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A Taniwha by the Tail: Te Ururoa & the Māori Language Bill

I heard the news yesterday and my heart gave a leap. In fact, I think it must have levitated a bit, cos it hasn’t settled in my chest just yet. The Minister for Māori Development, Te Ururoa Flavell has announced that the current Māori language Bill will be enacted in both Māori and English.

So…why does enacting the Māori Language Bill in Māori matter?  Isn’t this just a pro-forma kind of thing? Doesn’t it just add yet another layer of bureaucracy to a baseline of bureaucracy? After all, the Bill will still be enacted in English. The right to speak Māori in Court won’t change; we’ve had that since 1987. Big woop, right? And we have been down this legislative track already, haven’t we? The Mokomoko (Restoration of Character, Mana, and Reputation) Act 2013 was enacted in both languages, after all. The preamble in the Te Ture Whenua Māori/Māori Land Act 1993 is bilingual..and a whole bunch of Treaty settlements have Māori language provisions in them. So why get so excited about this one Act?

I can think of a couple of reasons. For one thing, te reo Māori is affirmed again as a serious matter of law in our Parliament. This has not always been evident.

Actually, due to the recent reshowing of the Operation 8 raids documentary ‘The Price of Peace’, I have been reminded of how Māori is often generally viewed in the context of Western law; in short, as a joke.  Scoop summed up how te reo Māori provided some rare moments of levity during some very boring proceedings in the Operation 8 trials:

The judge wanted to skip reading out the charges, but the defence lawyers insisted on it. The registrar began reading the charges against Emily Bailey. All the charges are joint charges, and the name of each of the co-accused is read out with each charge. This gave the registrar an opportunity to show off that he really can’t pronounce Maori names (which is understandable, because Maori people rarely come before the Auckland district court) [….]

During the break they’d found a Maori woman registrar to take over from the white man, so there was no amusement to be found from the mangling of the names. In fact there was no amusement at all. Just endless exhausting reading of charges, in two hours the court got through seven people’s charges. The endless drone would be a good cure for insomnia, and several people fell asleep, but wasn’t particularly enlightening.

The highlight of this was Annette [Sykes] insisting that Tame’s charges be read in Maori. It was no more interesting than them being read in English, but clearly pissed off the judge and police. We must take our pleasure where we find it in the process of being bored to death.

As much as this piece made me chuckle, there is a subtext here. Māori is not really a language we should expect to hear in Court, other than in the names of defendants. Te reo Māori is a delaying tactic, a cheap ruse to frustrate the officers of justice.

But Te Ururoa’s announcement is not a joke.

For a second thing, this Bill will, once enacted, be different. There is every chance that cases will be decided under the Māori version of the Act. There were several cases decided under the 1987 Act which this Bill will replace. There is every possibility that judges will need to wrestle with the Māori meanings of words and interpret them in a way that reflects the will of Parliament…just like they have to do for the other thousand-or-so English language statutes.

Here there be taniwha, of course. Courts are not well equipped for Māori language interpretation issues, as there are few judges conversant in te reo, and there is little that is really settled about the process of interpretation for a Māori language statute. That is going to have to change. (If you would like to read and learn more on this, have a look at this fantastic LLM thesis by Tai Ahu)

So Te Ururoa’s announcement matters. This development marks the re-emergence of te reo Māori as a normal language of Western law in New Zealand. It used to be thus. Hundreds of land deeds, the Treaty of Waitangi, and numerous contracts were all examples of legal documents that would be routinely drafted in Māori and English, or just in Māori and then translated into English. Government policies wavered and varied over the course of the 19th century, but enabled the generation of thousands of pages of official Māori language law and policy documentation. And Māori could create legal effect. Such policies died early in the 20th century, and, in reality, Māori ceased to be a practicable language of legal enactment well before that. Of course, Māori as a language of Māori law is obviously pretty damn extant, thank you very much.

The potential of Māori to be a language of Western law has never died, as anyone who has ever (showing my age here) written a cheque in te reo knows. But in reality, Māori has been reduced to a language of describing Western law, of commenting on it, on protesting it, of expressing suffering under it. But in our lifetimes Māori has only rarely been a language of making law, within our general legal system. Any language has the capacity to be a fully functional legal language in the legal system of any country. Māori lost that status a long time ago in New Zealand.

So that simple announcement by Te Ururoa means something techtonic to me. Something, I think, has shifted and can’t be put back exactly where it used to be. Nor should it be.

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The Deadlands and a vampire flick…just what the heck is ‘a Maori film’ these day anyway?

