy, criminalised tikanga, locked people up for trying to hold on to their land, banned te reo Māori from schools to stamp out not just te reo, but all the mātauranga that it carries. And Māori were still expected to fight for Britain in two horrific world wars.

After a hundred years of this, Māori were still resilient. In the 1940s, research on Māori mental health focused on why Māori were so much healthier than Europeans (one third the incidence of mental disorder).1 Pākehā researchers’ explanation was that the whānau was such a nurturing mechanism that it was protecting Māori mental health from even the ongoing violence of colonisation. They predicted that as whānau structures were dismantled, Māori mental disease would increase to Pākehā rates. This could have been a turning point for Māori and Pākehā—where would we be if Pākehā had paid attention to their own researchers saying whānau are a healthier institution than nuclear families? Instead, the Crown has continued with policies to dismantle whānau, and privilege small family units that provide a dependent, mobile workforce.

What I’m trying to show is that colonisation has treated generations of Māori to continuous violence, trauma after trauma after trauma. At the same time, the Crown has been dismantling our mechanisms of wellbeing—disconnecting us from our whenua, our whakapapa, our whānau. These experiences have created the situation we are in now, where some Māori whānau aren’t coping. That problem was clearly described in the 1987 report Puao-te-ata-tu commissioned by the Minister of Social Welfare. Already, Māori made up the majority of Social Welfare institutions’ clientele. Puao-te-ata-tu reported that institutional racism in the Department of Social Welfare, the Children and Young Persons Act and the courts made it impossible for those institutions to achieve their goals, and made recommendations that would have transformed those institutions from their philosophical foundations to their practices. Their recommendations included incorporating Māori values in all policies, and working with whānau, hapū and iwi for good outcomes. 30 years ago, Puao-te-ata-tu gave the Crown advice that could have turned this crisis around. One of the few recommendations that survived into practice was the priority in the CYPF Act 1989 for Māori children to stay within hapū or iwi. This is based on a Māori understanding of well-being, which recognises connectedness to whānau, whakapapa and culture as sources of wellness. It needs to be understood in the context of generations of Māori exposed to Crown policies and practices breaking those connections.

Last year, the Crown appointed Children’s Commission published a report, State of Care 2015, looking at the performance of Child, Youth and Family. They say “We don’t know if children are better off as a result of state intervention. . . . the limited data we do have about health, education, and justice outcomes is concerning.” As bad as it is for many children in their care, Māori children are worse off. Again, although the majority of children referred to CYF and in care are Māori, CYF does not have and does not value the knowledge, skills and experience to work with Māori. Again, they recommended transforming CYF, including focusing on building cultural capacity and partnering with iwi.

Since then, Anne Tolley has announced that CYF is broken, which I will come back to, and that it will be replaced by a Ministry for Vulnerable Children. From the moment she announced the name of the Ministry, it was clear she was not taking advice from people you might expect her to, like the Children’s Commissioner, who said the name was ‘stigmatising and labelling’ (Vulnerable Children's Minister Anne Tolley: 'I'll call it, 'my ministry'). Given that the State of Care 2015 report found CYF’s ability to provide for Māori children such a concern and recommended working with iwi, you might expect that would be prioritised. Given that we know the importance of culture and connectedness for well-being, you might expect that whānau would be prioritised. Instead, one of the first legislative changes is to remove two clauses, one that prioritises Māori children staying within their hapū and iwi, and another that considers the effect of decisions on the stability of Māori children’s whānau, hapū and iwi (Turia blasts 'racist' children's law). These two changes together take away all protection for connections to whakapapa. It’s as if Tolley is trying to alienate Māori. When I heard, I was so shocked I thought it was a mistake.

I don’t understand it. CYF are bad at caring for children, and particularly bad at caring for Māori children. The majority of children in their ‘care’ are Māori. Two reports tell them to work with iwi, one tells them to ditch the monocultural approach and include Māori values at their heart. I would expect that to be the direction the Minister would move towards, even if glacially and superficially. Instead, she seems intent on pushing Māori away. Is this assimilationist step just monocultural arrogance (which Puao-te-ata-tu called institutional racism) and incompetence—importing models from overseas and ignoring history?

The other possibility is that it is ideological.

