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'Cloaks Are Really Sacred To Our People': Possum Pelt Exchange Fosters Indigenous Bond

Pokere Paewai , Māori issues reporter

An Aboriginal delegation of possum skin cloak knowledge holders have shared information with Māori of an animal which is sacred in Australia but a pest in Aotearoa.

The two-day predator free wānanga - Te Whare Mātā o ngā Kirearea - was held at Pipitea Marae in Wellington.

The wānanga was set up by Māori environmental non-profit Te Tira Whakamātaki. Its chief executive Melanie Mark-Shadbolt said Māori wanted to have a conversation with Aboriginal people about eradicating a species that is sacred to another indigenous group.

Māori environmentalists were starting to feel the mamae of having to constantly kill, she said.

"The possum itself is not responsible for its journey to Aotearoa and it is a tool of colonisation, it is a tool that was brought over for a purpose for a fur trade. It wasn't a decision of Aboriginal people to send it and it wasn't a decision of Māori to receive it."

But at the same time, without the possums in New Zealand, Aboriginal people would have no chance of reviving their cultural practices because it was illegal to harvest possums, she said.

Meriki Onus from the Gunnai and Gunditjmara people of mainland Australia said she had learnt just how devastating the possum had been on Māori country in this wānanga.

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"In our country there are laws preventing us from killing and using possum. Colonisers targeted our people who had possums and it was seen as a commodity, and there's been a resurgence in the way that we use possum skin cloak but we have to get our possum pelts from here, Aotearoa, we can't access them at home in our countries because it's illegal to kill them," she said.

Aboriginal people understand the pain of having introduced pest species in your country and they have lot of compassion for Māori over the damage possums cause, she said.

As part of the wānanga there was a pelt exchange ceremony. Astronomer Rereata Makiha invited whānau to koha (gift) possum pelts to the Aboriginal manuhiri.

In return, some Māori were allowed to be wrapped in the possum skin cloaks as a thank you.

"Cloaks are really sacred to our people and to be able to share that is really special," Onus said.

"You receive a pelt when you're younger and you build on it as you grow, the bigger your cloak is the higher your status is so elders that have really big, regal, beautiful cloaks had high status. We would bury people in cloaks in some circumstances, and that's a better way of burying people instead of coffins for us."

She said while possum skin cloaks were often seen in ceremony, possum had practical uses as well, namely to keep warm and to eat.

A total of 198 people registered to attend the wānanga from around 50 organisations.

A lot of conversation at the wānanga has been about sustainable funding for conservation, Mark-Shadbolt said.

"We know about 900 Māori kaitiaki will lose their jobs in a month's time when Jobs for Nature ends, and those are people who are at place protecting our whenua protecting our wai and there is no other job options for them here so we know we are going to lose a large chunk of them to te Whenua Moemoea, over to Australia," she said.

The Jobs for Nature program had been amazing at bringing Māori home to work on their whenua and there has been some anxiety about where to from here, she said.

"We as Māori have carried the burden for free for too long. There is an expectation that because we are kaitiaki, because we whakapapa to the maunga, because we whakapapa to the awa we will do it and we'll do it for free, and that is no longer fair and no longer acceptable," Mark-Shadbolt said.

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