Many years ago now I was deeply absorbed in the question: ‘what is a Māori film?’ I was working in Māori radio and making a documentary series about that very question. Or at least, that was how it turned out, because that was very much the question at the forefront of my interviewees’ minds. I interviewed (namedrop alert…) Merata Mita, Tama Poata, Rāmai Hayward, Barry Barclay, John O’Shea and a whole bunch of other luminaries of the New Zealand film industry about what they thought of the state of Māori film-making at the time (1992-1993). The reel to reel tapes are mouldering in our basement somewhere but snatches of those long ago conversations have always remained with me. I recall Barry Barclay pointing out that so much Western culture movie-based story telling was simply  continuous retelling of King Lear; the single hero or anti-hero, the focal point of all action and dialogue, with the accompanying story arc. Māori film-making, Barry reckoned, was less about King Lear, or John Wayne and more about the interconnected web of people that comprise a community, a mode of storytelling employed in the 1987 feature film Ngāti (which he directed), whereby no one person is ever really The Point.  (You can see an interview with Barry about Ngāti and the extraordinary impact of Pacific Films on NZ film-making here.) And one thing Merata Mita (director of Mauri) said that has always stayed with me over all the intervening years was this:

“The person behind the camera changes the person front of the camera.”

In her view, the Maoriness of a Māori film was defined not only by the nature of the story that it tells, nor by the ethnicity or culture of the actors on screen but by an accounting of power. Who had the power to define the nature of the images that went up on the screen? Only if Māori controlled that image and that story, could such a film be called a truly ‘Māori film’. In the last couple of days the same argument has been raised by Leonie Pihama about the Toa Fraser-directed mau rākau bloody revenge flick The Deadlands which is currently on release, garnering rave reviews and, it seems, many a bottom on a seat (Number 1 at the NZ box office as I write).

The Deadlands is compromised according to the power argument because most of those who wield the power over the nature of the images being portrayed on the screen are not Māori. The director is not Māori, neither is the primary producer. Interestingly, Leonie refers to Glenn Standring, the writer, and a producer, of the film, as ‘being raised as a Pākehā’, referring to Glen’s own account that he did not discover his own Māori ancestry until until his 20s. There are, of course other Māori also involved in the production of the film, (nepotism alert), one of my brothers, Tainui Stephens is one of the co-producers. I wonder if the fact that Tainui, like me, did not truly discover his own Māoriness until his young adult years also disqualifies him, in the eyes of some, from being Māori enough to be considered a wielder of power for the purpose of defining a Māori film. That’s the slippery slope we get on when we start defining others by their purported cultural quantum (as opposed to the good ol’ blood quantum).

I get the power argument, I really do. It is a vitally important lens with which to critique and evaluate Māori development, and most certainly, Māori film is a marker of Māori development. Others more articulate than me will have to articulate the precise manner in which The Deadlands is truly different to 19th century image based Pākehā portrayals of the Māori as the Noble Savage. Maybe the Deadlands does perpetrate stereotypes about Māori that Māori have been trying to break away from in film for so long. I’ve seen rushes of the film, but not the whole product as yet, I’m gearing up for it..so I’m not yet qualified to say.

But I wonder if one less desirable consequence of the power analysis of Barclay, Mita, Pihama et al is the denial of agency it affords to two very important sets of people intimately involved in any given film. For one thing, all those other presumably powerless Māori who are also as much part of the storytelling as those behind the camera. Even though they may not have the say on what goes in the recycling bin. It is, after all, those artists, the actors, who bring their own mana and their own histories to that story. The other set is the audience. Seriously, I have never seen such enthusiastic acclamation by Māori for any feature film. It’s not universal of course, `cause not everyone is up for blood-drenched, cannibalistic, gut-spilling mayhem with their popcorn. And the critique by Māori language experts of the Māori language script has already started. But Māori are voting with their feet and their pingas, and their praise. For a taste, check out the Facebook Page. The over-riding theme of the comments (with the occasional detractor) is ‘mean Māori mean!’

In view of this acclamation, I wonder if one criterion of a Maori film is also simply whether Māori claim it as such. I often think of that kind of argument when I have those sad, sad conversations with Māori raised Pākehā or with little connection to their whakapapa. I think to myself ‘would their tupuna claim them?’ I have never come across a situation where I have thought the answer would be no. So…if Māori claim The Deadlands as a Māori film, maybe that ought to be listened to.

Harking back, just for a final moment, to my misty water-coloured memories of those long ago interviews. I remember Tama Poata (writer of Ngāti) saying he was looking forward to the time when Māori could just get on with making movies, about any topic whatsoever – even, he giggled,  “Maoris in space!” I thought of his comment earlier this year when I went to see Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s other gorefest movie What We Do in the Shadows. Now there’s a bloody good film that fits the power requirement. Both directors are Māori, it features two Māori leads, Both writers are Māori, three of the four producers are Māori and there are no demeaning images of Māori or problematic stereotypes to contend with or brush over. Not exactly a Māori story (and Taika knows how to write those, of course) and maybe not ‘Maoris in space’ exactly, but pretty damn close. I don’t suspect most Māori will automatically consider Shadows a Māori film as they appear to consider The Deadlands to be, but I for one am happy to claim it e hoa mā!