Tolley reacted strongly to the State of Care 2015 report—the system was broken and we needed to start again (eg, CYF system is ‘broken’, ‘It’s time for a clean break – CYF is gone’ says Tolley, ‘Horrifying’ outcomes for CYF kids warrant ‘a whole new model’ – Tolley). We don’t usually see ministers so scathing about their departments, even after bad reports. It’s uncommon enough that it reminded me of the time 5 years ago when we were told that ACC was broken, just before the announcement that private companies could compete for its work. Is it possible that this government is using the State of Care 2015 report as an excuse to remodel so private companies can contract to care for our children? Remember last year when Anne Tolley said she’d be happy for Serco to run social services for children (Anne Tolley still happy for Serco to run social services for children)? Or when she denied that Serco visited CYF facilities and had to apologise (Anne Tolley apologises over Serco link to Child, Youth and Family)? She then stated that “I'm not talking about putting any part of CYF's statutory responsibilities over to a private company” (Tolley: ‘No way’ Serco would run CYF), but something is going on.

I don’t know why Tolley is proposing something so divisive and counter-productive. What makes it even stranger to me, is that the clauses she wants to remove are so weak. Social workers have told me that the clauses are largely ignored, but that they are important because they are the only tool whānau can use to fight bad decisions.

I want to be clear, removing children from their whānau is violence. Sometimes, children’s parents aren’t coping, and children need to be protected. But the state has shown that it is not qualified to care for Māori. Iwi are putting their hands up (Iwi Leaders first to sign NZ covenant for children, Vulnerable kids win iwi, CYF pact), and have been for a long time. The authors of Puao-te-ata-tu argued that iwi should be making decisions for Māori children. Instead of setting up this strange new monocultural model, Tolley could be working out how to support iwi to take on that role. Whatever her reason for what she’s doing, whether it’s stupidity or ideology, the consequences are appalling—if we continue to fail Māori children in state care, we will continue generations of horrible outcomes. The thought of it makes me sick.

(for more information, check out the Hands Off Our Tamariki facebook page)

1 Beaglehole, E and P Beaglehole 1947 Some Modern Maoris, New Zealand Council for Educational Research Series (Whitcombe and Tombs, Auckland)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Accepting violence

Around 2000 I was at a party in someone’s flat in Germany. We were probably all in our 20s, students or postdocs at the university, and there was a lot of alcohol. A guy (I’ll call him Guy1) was talking to me, he asked me to have lunch with him, I said no, in that joking inoffensive way that we do. He tried again a couple of times, I laughed him off. It was all very light, it probably lasted a couple of minutes and was completely forgettable, except for what happened next. Another guy came over and started talking to Guy1, he moved Guy1 away from me. In the next few minutes several people, men and women, apologised to me for Guy1’s behaviour and assured me that he would leave me alone. It was so beyond my experience of life that all I could do was laugh.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was thinking about how hard it is to explain what rape culture is, and why it’s bad. If, like me, you can’t stop yourself from reading comments on articles about violence against women, you will know that many people are outraged by the term rape culture. I get that no-one likes jargon, and lots of people are scared of feminism, so we could use different words to talk about the same stuff. But when people don’t use the term rape culture, it’s clear that the words aren’t the problem. The problem is that many people accept that violence (especially violence against women) is inevitable, and for whatever reason, they are offended when anyone acts like it’s not. They are offended when people don’t accept violence as an inevitable consequence of a woman being drunk, or alone, or out at night, or with a man, or wearing whatever, or working, or taking drugs, or having an opinion, or using public transport, or not standing up for herself, or blahblahblah. Those people talk about how women need to be responsible for avoiding this ever-present threat of violence, and are upset by anyone who wants to talk about how to remove the threat. They have accepted that violence against women is inevitable, so we all need to accept it. To be clear, whenever anyone says or implies that violence is inevitable, when they ask us to accept that violence is inevitable, they ask us to accept violence—violence is acceptable. And if violence is acceptable, then the victim is the problem that we need to focus on. If violence is inevitable, then there is no point trying to stop people being violent, instead we need to control potential victims.

How do you shift them from that point to reveal violence as a choice that some people are making? To reveal that we can be safer and more free by focusing on that choice, whether or not to be violent. Whereas, whenever we focus on the choices that victims or potential victims of violence make, we make the world more dangerous and less free.

