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Navigating Cultural Identity: Respecting Diversity Within Te Ao Māori

I recently read an Op-Ed by the Minister for Children, Karen Chhour where she discussed her connection to her Māoritanga and the need to express “we’re not all the same”. In response to this, I’m writing this op-ed to advance the discourse that protects not only the individualistic choices of people who hold Māori whakapapa and chose not to express it in a way that is consistent with te ao Māori and those who do.

In the tapestry of Māori culture, the concept of whakapapa – a genealogical construct that connects individuals to their ancestors, land, and the cosmos – stands as a pillar of identity and belonging. Te Ao Māori, the Māori worldview, is deeply intertwined with practices such as tikanga (customs) and kawa (protocols), guiding how Māori interact with each other and the world. However, the diversity of interpretation and practice within Te Ao Māori raises complex issues, particularly regarding the assertion of cultural identity and the interplay with broader societal influences.

The assertion that Māori have the absolute right to not exercise whakapapa in a manner consistent with Te Ao Māori is a contentious yet vital point of discussion. It recognises individual autonomy within cultural practices, allowing for personal interpretations and adaptations. However, this freedom comes with a responsibility, particularly in the context of interactions with non-Māori. The call for Māori who choose to deviate from traditional tikanga and kawa to refrain from weaponising our culture against non-Māori is a plea for unity and respect within the community. It underscores the potential harm in using cultural diversity as a tool to undermine or devalue traditional practices, especially when communicated to those outside the culture.

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The argument that advocating for diverse expressions of Māori culture to non-Māori can be seen as a form of "othering" and a byproduct of a colonial worldview is profound. Colonialism has historically sought to categorise, simplify, and control Indigenous cultures, often erasing the complexities and nuances inherent within them. By presenting Te Ao Māori as non-monolithic to non-Māori in a way that invalidates traditional practices, there is a risk of perpetuating a colonial narrative that undermines the legitimacy and sanctity of those practices.

However, it is also crucial to acknowledge that the Māori community is not homogenous. Like any culture, it evolves and adapts, influenced by both internal dynamics and external pressures. The challenge, therefore, lies in balancing respect for traditional practices with the recognition of evolving interpretations and expressions of Māori identity. This balance is not about diluting the culture but about understanding and respecting its dynamism.

The concept of whakaaro, or thought processes, plays a crucial role in this discourse. The argument suggests that advocating for a non-traditional exercise of whakapapa, especially in discussions with non-Māori, can stem from a colonially influenced mindset. This perspective emphasises the importance of introspection and critical examination of our motivations and the implications of our actions on the collective cultural narrative.

While individual expressions of Māori identity should be respected, there is a collective responsibility to uphold the integrity and sanctity of Te Ao Māori, especially in its portrayal to those outside the culture. The journey towards a future where traditional and contemporary Māori practices coexist harmoniously requires honest dialogue, mutual respect, and a conscious effort to understand the intricate layers of our cultural fabric. It is a journey of finding unity in diversity, ensuring that the richness of Te Ao Māori is celebrated and preserved for generations to come.

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