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Friday, March 06, 2015

Our tūpuna dreamed the future for all of us: re-building healthy relationships is at the heart of decolonisation

Okay, I’m finally posting this, which is the last draft of this piece. After the second draft, I realised I had dropped things from the first draft that were really important, so they’ve gone back in, and I’ve made the structure a bit clearer. Thank you to all the people who have helped me with this.

A few years ago, I spoke about sexuality at a conference on tikanga (Kei Tua o te Pae Hui Proceedings, 2012). At the time, many Māori were debating sexuality and tikanga in the media and social networks, sparked by a bill introducing marriage equality. Tikanga was spoken about as if it is unchanging doctrine, rather than an infinitely adaptable system for living well. I wanted to change the debate, to show that homophobia is not just analogous to the colonisers’ cultural imperialism, but that it is a result of it.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with my argument—not because I think it is incorrect, but because it is insufficient. Living according to tikanga isn’t trying to behave as our tūpuna behaved, it is being inspired by our ancestors to be the best we can. My goal is not only equality, acceptance, or even celebration of all sexualities or genders. I want us to do more than put aside our homophobia, I want us to re-think all our relationships. Decolonisation requires eradicating heteropatriarchy in all its forms from our communities. What would it mean to live on this land without trying to fit everyone into rigid boxes of men and women, gay and straight? What would it mean to think beyond categories like gender and sexuality? Where would we start?

These are central questions to decolonisation. Our tūpuna had answers, and we still have access to some of their words. We have their language, creation traditions, proverbs, and songs as guides. After a couple of centuries of colonisation, including selective re-writing of our ancestors’ words, we need to consider how best to use those guides. This chapter encourages us to claim our ancestors’ dreams, and own their words. We know what was important to them, and we know what is important to Western colonisers. We can think critically about the stories we have, and ask whose values they reflect. Our ancestors can inspire us to re-align their stories using our own words, and to imagine stories to replace those taken from us. They can show us how to honour all our relationships again.

He tōtara wāhi rua he kai nā te toki (a tree split in two is food for the fire)

The above proverb uses a tree as a metaphor for a group of people, who are easily defeated when they are divided. Many indigenous writers have commented that enforcing patriarchy and heteronormativity is a key tactic of colonisation, not simply a by-product (eg, Mikaere 2011; Simpson 2014; Smith 2005). As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, an activist of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry, explains, the colonisers’ attacks on gender and sexuality destroy our relationships with each other, weakening our resistance to colonisation. If whakapapa is a foundation of Māori philosophy, then the many ways that heteropatriarchy attacks our understanding of whakapapa means that it has the potential to destroy what it means to be Māori (Mikaere 2011). If heteropatriarchy is an important tool in colonisation, then eradicating it is surely an important stage of our decolonisation.

While our ancestors clearly understood sexual differences, and had a few roles that were limited to certain men or certain women, those distinctions weren’t about relative power, and gender and sexuality were not important categories in the same way as in Western discourses. There are no comparable Māori terms for gender or sexuality (Pihama). This suggests that they are colonial concepts. Gender and sexuality are also political terms, whose meanings are an ongoing source of argument. I therefore want to start with some definitions.

Gender is most often used to mean the socially understood categories of men (and masculinity) and women (and femininity) (contrasted against sex, the biologically defined categories of male and female). Sexuality in its most restricted understanding means sexual preference—who we want to have sex with—and may include how we desire. But as Māori academic Leonie Pihama has said, it also has a much broader meaning, encompassing how we live, relate to each other, and understand ourselves. Understanding who we are through gender and sexuality is central to heteropatriarchy.

Heteropatriarchy is another word that has no comparable Māori term, because it describes relationships between gender, sexuality and power that are recently introduced. It is a powerful concept for understanding those relationships, and so for decolonisation (Smith 2006). It explains a culture with a specific type of male dominance, one that privileges masculinity and heterosexuality within an understanding of gender as a male/female dichotomy. In short, it looks like Western culture, like Christian family values—it is all the things we’ve been told are normal and good. It is all the implications from believing that men are better than and opposite to women—the expectation that you can know who someone is and what they are capable of based on the shape of their genitals. It is contempt for women, and therefore for anyone who behaves like a woman. It requires strict policing of behaviour to keep these boundaries distinct. I want to unpack this further, by giving everyday examples of the ways we teach and enforce heteropatriarchy, which may also suggest ways to unteach it.