My experience of parties and pubs has ingrained rules in me—don’t make eye contact with men I don’t know, don’t smile, don’t make conversation, stay in the bubble; smile and laugh if a man approaches, have a polite excuse to get away; always be aware; be nice/ likeable even if it takes forever to get away. I expect men who will not accept a polite excuse, I expect to have to argue, gently, carefully, and that it might take minutes or hours, I know some of those men will be dangerous even if they don’t know it. I expect men who will choose not to respect my decisions about my body. At times, it has taken hours of gently, carefully, saying no to men; at times, those men have been close friends who care about me.

My partner (a woman) had a conversation with my dad a few weeks ago. My dad was worried that I was abusing her, and it turned out that the problem was that I had said no to him—I had refused to continue an email argument, and when Dad wouldn’t stop, I told him I needed a break from him until he controlled himself. The only way my dad could make sense of this was that I am an abusive person, hence his concern for my partner. My partner explained the concept of personal boundaries to him (that we each can choose how we want people to behave towards us and what happens if they won’t), but the idea was new and foreign to him. I’m sure he still sees me saying no to him as a character flaw.

How do we keep ourselves safe if we are taught that it is wrong to say no to someone who doesn’t behave towards us in the way that we want?

I was wondering what the absence of rape culture would be like. What would it be like if people were free to say yes or no whenever they wanted without constant vigilance and fear for their safety? Would I recognise it? It feels beyond my comprehension. And then I remembered that night at the party in Germany—the concern of the other party goers was beyond my comprehension. It felt weird. I was even uncomfortable with them talking to the guy—was it controlling, oppressive? I’ve heard enough people talk about anything like that as repressive—how can we even have fun? It’s policing normal behaviour, you’d lock up all teenagers next, etc. It’s tragic that respecting each other is so foreign and terrifying.

The idea that it is reasonable for women to have personal boundaries was not something I was raised with, and it’s not consistent with my experience. My experience of parties and pubs comes from at least some people struggling to respect other people’s boundaries, and no-one telling them they need to. There are no repercussions for a guy being obnoxious, there are often no repercussions for a guy being violent. When guys ask for the same thing over and over, and ignore polite requests to stop and to leave, whether or not they are threatening us, they are using the existence of the threat of violence. It is treated as normal and acceptable, and no-one tells them they are being abusive.

I hope it is a generational thing. I hope my experience is incomprehensible to my daughter. I want her to go to parties like the one I went to in Germany, I want it to be normal. If someone behaves badly, I want it to be unacceptable, to her and everyone else. I want her to be free, to say yes or no to whatever she likes, to give and expect respect. I want a future where, when people talk about what’s inevitable, that’s what they’re talking about—mana, manaaki, care, respect.

For that to happen, we need to get better at how we talk about and what we do about violence. It's not inevitable, it's a choice. We need to stop accepting that choice. We need to support people to stop using violence, to get away from violence. We need to get better at recognising when violence and the threat of violence are being used to control—whether it's by individuals, groups or the state. Violence is unacceptable. We need to keep saying that.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Students, universities and white supremacy

Students of colour organising is getting serious media attention in the US at the moment. Concerned Student 1950 at the University of Missouri forced the University president to resign, holding him responsible for failing to address racism on campus (“Racial climate at MU”, “Mizzou hunger strike is what happens when universities disregard black lives”, “Concerned student 1950 demands”). Since then, we’ve heard about organising on countless campuses (article on 22 campuses with comments section naming other campuses, demands from students on a growing number of campuses).

One article that caught my attention was about Georgetown University. Georgetown’s history makes the link between white supremacy and its success clear—slaves were sold to pay off debt.

“American universities have only recently begun to publicly grapple with the fact that these elite institutions, like the United States, were literally built on the exploitation of black bodies. Beginning with Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003, universities around the country have unearthed disturbing truths about how their schools profited from human bondage. For many universities, Georgetown included, slavery made the difference between a viable institution and a shuttered one.”
“In addition to the renaming of Mulledy Hall, Georgetown activists are asking for plaques to identify the unmarked graves of slaves on campus, an annual program to explore Georgetown’s history of slavery, the inclusion of information about black people’s contributions to Georgetown in campus tours, mandatory diversity training for professors, and the rechristening of McSherry Hall, a campus building named for the Georgetown president who presided over the 1838 slave sale.

“But the demand that could have the biggest effect on Georgetown’s future, if the university complies, comes down to money. The student activists have proposed a new endowment fund, equal to the present value of the profit garnered from the 272 slaves, for the purpose of recruiting black professors. It’s a brilliant example of how universities could enact something in the vein of reparations—a tangible admission of the link between the horrific acts of generations past and today’s racial injustice, one that would provide an equally tangible benefit to current and future students of color.” (Georgetown students protest hall named for slave selling Jesuit)
And they’ve had early success (Georgetown renames building).

