Voltaire's bastards and Te Papa's tapu
Te Papa, which issued the advice on behalf of iwi who act as guardians to taonga that would be featured on the tour, has been criticised for letting religious beliefs influence its policy-making, and for compromising the rights of women. All too often, though, the would-be defenders of the legacy of the Enlightenment have slid rather quickly from lofty rhetoric about the values of secularism and universal human rights to something rather more familiar to observers of the right wing of Pakeha politics. Here are a few of the comments of the latter-day Voltaires who queued up to denounce Te Papa in the comments box of David Farrar's very popular Kiwiblog:
You’ll find the only families Maori families who still observe these quaint customs are those who fatten their slaves for the table...
It seems a bit paradoxical that while a culture can maintain these savage ideas they can at the same time claim ownership of airwaves...
Seriously, do any actual maori people still believe this steaming old horseshit in the 21st century or is it just put about by politically correct wankers looking for new ways to get offended on someone else’s behalf?
There is a long history of the use of the rhetoric of secularism and universal human rights to justify the repression of aspects of Maori culture. The Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, for instance, was justified by the claim that traditional Maori religion, with its belief in tapu and its role for supernaturally-empowered healers and seers, was incompatible with modernity, and therefore a violation of the rights of the gullible Maori who supported prophets like Rua Kenana. The banning of the Maori language from many Kiwi schools for much of the twentieth century was also seen as a campaign for Enlightenment values. By speaking and reading English rather than their language, Maori kids would be liberated from the benighted culture into which they had been born.
The desecration or outright destruction of many objects and sites important to Maori culture was also often excused on the grounds that these sites and objects represented a culture which 'held Maori back'. The determined and violent attack earlier this year on Te Rongomai o Te Karaka, a sacred Maori site in the King Country, shows the continuing contempt of some Pakeha for physical symbols of Maori culture.
Fifty years ago, the only Maori working at most New Zealand museums were cleaners. Many Maori saw institutions like the Auckland War Memorial Museum, with its magnificent but poorly-displayed collection of waka, potaka, hei tiki, korowai, and other artefacts, as a place where their looted treasures were displayed to foreigners.
Three of the less-noticed results of the 'Maori renaissance' of the last forty years have been the placement of Maori curators and ethnologists deep inside New Zealand's museums, the training of Pakeha curators and ethnologists in Maori tikanga, and the involvement of Maori communities in the administration of the taonga their ancestors created. Laws like the Auckland Museum Act of 1996 and the Te Papa Tongarewa Act of 1992 have helped to embed these positive developments. (Of course, as regular readers of this blog will know, progress has been uneven, and curators at some of this country's privately-owned museums still have some large lessons to learn about Maori tikanga.)
I've disagreed at length with a number of his articles about Maori-Pakeha relations and New Zealand history, so it's only fair that I should say how much I enjoyed Chris Trotter's response to the controversy at Te Papa. In an article called 'Grandfather's Sword', Chris appreciates the power that taonga associated with war hold for many Maori by remembering the story of an old Trotter family heirloom:
On the wall above our beds, as we were growing up, my brother and I could see the Mauser rifle Captain William Marshall had brought back with him from South Africa...I can’t tell you how often I stared at that weapon, wondering about the man from whom my Grandfather took it as a trophy of war. Was it someone he had killed with his own hands? Or, did he prise it from Herr Van Rijn’s lifeless fingers in the aftermath of some forgotten skirmish on the High Veldt? The spirits of both men seemed to me to linger in that rifle...whenever I lifted the weapon down from the wall, the hairs would rise on the back of my neck...
Where the keyboard warriors for Enlightenment values in the comments boxes at Kiwiblog have used the controversy at Te Papa to portray Maori culture as something alien and possibly dangerous to Pakeha, Trotter has made the effort to find an analogy between his own experiences and those of the iwi and hapu who have guardianship of the taonga in our national museum.
