by Daphna Whitmore
The internet is a vast ocean littered with so much stuff it is possible to paddle around for many years and miss out on some real treasures. A newly discovered treat for me is Ross Himona’s blog Te Putatara. Thank you Mark Eden, for highlighting the essay The Maori Worldview and Maori Policy, in the comments section of a Redline article. Himona’s essay on the Maori Worldview is one of the most rational discussions on the subject I’ve come across.
Himona starts by asking what is the Maori worldview? To explore that question he lays out the facts of Maori in today’s world.
He contends what is commonly portrayed as the Maori worldview has been constructed by modern elites and does not represent most Maori. The elites have “cleaved ‘traditional’ tikanga values incorporating them into their various fields of endeavor, and on speaking Te Reo Maori”.
Those elites are a minority, so how can they speak for most Maori? Most Maori are not sitting on corporate iwi boards, or in high paid government department jobs. While it is not news that most Maori are poor – or only just keeping their heads above water – Himona quantifies it with plenty of numbers.
What he describes is contemporary society. He is not describing Maori of a hundred years ago, but of the 21st century. Most Maori are in urban areas, all speak English, around 22 percent can speak conversational Maori, 98 percent identify as Christian, more than half identify as other ethnicities as well as Maori. Most live in the suburbs, like most pakeha do. Many live in Australia – a substantial 17.6 percent, and they treat New Zealand and Australia as virtually one country.
Less than 18 percent of Maori are in the middle class. In the last 30 or so years, during the Maori cultural renaissance, the percentage of Maori living in poverty has almost doubled. The working class as a whole have also been ground down deeper into poverty in those years but Maori have had it harder.
Maori health remains considerably worse than pakeha, but a lot of the disparity in heath is poverty related, not a result of different genes or ethnicity per se.
In the field of health, where I have mostly worked in the past three decades, attempts to address the divide have invariably focused on cultural aspects. Sometimes there has been a nod to economic factors and some services are given greater subsidies, made cheaper, or even free. Yet the health hierarchy is silent on the underlying social system that ensures continuing generations are stuck in poverty.
As long as we live in a society where people can be tossed out of work because profit margins are down there will be poverty. Simple. As long as there are people working long hours on low wages that are a fraction of the wealth they created, people will lack warm, dry homes and decent food.
How much difference can a cheaper doctor’s visit make? A child may get the antibiotic he or she needs for a throat infection that everyone in the overcrowded house has. Affordable medical does make a difference, it does save lives, but it doesn’t address the diseases of poverty. We have a sticking plaster health system, where the focus is on symptoms not causes (to thrash an analogy).
Rheumatic fever was once common in England and Europe. It became rare with the introduction of penicillin, but the key change was improved housing. Rheumatic fever is a disease of poverty, found mostly among Maori and Pacific people in New Zealand. Is economic deprivation being tackled to prevent rheumatic fever? Not at all. Instead an army of health workers with throat swabs and penicillin will need to be kept on for decades if rheumatic fever is to be eradicated.
It is perverse that ‘equity’ is the latest buzzword in health departments, but no one speaks of dismantling capitalism which lives, breaths and thrives on inequality.
Meanwhile health workers are being kept busy collecting ethnicity data to fit people in to a tidy box. Tick Maori, and you will be asked to state which iwi you identify with. Yet most Maori are of mixed ethnic backgrounds, and few regularly interact with iwi.
Among South Auckland youth I’ve worked with most don’t want to tick one box, or to rank their ethnicities. They are proud to proclaim themselves ‘fruit salad’.
To this generation Himona points out “Hip Hop is everything – dance, music, art and street talk. It retains the former reggae and roots base, adds in rap and break, crump, gangsta and all that. There is an underlying Polynesian expression in it but its essence is American.”
Then there is the role of sport in modern Maori culture, that runs across the socio-economic spectrum. It is big too among pakeha, and Himona poses the thought that sport might even challenge religion as the underpinning of the worldviews of many Maori.
In another essay Maori Policy: Whanau, Hapu, Iwi Mythology Himona contends iwi sitting atop of the whanua-hapu is a colonial construct. In pre-colonial times the hapu was the tribe, and hapu related to each other he says.
When it comes to land settlements it suits the Crown to deal with corporate iwi entities rather than the real economic units of the past which were hapu.
In another article Draining the Swamp Himona sums up what has been the trajectory in the last three decades:
The belief in the relevance of iwi, based on the false post-colonial whanau-hapu-iwi construct, has dominated since the 1980s and has resulted in the formation of corporate iwi and in their capture of resources, and the present dominance of “Iwi Leaders” in matters of Maori policy. A belief in a neoliberal “trickle down” theory of economic policy has resulted in the present focus on Maori business grandiosely described as the Maori economy, and despite the telling and retelling of the success of this mythical “Maori economy” little movement can be seen at the bottom of the heap.
Te Putatara is a blog where the interests of most Maori, not the elites, take precedence.