By clearly founding their campaign on the school’s history, demanding actions to explore how Georgetown benefits from white supremacy and ways to put it right now, the students are offering the school an opportunity for learning and leadership. By grounding their argument in justice, rather than human rights, they invite deeper reflection and relationship building—they invite the school to take responsibility for finding solutions, rather than either denying the issue, or simply reacting to external pressure and doing the least possible.

I hope the school takes this opportunity, and I’ve included two ways they can build from it.

  • To explore how white supremacy not only allows them to be successful, but has also made it harder for other projects to survive. Actions like recruiting more black professors will ultimately help Georgetown remain successful at the expense of institutions with less money and prestige—institutions that have been committed to teaching about white supremacy long before it was politically safe. Not just recognised historically black and tribal colleges and university, but the many organisations teaching about justice. Reparations shouldn’t just mean finding ways to make yourself better and more powerful, it should mean dismantling that power in ways that support those most affected by your actions. In this case, supporting oppressed and exploited communities on their own terms.
  • To look at white supremacy more broadly, including how the school (like every colonial state) was built on the exploitation of native bodies and lands, and exploring how the school benefits from ongoing imperialism.
  • To explore and end ways the school contributes to white supremacy, and prioritise ending white supremacy


Of course I’m not writing about this because I think anyone at Georgetown or any other US university care what I think. I’m thinking about what needs to be done in Aotearoa, and how much I would love if the institutions that the State supported to uphold cultural imperialism took responsibility for dismantling it, instead of playing neutral or pretending they aren’t advantaged by it (I’m reminded of this cartoon).

Leonie Pihama reviews some of the colonial history of New Zealand universities in her PhD thesis (Pihama, “Tīhei Mauri Ora, Honouring our voices: Mana Wahine as a Kaupapa Māori theoretical framework”, PhD (Education) thesis Auckland University, 2001: 49-52). It’s very easy to see that the older universities have benefited from colonisation, because they were developed when colonisation was brutally obvious, but all universities benefit from white supremacy. For example, the three Wānanga have claims to the Waitangi Tribunal showing how they are disadvantaged by the State education system, which prioritises universities.

I’d like to see all the universities examine their past and current practices for ways they have exploited and harmed (and are exploiting and harming) tāngata whenua and peoples of colour and their ways of being. I’d like to see them examine the sources of their power and prestige—at whose expense have they succeeded, how are they benefiting from and contributing to white supremacy/ cultural imperialism? And then, I want them to work with tāngata whenua and communities of colour to put it right.

How do we make that happen?



(note: I use white supremacy to describe the historic and ongoing systems of oppression of indigenous peoples and peoples of colour, including their ways of being. Bell hooks explores the term in her chapter “Overcoming white supremacy: a comment” in Talking back: thinking feminist, thinking black.)

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Mātauranga Māori, tino rangatiratanga and the future of New Zealand science

On a completely different topic, last year my mate Debbie and I wrote an opinion piece on the future of New Zealand science (what we lack in knowledge of New Zealand science, we make up for in opinions). You can access it here: Mātauranga Māori, tino rangatiratanga and the future of New Zealand science.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Colonisation and belonging

For about a week, my inbox was full of links to blog posts about Andrea Smith and whether she is or isn’t Cherokee. I’ve read all of those posts, and most of them make me really uncomfortable. I want to explore my discomfort in a series of short (for me) posts over the next few weeks. I don’t know where this will go. I don’t plan to critique anything that anyone is saying, and I won’t presume to give any solutions—I know it's not my place. But there are a number of reasons that my reaction is complicated, and I think it’s important to talk about those reasons.

First of all, I should re-introduce myself. I am from Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu on my birth father’s side, and European on my birth mother’s side. I was adopted at birth by a Pākehā family, back in the days of closed adoptions, and grew up in Whangārei. My parents were assured that I am completely white, and I am light-skinned enough that this is marginally believable. So I was raised in ignorance of tikanga, and without any knowledge of my Māori whakapapa. I didn’t find my father until I was in my 30s, and with that I found out my iwi. At the time, I hadn’t even visited the area that we’re from. Since then, my birth father’s family have been incredibly welcoming, and have taken the time to teach me a lot. It has taken me a long time to learn some of the things that I should already have known. There are many things I will never learn. I will always be in-between, both Pākehā and Māori, and not quite either (I will write more about this in another post).

