There wasn't much I could draw on due to the fact I never really paid attention in school and so the hilarious result of my "cultural education class" was seeing around 25 tiny thirteen year old Eastern European girls perform the Haka for their somewhat wide-eyed and apprehensive parents. It was fearsome stuff.
If I'm honest, this teaching task that I was assigned landed me in an identity crisis as an ambassador of the Land of the Long White Cloud. What was I supposed to do? What was my culture? Could I claim Maori tradition as my own? Should I?
Unfortunately I didn't have many Maori friends growing up and so the only aspects of the culture I was aware of was whatever my primary school teachers bestowed upon me. Which, back in Upper Hutt in the early 90's was not very much. I learned some 'stick' songs that usually ended with a bruised lip from an overzealous throwing partner, often a girl, and I also got to draw a picture of Maui fishing up the North Island once. It was all a bit confusing.
My main problem is that I'm white. And not just a little bit. I'm very white. In all the worst ways. Frequently when I dance, my friends have to remind me of this fact so that I don't get carried away and injure someone. Last time I did the Haka in public I was laughed at and even though I consider my Maori accent to be decent, I have been told it is endearing and cute at best, and patronising and bordering on offensive at worst. This does not help me in my quest to be a legitimate warrior of suburban Aotearoa.
I realised that if I was to appeal to a New Zealand culture of my own, it would probably involve L&P, Marmite, chocolate fish, Hokey Pokey, the All Blacks, peanut slabs, pineapple lumps, buzzy bees, meat pies and jandals. And although I certainly do get a sense of cultural identity from these shared commercial symbols, I don't know how comfortable I would feel about presenting them as a picture of my country.
And it is this angst that often leads us Pakeha to dabbling in a bit of bicultural tokenism. We try a bit of the language. We make it curriculum. We convert Maori culture into tourist attractions. And we love to claim the Haka as our own too.
But this doesn't even scratch the surface of true biculturalism, a true coming together or celebration of another culture. It is usually absorption of Maori tradition into the structures of commercialism and individualism, a new form of dominance and control with a lack of attentiveness to the deep meanings behind these customs.
That is, until we want to make a statement.
Last month, a Kiwi video went viral, and as I write it is sitting on 1.2 million views. It shows the bodies of fallen New Zealand soldiers being fare welled by their battalion. The video is an incredibly moving shiver fest. These men and women pay tribute to the lives of their friends and comrades with a personalised haka as they honour the dead. It is a powerful display of culture and spiritual depth and respect. These lives were honoured in a way that was truly Kiwi and truly sacred. I'm not convinced a buzzy bee would do the trick in the same way.
It has been noted by many that the integration of Maori and Pakeha cultures historically is nuanced and complex, with layers of religious, economic and imperialist agendas involved in the establishment of our young country.
Many exchanges were less than noble, and quite often culture was honoured as a means to gain status and power from both sides. While there are many benefits that the West introduced to Aotearoa, the West has unfortunately become a culture hollowed out in respect to meaning.
We live in a meaning-dehydrated world that largely acknowledges nothing beyond the natural, and as such has nothing of much substance to offer in moments of sacredness, moments like the end of a human life.
A NZ historian's reflection
New Zealand historian, Adrienne Puckey notes that the first European settlers encountered a people who "understood that the most important thing – whether in love, war, religion, politics or trade – was people." Underpinning Maori culture were principles like whanaungatanga (relationship, kinship), aroha (compassion), manaakitanga (hospitality) and utu (reciprocity). Their relationships were traditionally the most valued assets.
But it seems that by and large, this core has been ignored at a societal level. We will take whatever we can absorb into our own narratives of success and prosperity and national identity. We like the Haka before an All Blacks test and the bicultural tip of the hat in our national anthem. We like our unique place names and the way our indigenous heritage brings us a sense of distinctiveness in the global arena. But most of the time, we will go no further than this tokenism.
My hope is that as we continue to understand who we are as a country we will choose to look a little deeper than external markers. My hope is that we let this culture reverberate through us and to understand that it presents a compelling challenge to the rampant deification of the individual that is dominating Western rhetoric.
Perhaps in this world with its glaring neon, blaring advertisements and never ending sermon about how you are the high point of the story, the famous Maori proverb is more prophetic than ever: "He aha te mea nui o tea ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!" "What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!"
Sam Burrows is an ex-Middle School teacher (he made it out alive) who is currently working in Young Adult ministry while completing a Graduate Diploma in Theology at Laidlaw College. In his spare time he likes to pretend to be a rock star and writes for enjoyment and in order to impress a potential wife.