What is Urban Mãori Culture?

Me hoki whakamuri, kia ahu whakamua, kaneke.
In order to improve, evolve, and move forward, we must reflect back to what has been.

Looking back to the Future:

What is Urban Mãori Culture?

By Melissa Crockett (Potiki Adventures)

Although many New Zealander’s have a relatively good understanding of Mãori culture, there are probably still quite a few who have not considered the question – “What does contemporary Mãori culture encompass today?” It’s a question that is on the minds of many of the international visitors to Aotearoa.

As the owners of a contemporary Mãori tourism company based in Auckland it’s a topic that Bianca Ranson (Co-Director) and I think about on a daily basis. Our tours evolved out of a desire to showcase to international visitors that Mãori culture is alive, evolving and relevant in New Zealand today. That it has an influence in many aspects of mainstream New Zealand lifestyle and makes its presence felt even in the centre of a cosmopolitan city like Auckland.

Our company sets about highlighting how traditional Mãori philosophies, tikanga (protocols), stories, language, art and design have been retained and are now emerging to influence New Zealand culture at all levels. We believe that Aotearoa is unique in the way that our indigenous culture has been adopted and incorporated into aspects of modern Pakeha life in ways that would be unheard of elsewhere. What is interesting to consider is that much of this has been going on for so long that most people here don’t even think twice about the origin of certain words and customs, or that they are doing something in a way that has been influenced by Mãori protocols. But for those of us who are in the business of explaining this unique dynamic to visitors from overseas on a daily basis it becomes noticeable how interwoven our two cultures are and how much Mãori culture is visible – if you just know where to look.

On the surface, many urban living Mãori seem no different to anyone else. Perhaps in many ways we aren’t. But if one digs a little deeper, it becomes clear that although we wear the latest designer clothes, use a Blackberry, have an online web presence and talk of our intellectual property, we are very much guided by our tupuna (ancestors) and traditional matauranga (knowledge) in many facets of our everyday lives.

Take a second look at our clothes and you will realise that they are designed by a successful young Mãori clothes designer, that the appliquéd logo on the sleeve is actually a Mãori design. What may look like a hip hop style tee-shirt from the US, on closer inspection reveals the individual’s tribal affiliation. The picture on our Blackberry screensaver is our ancestral Whare Nui (community house) and the ring tone is contemporary Mãori reggae. We use Facebook and Bebo (or Te Ao o Pipau – The World of Bebo) to keep in touch with our extended whãnau (family), share information about upcoming wãnanga (courses of traditional learning), tribal events etc. Oh and the intellectual property I mentioned, well Mãori are very aware of our taonga (treasures). So a hot topic discussed over many a latte in city cafés is the international interest in and occasional misuse or appropriation of our language, plant medicines, art, design, moko (tattoo) and of course the haka (war dance).
But it’s more than that. Our culture has deep roots - roots which connect us to the whenua, (land), to our ancestors and to old philosophies. Those kaupapa continue to have relevance and resonance today. They are timeless philosophies about the importance of family and community, about being smart and fearless, resilient and resourceful, about taking pride in and holding onto our past, yet simultaneously moving forward, adapting and surviving. Urban living Mãori may have struggled in the past to fit in with and assimilate into the mainstream white culture. Now we celebrate and appreciate our unique differences. We want to wear Mãori designed clothes, because they look good and more importantly because we make conscious decisions to support other Mãori businesses. We attend wãnanga to learn about and take pride in our traditions, teaching our children to be proud of their heritage and language. We repeat the whakatauki (proverb) above.

At the same time we stress to our families that being able to move strongly into the future is especially important. We celebrate creativity, entrepreneurship and the reclamation of Mãori culture, through awards, events and the media. Finding community in the city is easier – but rather than linking according to traditional tribal affiliations, we now create communities of Mãori artists, writers, playwrights, business entrepreneurs, doctors, actors, activists and lawyers. Many of us run our businesses using Pakeha business models, but from Mãori kaupapa (philosophies), making business decisions based not only upon bottom line reporting, but on the positive or negative impact of these actions upon our whãnau and communities. Mãori have in many ways integrated into mainstream New Zealand culture, yet managed to hold onto our uniqueness, history and sense of self.

In return there is Mãori influence everywhere, national newspapers and magazines are filled with words in te reo (Mãori language) that are not translated into English since it is assumed that the average New Zealander will know what they mean. We know to take off our shoes when entering a Marae. Many New Zealanders follow funeral practices derived from Mãori tangi. When a group of adults is asked to sing a song, often the one we will all know is a Mãori waiata learnt at school. In Auckland the motorways have Mãori designs inscribed into the concrete. We also exercise and picnic on terraced Pa sites (fortified villages). Design stores in suburban malls stock home-wares referencing Mãori weaving, traditional Mãori jewellery, Mãori language etc. To those of us that live here in New Zealand there is nothing particularly unusual about any of this, but it is fascinating for international visitors because their own indigenous cultures often live quite separately from the mainstream communities. So next time you are in a New Zealand city that seems relatively European, take time to look again and notice if you can see any influences of Mãori culture around you. You might just be surprised.

I look forward to seeing you in a central city café and sharing a latte or kapu kawakawa ti.

Mauriora, Melissa Crockett.