I have been lucky. There are many parts of my story that could have been different, that could have resulted in my never discovering my whakapapa, or that could have resulted in my knowing the connections, but never able to prove them:

  • I needed to find my mother
  • She needed to remember my father’s name
  • She needed to know that he was in another country
  • I needed to find him
  • He needed to acknowledge me.

It would have been easy to be caught in a situation of knowing who I belong to, but with no way of proving it. Whether I knew it or not, whether I could prove it or not, I have always been Ngāi Tahu. That is part of my whakapapa.

This sort of story, of complete disconnection, is colonisation. I was going to say it’s an important part of colonisation, but it’s more than that. Colonisation is breaking connections. Whakapapa is the ultimate threat to colonisation; it guarantees that colonisation will eventually fail. Whakapapa means we care for each other—we are responsible to each other and our ancestors. We are a force. This means that every link in whakapapa, every connection, is a threat to colonisation. It’s only by breaking indigenous connections to place, by forcing tangata whenua from their place, that colonisers can take the land and try to keep it. It’s only by breaking indigenous connections to each other, imposing their culture and values in the gaps that are created, that colonisers can feel safe and superior. As individuals, we are much more likely to succumb, to assimilate, to disappear.

For many Māori, the knowledge of whakapapa died a generation or two ago, the connections are forgotten. When that knowledge is taken, what can we do? Should we admit defeat, and say the whakapapa is gone, we are no longer Māori? Should we shut people out if they can’t prove their relationships? Or are there better solutions? What are the risks in accepting people who, for whatever reason, seem to belong? What are the opportunities? Are we more likely to realise tino rangatiratanga through strict rules of exclusion, or through flexibility and inclusion?

Clearly, I am affected by these questions. My identity as Māori, tangata whenua, Ngāi Tahu feels vulnerable. It’s hard for me to remember that this is true for lots of us. Many of us feel vulnerable, not Māori enough. Which project does that insecurity serve—colonisation or tino rangatiratanga? What are our political goals, and what actions move us towards them, or away from them? These are questions I think it is important to continue talking about.

I’ll write more soon.

Friday, April 17, 2015

talk from GLITCH 2015

This is tidied up notes from a talk I gave at the GLITCH Youth Decolonisation Hui for Sexuality and Gender Minorities at Te Puea marae in Auckland last month. I really struggled to come up with anything to say in 10 minutes. To make it harder, I was on a panel with people who have been working for our communities for decades, and I was much more interested in what they had to say. In hindsight, I wish I’d taken more time to talk about liberalism, recognition and assimilation, and our responsibilities to our tūpuna and mokopuna, and how we take control of the stories, and a bunch of other things that would never fit into 10 minutes.


I’m going to talk about stories, and the different ways of telling stories, because the stories we hear about ourselves, and the stories we choose to tell about ourselves, have a big effect on how we understand who we are, and on the futures that we can imagine ourselves contributing to. Every story has an agenda and an effect, and I think it’s important to always be thinking about that.

I want to start with the way we talk about our history. In school I got taught that history was pretty much men doing stuff, mostly conquering or fighting wars. The way Māori history is talked about still seems mostly in that style. We are allowed to be proud of our tūpuna as fierce warriors, but when we try to publicly remember them as great parents, or lovers, or kaitiaki and rangatira in its true sense, the media are quick to find historians like Paul Moon to ‘balance’ that story and bring it back to violence.

There’s the story of our tūpuna Māori as primitive, lawless, barbaric cannibals who were struggling when Europeans arrived, and probably wouldn’t have survived without European technology. It’s a self-serving story invented by European colonisers to justify stealing land. It can’t possibly be true, or our people wouldn’t have survived as long as we have. You need laws and a system to grow and retain knowledge to survive. Māori have an academic tradition as long as anyone else’s, and that tradition should be the basis of the stories we tell about ourselves.

So instead of talking about the violent warrior history of the Māori that got fed to me at school, I’m going to talk about our academic history.

I want you to imagine a line in front of me, this continuous line stretches past the arrivals of my European ancestors to these lands, past the arrivals of my tūpuna Māori from their Pacific homelands, it extends all the way into the infinity of creation. And it carries on through and behind me into the future that we can’t see.

