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.