Ani Mikaere and Moana Jackson say it’s important to start from the beginning, so I’ll start somewhere near where they tend to start.
I want you to imagine a line in front of me. This line stretches out past the arrival of my European ancestors, past the arrival of my tūpuna Māori, all the way to creation. It also stretches out behind me all the way to eternity with no milestones because we can’t see into the future. This line represents the knowledge and wisdom of generations, what Whatarangi Winiata calls the mātauranga continuum.
Imagine just in front of me, there’s an intersecting line. That line represents colonisation. When you imagine this line, I think it’s helpful to remember the scene from Psycho with the knife—because colonisation brings with it western cultural imperialism, which is the denial of anyone else’s knowledge or tikanga. Colonisation is trying to break the continuum. It seeks to cut our knowledge off from our past, by denying we had laws, let alone philosophies or an intellectual tradition. And it seeks to cut off the possibility of the continuum carrying on, by replacing our mātauranga with Western understandings. Our colonisers would have us believe that our knowledge is exactly what Europeans recorded when they arrived, no more and no less. We are supposed to believe that the Western academic tradition can better understand and represent mātauranga Māori than a Māori academic tradition can. Whether we’re talking about Western trained researchers 200 years ago, or now, somehow they’re supposed to have a better take on the truth than anyone else. And finally, we are supposed to believe that authentic mātauranga is fixed in time at that point when the colonisers arrived. It didn’t develop from anything before then, and it can never develop beyond that point.
Those distorted views of our mātauranga have endured since the colonisers started their project, but our traditions have also endured. We can use them to ensure that instead of cutting us off from our knowledge, colonisation is just a tiny blip on our continuum. As Ani Mikaere has said “While our experience of colonisation has been devastating, its impact should not blind us to the fact that it has occupied a mere moment in time on the continuum of our history” (Mikaere, 2009). And that’s where Ahunga Tikanga comes in.
Ahunga tikanga is about ensuring the integrity of the mātauranga continuum, fixing up the damage of colonisation and allowing our mātauranga to continue to develop.
There are five statements that sum up what we believe:
- We have faith in our tūpuna. Faith that they did things intentionally, and that those intentions were good
- We have faith in our mātauranga—our oral traditions: creation stories, whakataukī, and mōteatea. Our tūpuna had generations in which to understand their rohe. They experimented, and learnt the important skills and values in making and maintaining the relationships that they needed, and they embedded that knowledge in those oral traditions
- tikanga is the first law here, and it is the only legitimate law here
- Whakapapa is the philosophical framework of tikanga
- Colonisation has led to imposter tikanga through cultural imperialism
This last statement is acknowledging that because of colonisation, some of the stuff we think of as tikanga mai rā anō is actually of recent origin, and doesn’t reflect our mātauranga. It may actually reflect the values of our colonisers, or the stories they told about us. This is especially true of issues like gender and sexuality, where the cultures of the colonisers and the tangata whenua were really different.
So if we look to our oral traditions, our mātauranga, what does it tell us about gender and sexuality?
First of all, there’s a heap of different creation traditions we could talk about. If you look at the stories lots of us grew up with, based on Pākehā writers like George Grey, it looks like our tūpuna were as revoltingly patriarchal as Pākehā. For example, Ranginui and Papatūānuku’s romance sounds like a rape scenario, she gives birth to a bunch of male children, the males make a female out of dirt, tāne has sex with her, she gives birth to a daughter who becomes the first woman, tāne has sex with her, she finds out he’s her father, flees in shame to the underworld, etc. This is a typical playing out of a western male-female dichotomy. Most Pākehā writers wrote stuff like this, and theirs are often the most commonly known versions.
But that’s not how my people talk about creation. In Kāi Tahu traditions (for example, in Te Maire Tau, 2003), Rakinui has other partners, and Papatūānuku is with Takaroa before Papa gets together with Rakinui. Takaroa goes away, Raki and Papa hook up, Takaroa comes back, fights with Raki, Takaroa wins, and goes away again. I like this tradition, because it so reflects the world of our tūpuna—the going away and coming back of Takaroa. You can see why they understood Papatūānuku as having a relationship with both Rakinui and Takaroa, because that’s how the land sits, surrounded by sea and sky. I’m interested in whether Rakinui and Takaroa have more of a relationship than rivalry—because if Raki and Papa look intimate, Raki and Takaroa look even moreso.
And then you have the creation traditions of Tainui waka. Pei te Hurinui Jones (2010) talks about how Ranginui had partners other than Papatūānuku, that they were both bi-sexual, and that Ranginui gave birth to several children. Tāne-mahuta also has sex with another male atua, Kahukura, who gives birth.
There’s lots there to think about, but it’s not my tradition to speculate on. I just want to show you that the traditions as tangata whenua know them, show complex understandings of both gender and sexuality.
You can see that monogamy is not privileged. You can see that males are not especially privileged, you can see that heterosexuality isn’t necessarily privileged, and the more you look at them, the more you can see that neither gender nor sexuality are fixed.
I’m going to stop here, because I don’t want to use up any more time, but I have a couple challenges to you. The first is explore your indigenous creation traditions, wherever you’re from. Find out what your tūpuna had to say about the world before their traditions were swallowed up and reinterpreted through a narrow-minded patriarchy.
The second is, wherever you live now, support tangata whenua. Support their organisations, support tikanga solutions. Don’t try to be an expert on them. Be prepared to learn from tangata whenua instead of critiquing or trying to teach them. For example, if you want to learn about tangata whenua, if you want to learn te reo, or Māori law, don’t go to a colonial institution where our mātauranga is understood within a western tradition, at best relegated to an offshoot of anthropology. Instead, support your wānanga where mātauranga is central. Think about whose culture you privilege when you are organising. When you’re doing things like setting up safer spaces policies, think what it would mean to prioritise indigenous culture. What does a Māori safer spaces policy look like?—is it something you can do? What would you have to change to make it possible in the future? At the very least, it’s going to mean making sure you’ve got meaningful relationships with tangata whenua.
There’s a heap of really valuable stuff in our traditions, they hold generations of knowledge and solutions to problems that the west is only just starting to recognise—like hetero-patriarchy. The less energy tangata whenua have to put into defending our right to cultural survival, the more we can put into invigorating our traditions, exploring them for their diverse and unique solutions to problems we are facing. That’s something we should all be supporting.
Jones, Pei Te Hurinui 2010 King Pōtatau: an account of the life of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero the first Māori king (Huia Publishers and the Polynesian Society, Wellington and Auckland)
Mikaere, Ani 2009 ‘How will future generations judge us?’ Mā te rango te waka ka rere: Exploring a kaupapa Māori organisational framework (Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Ōtaki)
Tau, Rawiri Te Maire 2003 Ngā Pikitūroa o Ngai Tahu: The Oral Traditions of Ngāi Tahu (University of Otago Press, Dunedin)