When I worked in a very junior position at the Auckland War Memorial Museum whilst finishing my PhD, I initially found the belief of both Maori staff and Maori visitors in the supernatural qualities of taonga difficult to comprehend. I've always been an instinctive atheist, and so couldn't share the metaphysical beliefs that made some staff don gloves before they handled certain particularly 'potent' artefacts, but I did come to recognise, I think, the role that reverence and ritual can have in organising and intensifying human experience.
Even if they are ultimately the product of human choices, not the dictates of the universe, the strict bans on eating, loud conversation, and various other types of behaviour in the museum's Maori Court do help to direct our attention toward what is significant in the place, and to intensify our perception of the taonga which are displayed there. Even if we're not religious, we can appreciate the sense of sacredness that certain prohibitions give the Court. Something very similar could be said, of course, for the prohibitions we feel when we enter the Hall of Memories on the museum's second floor, which acknowledges New Zealanders who have died in overseas conflicts, and when we step into the small permanent memorial to the Jewish victims of Hitler on the same floor.
Having said all that, I do find Te Papa's suggestion that pregnant and menstruating women avoid its tour of taonga to be problematic. The language the museum used in the e mail it sent out to advertise the tour of taonga was stark:
Wahine who are either hapü (pregnant) or mate wähine (menstruating) are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them.
There seems to me to be an important difference between excluding a section of the public from a part of a museum and merely asking all members of the public to avoid certain types of behaviour while they are inside a part of the museum. I can understand how Te Papa's directive to pregnant and menstruating women upset at least some people who had been intending to take part in the tour of taonga. I may support the right of indigenous people to decide for themselves how to present their own history and taonga, but I reserve the right not to always agree with every aspect of their presentations.
There is also something troubling about the way that some defenders of Te Papa's advice have implicitly accepted the claims by right-wing bloggers that Maori culture sees women as impure and inferior, and the way that both sides of the debate have presented Maori culture as monolithic and unchanging, rather than as contradictory and dynamic.
It is true that Maori culture has tended traditionally to use tapu to separate women from activities related to war and to the construction of waka and wharenui. There is also ethnographic evidence that many iwi barred women from preparing food while they were menstruating.
Yet a tapu is not necessarily something fearsome and eternal. Maori tikanga makes provisions for tapu-lifting, and in many iwi women traditionally had a key role in tapu-lifting ceremonies. In one traditional ceremony, for instance, a woman would eat the first potato from a harvest, and thereby remove its tapu.
Scholars like Elsdon Best have argued that women were able to defuse tapu because their association with the 'lower' parts of existence revulsed the Gods, and drove them away. Other scholars, though, like the American F Allan Hanson, have suggested that women were able to lift tapu because they had a special affinity with the Gods. In a trenchant essay published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1982, Hanson argued that, far from being gynophobic, Maori and Polynesian societies valued women as intermediaries between humanity and the Gods:
[A] review of the evidence suggests, however, that for both eastern and western Polynesia the long-lived and widely held theory of female pollution is incorrect. It is true that women were deemed to be dangerous, that their association with disease, misfortune, and death injected distinctly negative connotations into the set of meanings connected with them. But none of this is to be explained in terms of an idea that women polluted other people and the gods. On the contrary, the position of the female in Polynesia, including its negative component, is more fully understood according to a special affinity which was thought to link women with the supernatural.
Roger Neich, the long-time senior ethnologist at Auckland museum whose recent death has saddened thousands of Kiwis, offered a fascinating account of some tapu associated with women in his classic study of the Whakatohea meeting house Tutamure. At one point in his essay Neich discusses the tapu involving women and the construction of meeting houses. In a story he cites, a team of men hauling the ridge-pole of a meeting house cannot make any progress until one of their number confesses to having recently had sexual intercourse, and then drops out of the hauling party.