This line represents the accumulated experiences, knowledge and wisdom of generations. It is our academic tradition. Whatarangi Winiata called it the mātauranga continuum. We are part of it, and we can have a huge effect on how it grows into the future. In fact, our specific experiences are really important for making sense of what’s happened and how to put it right.

The foundation of our academic tradition is the stories our tūpuna crafted for us. Many of us grew up on the common patriarchal versions of those stories where for example Rangi looks down on Papa, desires her and takes her and they have a bunch of sons, who eventually feel cramped and conspire to push them apart and let light in, then fight amongst each other before dividing up the world amongst them. Or Tāne goes looking for the female element, and eventually makes her out of dirt, brings her to life and impregnates her, then when his daughter grows up he takes her for his wife and she gives birth to mankind before realising her husband is her father, and then fleeing in shame to the underworld. Or the Māui cycle which is like a boys own adventure. In all these stories, males are the centre, they are active and creative heroes, while the females are passive. The only time they get to act is to flee in shame. Those versions have very clearly been selected and shaped by exposure to Pākehā patriarchal values and ideas about what a good story looks like. They have nothing to offer me, or to anyone else who wants more out of life than a patriarchal rape fantasy.

There are other versions of creation that are far more interesting.

There’s my people’s tradition where Rakinui and Papatūānuku each have other partners, so the primary relationship is bigger than Raki and Papa—there is no nuclear family. Or there’s Pei Te Hurinui writing about a Tainui creation tradition, where Ranginui had partners other than Papatūānuku, both were bi-sexual, and both gave birth to children.

There would have been heaps of creation stories showing that our tūpuna had interesting understandings of gender and sexuality. Our tūpuna needed to understand their environment, where sex comes in pretty much every form you can imagine. Plants can produce both pollen and seed, or just one, they can be self-fertile or reproduce without sex. Animals can be male or female or both, or switch depending on what’s needed, or be sterile, or reproduce asexually. Why would we expect atua to be confined to male or female bodies? or defined by their sex? Or to be monogamous?

I don’t want to dwell on how so many of our stories have been distorted or taken from us altogether. What I want to talk about is our responsibility to give those stories back. Who understands the silencing of colonisation better than us? Our bodies, our sexualities, our genders, our relationships have been erased. I know what it means to limit our stories to heterosexual, monogamous patriarchy, because I am expected to fit myself into those limits too.

And now there’s new stories to explain our current situation.

There’s the feel-good one-people-into-the-future-together story. It starts with recognition that some bad stuff happened to tangata whenua during colonisation. It sometimes includes an apology, like the Australian Prime minister gave to their indigenous peoples. But it never involves colonisers conceding any power. Nothing changes.

There’s the story of white liberalism. It says that pretty much wherever we come from, if we’re not white, our culture is conservative and backwards compared to Pākehā culture, and Pākehā values will liberate us. That story conveniently ignores that what we most need liberation from is western imperialism, and that for example, sexual and gender liberation on these lands has pretty much always been led by Māori and Pasifika.

That story is based on recent moves towards tolerance of deviant genders and sexualities—the state, progressive corporations and nice, liberal people are finally ready to recognise that we exist, and even to share some of their rights with us. We get included in their marketing campaigns, they let us choose the gender on our passports, and even marry one other person of any gender. Some of that stuff is helpful, but what does this neoliberal story of tolerance mean? People with power look like they are being nice to us marginalised queers, we can be out and still successfully participate in capitalism and colonisation. But nothing is being conceded. They aren’t changing, they are letting us change to fit in, to assimilate.

What is the world I want, if it’s not this one? That’s a hard question to answer, especially when someone else controls the stories. This is why our own academic traditions are so important—they help us see outside Western culture and values. When we think about the stories our tūpuna left for us, when we strip out the misogyny and white supremacy that got laid on them, we can see that they are all focused on building relationships and the responsibilities that come with those relationships.

What would society look like if it had relationships and responsibilities at its center?

It suggests a future where, as Moana Jackson has said, we are all recognised as mokopuna, who will become tūpuna, where we remember that we all come from atua, that we can all create and contribute.

This is a world I could get excited about. Focusing on relationships and responsibilities doesn’t ignore the specific oppressions we face within our own cultures, but it is guide to help untangle the shit we currently face.

That’s the dream our tūpuna had for us. How we do that, how we imagine that, those are the stories I want to hear. And if you don’t agree with me, if this doesn’t sound like you, and you have other visions, then I want to hear stories that lead you to the future you dream of.