 

 

In praise of…Pākehā learning and teaching te reo Māori

I had one of those lump-in-the throat moments the other day watching Jennifer Ward-Lealand on Native Affairs talking in te reo Māori about her journey into te reo Māori (watch it here.) She was suffering from a bit of a cold, and she chose her words carefully, and she was gorgeous to watch and marvellous to listen to, giving hope to many an aspiring reo learner judging by comments on social media. I found my own emotional reaction a little surprising. After all, what’s new about people learning te reo? What, especially, can possibly be new about that kind of interview during Māori Language Week? Get a grip, girl! At any rate I found myself analysing my own response (yes the inside of my own head can be a pretty annoying place at times). One stream of thinking in my mind was the cynic. She is often present and not always pleasant. ‘Riiight’, she sneered. ‘You need Pākehā approval of our language just to be able to feel good about it. Typical behaviour of the colonised mentality.’ ‘Ah shaddap’, I told my cynical self. But on the other hand there might be a grain of unwelcome truth there. As someone who has had to learn how to be culturally Māori over the last three decades or so, perhaps I really haven’t left behind that insecurity that has me fear that I will some day be found out as a cultural fake. As the late and very great Barry Barclay said to me in an interview once, he always felt like he was in a ‘spiritual wheelchair’ during his journey to learn to be culturally Māori as an adult. By this he meant that he always felt at a level of disadvantage that perhaps was only perceptible to him. Maybe, if I still have the remains of that kind of cultural ‘dis-ease, I still need ‘validation.’  Perhaps I really do need Pākehā I admire to like and respect things Māori in order for me to ‘have permission’ feel good about them myself. I don’t know. I hope not.

But there is another slightly (actually substantially) louder voice in the hubbub. That’s the voice that reminds me how absolutely grateful I am to certain Pākehā who cropped up at critical times in  my life to let me know that not only was it OK to be Māori, the Māori language is truly a thing of genius as well as beauty. My Pākehā mother raised me to believe it was good and special and enviable to be Māori even of she was never quite sure what that meant. (My Māori dad, I don’t think, gave a pātero in the high wind for the language, for much of his life.) It was Dr Winifred Bauer at Te Kawa a Maui in 2007 who opened my eyes to the brilliance of the language. I knew how to speak and write it by then (to a useful but not fluent degree) but I had no idea that the language I had been learning was so bloody GOOD. Yes, I know all languages are good. I just think I had taken it for granted up until that point, and being in her class was like taking the back off a Swiss watch and seeing for the very first time the unbelievably intricate mechanisms that lay behind the smooth and beautiful face.

Then there are the Pākehā who are fluent in te reo Maori that I just happened upon over the course of my working life, people like Anaru Robb, Tipene Chrisp and Mary Boyce just to name a few. There were the many Pākehā and Tauiwi students that formed some part of my own language learning journey. Something I have learned over the years is that for Pakeha learning te reo there may be quite a heavy personal cost as they can be challenged about their right to access te reo, and for those that attain fluency and go on to teach, the pressure they can experience, the challenges placed before them because of their Pakehatanga can be substantial (as alluded to in this article). Not only do such individuals sometimes face challenge from Māori about their right to participate in a language that has been lost to so many Māori already, they will often face challenges from other Pākehā and Tauiwi questioning the utility of their choice. That decision to plough on regardless takes a certain kind of bravery.

I have heard it said that if Māori is to survive in this country as a viable language, then Pākehā must speak it. If they do not, the declining numbers of Māori currently speaking te reo (as identified in the most recent census) may be the harbinger of linguistic doom. We need all hands on deck. If that is indeed the case (and I agree that it is) reports this week of the low numbers of non-Maori studying te reo at school (4% of the total student body in year 9 and above, (see here) are concerning. The Māori and Pākehā learners of today are the reo Māori teachers of tomorrow. One of the key argument against making te reo compulsory in schools has been that due to the low numbers of te reo Māori teachers the bulk of the people who would need to deliver te reo to the school kids would be Pākehā, and in many cases, inexperienced and underprepared to do a good job. As calls for compulsory te reo Māori at primary school level start to gain a bit more of a head of steam (see here) it becomes pretty obvious that there would be a massive problem in delivery, even if the compulsory element is only in the offering of te reo Māori, rather than in ensuring every child must learn it. But I don’t think the lack of human resources comprises an effective argument against compulsory reo in schools, rather, that is a logistical problem that will need to be solved by governments – governments that have a shabby record in solving logistical problems as far as the Māori language is  concerned, at least. (If you need evidence of this, have a look at the te reo Māori chapter of the WAI 262 report as profiled on Carwyn Jones’ Te Ahi Kaa Roa blog.) I don’t know what the new language strategy holds for the future of Pākehā learning te reo Māori, but without those Māori and Pākehā dedicated to, and loving, te reo, I would not be able to hold the conversations that I do. I know how lucky I am, and how grateful I am to all those who have helped me over the decades of my reo journey, Māori mā, Pākehā mā. Tēnā koutou katoa, ngā manu tioriori. But the flight path you leave has to be a wide one, so it seems, if enough of us are to follow.

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