Neich's text goes on to explain the different conceptual spaces inside and around meeting houses, and the role of tapu in delineating these spaces. Because the interior of a meeting house is usually associated with the deep past and ancestors, it is seen as conceptually distant from aspects of the quotidian world like the preparation and consumption of food. A pare (lintel) typically marks the passage into the meeting house, and the passage from one world to the other. Women may have been kept away from activities like the construction and carving of the buildings, but Neich notes that, in most traditional meeting houses, the highly tapu pare at the entrance to the house were decorated with carvings of female genitalia. The vagina mediated symbolically between the quotidian and spiritual sides of existence.
I do not have the knowledge to be able to decide between the claim that Maori saw women as a source of pollution, as argued by Best and others, and the view that women were seen as having a special affinity with the Gods, which Hanson and (seemingly) Neich express. It might be impossible for anybody far better informed than me to decide which analysis is finally correct, because Maori culture, like every culture, is composed of ideas and practices which are both constantly changing and always less than perfectly internally consistent. Because no culture can reduced to a few generalisations, every culture must constantly be reinterpreted by its practitioners. A culture offers us a set of ideas and practices; members of the culture choose which ideas and practices they wish to sustain and develop.
A number of defenders of restrictions on menstruating and pregnant women viewing taonga have argued that Maori tikanga is unchangeable, and that tapu have historically served a functional purpose, by protecting Maori from real dangers (the ban against swimming while menstruating, for example, is explained as an attempt to protect Maori women from shark attacks).
It seems to me that claims that Maori tikanga is timeless and unalterable as well as dictated by functional considerations owe little to Maori history, and a great deal to colonial ideology. It was nineteenth century Pakeha poets and ethnographers who created the myth of Maori as a people outside history, with an inflexible culture. Such a view has no basis in fact, and only became popular because it allowed Maori culture to be characterised as incompatible with modernity, and therefore worthy of destruction.
The functionalist approach to culture reflected in claims that tapu were always made for practical ends also belongs to European ethnographers. Victorian scholars like James Frazer, author of the monumental and obtuse The Golden Bough, believed that the supernatural beliefs and magical pratices of indigenous peoples like the Maori were primitive approximations of science and modern technology. Functionalist anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski took up Frazer's theory, and tried to show that cultural practices were dictated by a desire to manipulate the natural world in the pursuit of rationally-explicable ends.
Although the best functionalists did achieve some useful insights into the cultures they studied, they erred in assuming that all peoples think in the manner of European scientists. The European preoccupation with means and ends and what is practical is in many ways a modern phenomenon, and it is impossible to reduce any culture to a set of rules dictated by reason. In a famously withering attack on functionalism, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that cultures had to be understood in terms of their own internal logic, not rules made in Europe, and complained that George Frazer was 'incapable of imagining' anyone who did not think like him.
There is a long history of Polynesians reinterpreting the concept of tapu in the light of new knowledge and new circumstances. In the nineteenth century, for instance, the Kai Tahu prophet Te Maiharoa went across his people's lands lifting tapu which had become oppressive, and assuring his people that they would suffer no ill effects from performing acts which had once been tapu.
In the twentieth century, religious leaders like Rua Kenana and Wiremu Ratana took a similarly radical approach to many traditional tapu. Ratana denounced a number of old tapu as 'superstitions', and disposed of them using prayers developed by his new religion; the iconoclastic Rua went so far as to organise feasts inside the meeting houses raised by his followers.
More recently, Pita Sharples has tried to help craft legislation which will strike a balance between recognising traditional tapu about the removal of parts of the body and encouraging more Maori to become organ donors, and Tapu Misa has argued that the use of DNA testing by researchers into Polynesian origins is fully compatible with the tikanga of different Polynesian peoples.
Is it not possible that, perhaps inspired by the sort of traditional, mana-enhacing practices involving women that scholars like Hanson and Neich have noted, the guardians of taonga at Te Papa might eventually decide to lift their tapu on pregnant and menstruating women?