Heteropatriarchy is expecting girls to wear pink and play quietly, while expecting boys to wear blue and love rough-and-tumble play. It is shaming children who can’t conform to masculine and feminine stereotypes. It is encouraging boys to be sexually aggressive, while punishing girls for being sexual at all. It’s allowing boys to learn about sex from pornography that humiliates women, and then blaming them for treating girls as sexual objects rather than equals. It’s teaching leadership, traditional martial arts, and spiritual roles only to boys. It’s shaming culturally feminine qualities and honouring very specific masculine-identified qualities, so competition, single-mindedness and rationality are valued, while co-operation, emotions and care are not. It is the nuclear family—a man as the head of the household, with his wife and children. It is judging women who choose not to have children, while financially punishing women who do have children. It is expecting men not to care for their children. It is expecting women to look after men, to do all the emotional work in relationships, and blaming them if they are attacked by their partners, or by strangers. It is expecting men to be emotionally pathetic, unable to cope with jealousy, anger or loss in healthy ways, unable to behave with integrity with sexual partners. It’s making excuses for violent men and accepting that women should be afraid. It’s paying more for ‘men’s work’, and not valuing ‘domestic’ or caring work. It’s women filling the kitchens and committees at marae, while men are recognised as our leaders. It’s the high-powered meetings where men are the only invited speakers, and the other meetings where people complain if there are ‘too many’ women speakers. It’s setting men and women against each other. It’s treating people who can’t work within this structure as the problem.

Heteropatriarchy is a colonial weapon, and we have been teaching it in our schools and inviting it into our own homes.

Hoki atū ki tou maunga kia purea ai i ngā hau o Tāwhirimātea (return to your mountain to be purified by the winds)

The above proverb tells us to look to the teachings of our ancestors to nourish and heal our spirits. Researchers of Māori sexuality have found historical evidence of a range of sexualities and gender expressions, despite the efforts of colonisers to erase anything outside their heteropatriarchal comfort zone (Aspin & Hutchings 2006; Te Awekotuku 2005). However, this evidence doesn’t tell us much about how our tūpuna understood sexuality and gender—despite the heteropatriarchy of colonial culture, there are still a range of sexual and gender expressions in their history too. By looking at our creation traditions, we may get a better picture of what our ancestors thought. Creation traditions hold the imaginings of ancestors, the explanations that made sense to them for the ongoing process of creation, and their dreams for how their descendants might live into the future. They contain their philosophies and their ethics. They are an enduring haven to which we can return.

However, even with our own creation traditions we must be cautious and critical, because much of our oral history has been infiltrated by colonial thinking, or re-written by colonists. The most widely known version of our creation stories is an example of this. It starts with Te Kore, Te Pō and Rangi and Papa. Rangi saw Papa’s naked body below him, he desired her and took her; they had lots of male children who became cramped and bored; Tāne separated the parents; the brothers fought; they searched for the female element; Tāne made her out of earth, breathed life into her, then had sex with her and she gave birth to the first woman; Tāne took the woman as his wife; they had children; she discovered Tāne is her father and fled in shame to the underworld. Etc.

This narrative says a lot about gender and sexuality. There are males and females, and they are different. Males make the decisions that create our world, they interact with each other, they compete for dominance, they shape their environment—they are always doing something. Females (passively) bear the consequences of those actions—they are taken, they are impregnated, they are shamed, they are always disappearing (after giving birth to all her sons, Papatūānuku becomes the passive earth from which Tāne makes Hineahuone; after giving birth to Hinetītama, Hineahuone is never heard of again; Hinetītama leaves the world of light). It is a colonised narrative, cobbled together from bits and pieces of many stories with inconsistent details removed and laid out into a single linear story that made sense to the colonial writer. But it has become the most common version of ‘Maori’ creation: it is on children’s radio shows and in children’s books, it is taught in Māori language classes, and I hear or read people referring to it more often than to the many iwi narratives. It is heteropatriarchy. It is not the way my people talk about creation. Below are three stories that say something very different about gender and sexuality.

