A Cultural Response

He aha te mea nui? koru
He tangata he tangata he tangata

From the first arrival of the Europeans, our indigenous people have endured inequality. The statistics of today tell a similar story with Maori over represented in poverty and crime statistics and in the lower end of educational achievement. And yet, as New Zealanders, we pride ourselves on our Maori heritage as is evident in the common use of Maori cultural elements such as the powhiri or haka.

The UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that Indigenous People have an inherent right to self-determination, including working within their own educational structures (United Nations, 2008). Rakaumanga School in Huntly is an example of the success that can be achieved when this self-determination is realized (Harrison & Papa, 2005). Furthermore, this educational organization not only appropriately supports the youth of today but nurtured members to become highly respected, valuable and contributing adults; many of whom in turn are giving back to their community. We need to get it right. Not just for every individual student, because that is their right and our responsibility, but also because it contributes to the positive cycle that will continue to benefit Maori in the future.

So what worked for Rakaumanga School? They talk of the students’ fundamental right to know about themselves, their personal, local cultural heritage and identity. It included multiple collaborations with agencies, both national and tribal. It included elders of their culture not just being included but having real power in the decision making and contribution to the daily operation and programmes of the school.

For the duration of one school I taught in, I had a Maori elder “guest lecturer” in the class on a regular basis. He spoke with students in the same way that knowledge had been passed down through his generations. For Maori and non-Maori alike, he brought alive Maori kaupapa; their way of life and language through the telling of stories. Regretfully, as a European I believe I could never duplicate that genuine immersion in the culture. A priority to employ such wonderful resources into our schools is essential in authentically educating our young New Zealanders on the precious gift we have of this culture. Ideally, local kaumatua would be involved to promote understanding of local tribal customs to further develop the sense of community and identity of those community members. Promotion of equality, that Europeans are not the powerful race but link arms with Maori for an equitable outcome can and must be achieved.

We need to understand that endorsing and celebrating the Maori culture goes beyond having a kapahaka group in our schools; starting from the fact that kapahaka is not just action waiata but the conditioning of mind, body and spirit. And that is what we need to do – condition the mind, body and spirit of the Maori and all our cultures that make our society the rich diversity that it is today. Empowering every student, allowing them the opportunities to explore understanding through their belief and cultural knowledge and providing the support structures to enable this to happen is our responsibility. A recent inquiry in my class involved students exploring their traditions and culture through interviews with family members, resulting in the creation of family memoirs. I saw firsthand the positive impact to each student’s self-understanding that this investigation had.

We now need more than the sum of individual teachers and schools committing themselves to the betterment of Maori and to the full inclusion of our many diverse cultures. “Structural barriers and school factors affect minority school performance” (Harrison & Papa, 2005. P.71). The solution needs to be from top down as well as bottom up in giving Maori an equal voice, self-confidence and determination as a valued people in their country. We can all do our part to help make this a reality.

Harrison, B., & Papa, R. (2005). The Development of an Indigenous Knowledge Program in a New Zealand Maori-Language Immersion School. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), 57 – 60.
Nations, U. (2008). United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents.

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