A Welcoming Culture

Most of the Fulbright teachers to New Zealand.

My Fulbright grant officially kicked off on February 1.  This first week included an orientation led by the Fulbright New Zealand office and an orientation at Victoria University of Wellington.  Both orientations gave the Fulbright grantees opportunities to learn about New Zealand culture, particularly the Maori culture.  Being welcomed by the Maori people and beginning to learn about their culture has been one of the most enlightening experiences thus far.  Only being a week into this grant, I can’t pretend to be an expert on the Maori, but I can attempt to share some of what I have come to understand, experienced, and my reflections on what we can learn from it all.

Elijah and I in a waka. We were all given a waka lesson. Apparently we were not very in sync.

The Maori were the first people to settle in New Zealand coming by waka (canoe) from Pacific islands before 1300.  It was explained to us that Maori means “ordinary people.”  It was theorized that when Europeans arrived the Maori identified themselves as such as if to say, “Me? I’m just an ordinary person,” perhaps implying the Europeans were the outsiders.  Like US colonization, the arrival of Europeans began influencing Maori life.  Some were converted to Christianity, and many began trading with Europeans.

Me holding a waka paddle.

In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British Crown and many Maori iwis (tribes).  The treaty was written in Te Reo Maori (the language of the people) and signed by many chiefs, and it was written in English and signed by the British.  Problems arose with the two translations.  They were not identical. Plus, the Maori and the British interpreted it differently.  One main difference was land ownership.  In the Maori version, the queen governed the land, but the Maori were given chieftainship over their land.  In the English version, the queen was given sovereignty over the land, thus granting the British possession of Maori land.  During an enlightening discussion during Fulbright orientation about the treaty, it arose that the concept of land ownership was foreign to Maori which also led to different understandings of the treaty (in addition to the translations being different).  Suffice it to say, problems arose due to the different understandings and were punctuated by the British repeatedly breaching the treaty.

Me at the marae we stayed in overnight.

In the late 20th century, Maori treaty rights became a more public issue and the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to hear grievances regarding treaty breaches and begin to resolve past wrong-doing.  The Tribunal continues today and slowly the Maori are regaining land that was taken from them.

The inside of the marae where we slept.

At Fulbright orientation we were given the privilege of staying overnight at a marae (a Maori meeting house/grounds).  We participated in a powhiri (traditional welcome) in which we were invited into the marae.   We were assured that our hosts gave up eating people a long time ago (a joke we’ve heard made multiple times by different Maori…making us wonder….), but there was still a feeling of anxiety around ignorantly doing something disrespectful.  During the powhiri we engaged in the hongi (traditional greeting where foreheads are pressed together and you share a breath), and sang a song in Te Reo.  The overnight stay was a chance to be immersed in Maori culture, learning about their history, their beliefs, and their place in modern New Zealand.  Just being there, in that place, with those people, was a transformative experience I truly can’t put into words.

Learning about the Treaty of Waitangi.

I’ve been struck by how the Maori culture is a part of life in New Zealand.  As you might have already deduced from this post, the Maori language is commonly used in daily life.  Kia ora is the greeting I hear most frequently from New Zealanders.  Whanau (family) is regularly interjected amidst an otherwise English sentence.  During my initial research I found schools writing about how they collaborate with students, teachers, parents, and whanau.  At the Waitangi Day celebration (a national holiday honoring the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi) the (white) mayor of Wellington spoke in Te Reo.  The exhibits at Te Papa are written in both English and Maori.   

Wood carving in the marae at Victoria University.
Wood carving on a waka.

During our overnight stay at the marae, one of our speakers said something that stood out to me.  She said that assimilation is no longer the goal.  New Zealand is embracing its diversity and celebrating it’s varying cultures instead of attempting to meld into one homogeneous group.   There are seats reserved for Maori in Parliament.  When I heard this, I immediately thought of the arguments that would surround this in the United States. “We shouldn’t reserve places in government for minorities.  The most qualified person should get the job regardless of race….If they want to be treated equally then we shouldn’t grant them shortcuts…”  What New Zealand seems to understand is that cultural diversity in and of itself is valuable.  Those governing need to reflect those governed. 

At the marae at Victoria University.

The fact that learning and experiencing Maori culture was such an integral part of orientation spoke volumes to me.  I felt so honored to be welcomed into this new culture and amazed by how excited and willing the Maori are to share their culture.  We were continuously told to talk to them.  Did we want to learn the stories depicted in the (beautiful) wood carvings around the marae?  Ask. Did we wonder the purpose behind a specific custom?  Ask.  I felt, and continue to feel, in awe of their welcoming spirits and calm, patient approaches to sharing their culture.  In our current age of identity politics in the US, it seems that these sorts of conversations are rare.  It seems that each distinct cultural group craves understanding but is still learning to simultaneously protect its unique history and culture and share it.  In the US, we are at a point where we say, “You can’t understand this because you aren’t ___,” or “I don’t understand because I’m ___.”  While true that we can’t fully understand the experience of another, I have not once heard any Maori even allude to this concept.  Instead, they share.  They welcome.  They educate-sans judgement.

Inside of the marae at Victoria Univeristy.

As I reflect on what I’ve learned from New Zealand and the Maori I find myself thinking about the purpose of this Fulbright. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my inquiry project as I write my ethics proposal before I can begin visiting schools and conducting interviews. I am sometimes struck by the amount of work it will all take (mostly self-inflicted). I hope to keep the education work in perspective because it is only part of this experience. The rest is what I’ve described here. The sharing of cultures. I have been given the rare opportunity to live here temporarily. I need to make the most of it.

To see a haka performance from the Waitangi Day celebrations —> https://www.instagram.com/p/BthnAXTgjSy/

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