In Kāi Tahu traditions (eg, Tau 2003), Rakinui had several partners, and Papatūānuku was with Takaroa before Papa and Rakinui got together. Takaroa went away, Raki and Papa got together, Takaroa came back, fought with Raki, injured him, and went away again. I like this tradition, because it reflects the world of my tūpuna—the going away and coming back of Takaroa, the red of Rakinui’s blood at sunrise and sunset. You can see why they recognised Papatūānuku as having a relationship with both Rakinui and Takaroa, because that’s how the land sits, surrounded by sea and sky. When we look to the horizon, we can see that Raki and Takaroa are also intimately entwined. What is their relationship? Are they forever embracing in their fight? It looks more like they are spooning. What is going on?

There is another explanation of creation from Tainui. According to Tainui scholar and translator Pei te Hurinui (Jones 2010), Ranginui and Papatūānuku are both bi-sexual or a-sexual (p 241), and each gave birth to several children before getting together. Tāne-mahuta had sex with another male, Kahukura, who gave birth (referred to as a bi-sexual conception, p 244). This narrative belongs to Tainui, and is not mine to analyse, but it is clearly very different from the popularised narrative referred to earlier.

Another intriguing tradition is that of Māui and Rohe (Tregear 1891; unfortunately, I can’t find a record of whose tradition this is). Māui was ugly, and Rohe was so beautiful that Māui was jealous of her. He asked to swap faces with her, but she refused. One night while she was asleep, he swapped their faces. When she woke and discovered what he had done, she left him to live in the underworld. This story contains very interesting messages. Māui wanted to look like a woman, and Rohe did not want to look like a man. Rohe had the power to refuse Māui, and now has an important role in looking after us after death. Māui continued to live with a woman’s face. What was this story about before it was recorded by Pākehā?

What do these narratives say about gender and sexuality? They show that monogamy is not privileged. They show that males and masculinity are not especially privileged. They show that heterosexuality isn’t necessarily privileged. The more attention we give them and question what they mean, the more they reveal that neither gender nor sexuality are fixed, and that our tūpuna had a complex understanding of gender and sexuality. This isn’t surprising, because our tūpuna were great observers of their environment, and nature contains endless sexual variety.

This is how our ancestors talked about what is now called gender and sexuality. Not by naming it, not by drawing boxes around these parts of ourselves—but by not naming it, by not calling attention to it at all. By letting us simply be. There is evidence of flexibility, an absence of hierarchy, and combined with lack of categories in our language that align with Western categories, that gives a strong message that gender and sexuality were not defining characteristics.

It appears to me that heteropatriarchy is completely foreign. This presents a challenge to all of us—how do we eradicate heteropatriarchy? How do we make these categories less important again? How much needs to change so that we no longer need labels like gay, bisexual, or even takatāpui to organise and understand ourselves? What must change so that we can say with honesty that, where there are specific roles for men and women, they are equally important and respected? How do we create the conditions for our liberation? The answers to these questions will describe much of the path to decolonisation.

After 200 years of colonisation, the dreams of our tūpuna are waiting to be recovered. We just need to be bold enough to see all that isn’t being said, and ask the hard questions.

Ma pango ma whero ka oti ai te mahi (By black and by red the work will be completed)

This proverb tells us that our communities will thrive when everyone works together, and everyone’s work is valued.

Ani Mikaere (2011) has explored what it means to understand the world through whakapapa, her conclusions include lack of hierarchy, inclusiveness, and the importance of relationships. If whakapapa is the foundation of tikanga, any fixed hierarchy, such as heteropatriarchy, makes no sense. We all come from ancestors, and we will all be ancestors. Heteropatriarchy is a corruption of our tikanga so that women become less valued than men, and men’s value is measured by a limited heterosexual masculinity. It reshapes all our relationships with our living relatives, as well as with our ancestors. It is reproduced through the nuclear family, and it is for these reasons that Leonie Pihama (1998: 187) suggests The imposition of the western nuclear family is perhaps one of the key acts that undermined Māori societal structures.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson challenges us to take on gender violence as a core resurgence project, a core decolonization project, a core of any Indigenous mobilization. By focusing on the violence of heteropatriarchy, we can see all that must change for us to realise tino rangatiratanga. There is no quick fix that will end gender violence, because it is at the core of colonisation. It is a virus bred in the colonisers that invades our tikanga, replicating itself wherever we are not actively resisting, until hierarchy and power over seem a natural part of all that we do. With an understanding that heteropatriarchy is colonisation, we can see that attempts to end gender violence through Christianity, the nuclear family or building male leadership, are not decolonisation. They will not lead to tino rangatiratanga.

How do we stop reproducing heteropatriarchy? How do we challenge it? How do we stop it being taught to our children? How do we ensure that all gender violence is taken seriously? How do we make ourselves and our work useful where it is wanted and needed? This is the challenge to decolonising educators.

We must have faith in our ancestors. After 200 years of colonial interference, many of their stories have been distorted. By treating those stories with playfulness, creativity and generosity, we can revive them, and find meanings that are worthy of our ancestors. We need not be scared by the sacredness of their words. They had faith in us, they left these stories for us, and we must trust ourselves.

Our communities need our work. Parents, families and schools need resources that encourage them to think outside the Western boxes of masculine and feminine, that encourage us to be playful in our thinking. We need to be designing and teaching courses, talking with our people, and learning from each other. We all need to be thinking strategically and long term about how our work can contribute to our physical and cultural survival.

I am inspired by organisations like Native Youth Sexual Health Network (US and Canada), INCITE! (US), and Mana Ririki (NZ) and by organisers and educators like Harsha Walia, Jessica Danforth and Ngāhuia Murphy. Their work builds on that of decolonising pioneers. A decolonisation project with relationships at its heart challenges all systems of domination—it has the potential to change everything, to decolonise us profoundly. This decolonisation will involve remembering, re-imagining and re-inventing ways of being that reflect the values we want for our future.

Our ancestors had generations to learn how to live with these lands, and they wove all they learnt into their stories of creation. These were always stories about whakapapa, stories that could only be understood by focusing on the relationships. This was their ethics. For our survival as Māori, we must return to these stories. We must face their dreams, however challenging they now seem. For it to be meaningful, we must define decolonisation on their terms, with whakapapa as our guide. And we must take risks. Eradicating heteropatriarchy is a bold goal, but so too is decolonisation. We will not free ourselves from colonisation by being timid. Our ancestors dreamed the future for all of us. We hold those dreams, and for them to live, we need to be bold enough to speak them from our hearts and our guts—just like all those who have done this work before us.


Kei Tua o Te Pae Hui Proceedings. Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Ōtaki, 4-5 September 2012

Aspin, Clive and Jessica Hutchings 2006 ‘Māori sexuality’ State of the Māori Nation: Twenty-first-century Issues in Aotearoa Edited by Malcolm Mulholland (Reed, Auckland)

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 2011 Colonising Myths—Māori Realities: He Rukuruku Whakaaro (Huia Publishers, Wellington and Te Tākupu, Ōtaki)

Mikaere, Ani 2011 ‘Patriarchy as the ultimate divide and rule tactic: The assault on tikanga Māori by Pākehā law’ Mai i Te Ata Hāpara conference, Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Ōtaki, 11-13 August 2000

Pihama, Leonie 1998 'Reconstructing meanings of family: lesbian/gay whānau and families in Aotearoa' The Family in Aotearoa New Zealand Edited by Vivienne Adair (Longman, Auckland)

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake, accessed 6 March, 2014

Smith, Andrea 2005 Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (South End Press, Cambridge, MA, US)

Smith, Andrea 2006 ‘Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing’ in Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology (South End Press, Cambridge MA, US)

Tau, Rawiri Te Maire 2003 Ngā Pikitūroa o Ngai Tahu: The Oral Traditions of Ngāi Tahu (University of Otago Press, Dunedin)

Te Awekotuku, Ngāhuia 2005 ‘He reka anō – same-sex lust and loving in the ancient Māori world’ Outlines: Lesbian & Gay Histories of Aotearoa Edited by Alison J Laurie & Linda Evans (LAGANZ, Wellington)

Tregear, Edward 1891 Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (Lyon and Blair, Wellington)

1 comment:

  1. YOU are the person I strive to be.
    Thank you so much, for all that's been written here.
    You make difference to my life, to my world, and ultimately - you are making a difference to my mokopuna through me. There is no thanks high enough for that.
    Te Atarangi Whenua Waaka