Just remember, pakeha, that while it's your duty to learn about Maori culture no matter how much you learn you will never truly understand it because ITS NOT YOURS.
Makes me sick to see pakeha people telling Maori people "Oh yes I understand Maori tradition, I understand Maori culture". No, you don't. You can watch it and learn about it but you can never understand it because you are not part of the tangata whenua.
Learning is good if it empowers indigenous people. But too often "learning" about Maori culture is just a way for pakeha people to claim they don't need to empower indigenous people because they "understand" their culture.
I wouldn't want to disagree entirely, or even mostly, with this statement. I believe that there are regions of Maori culture - of every culture - which are special, and which are inaccessible to outsiders, or else only accessible to very careful outsiders. But there are also many places where different cultures overlap or collide, and where dialogue and borrowing are not only possible but inevitable.
In an archive where I have done some research lately there are a few unpublished letters written by the nineteenth century prophet and guerrilla leader Te Kooti, and an unpublished diary kept by the twentieth century Waikato heroine Princess Te Puea.
I think these documents must be fascinating, and if they were published and translated by someone else I would read them with great interest, but I've never ordered them up from the vaults and looked at them myself, even though access to them is not restricted.
I think that to handle materials like Te Kooti's letters and Te Puea's writings one would need to be immersed in the history and culture of Te Kooti's Ringatu Church and Te Puea's Kingitanga movement respectively. There's a level of background knowledge required which could be gained only by living inside those 'worlds', either as a result of being born into them or making a meticulous entry into them.
I don't think it would be impossible for a Pakeha scholar to handle the texts - certainly, Judith Binney, the sadly missed biographer of Te Kooti and historian of Tuhoe, seemed to deal pretty well with a lot of Maori written and oral material - but they're not something which any Pakeha could pick up and handle without arduous preparation.
I'd make a distinction between Te Kooti's sacred writings and, say, some of the key events of his life. These events - battles, peace marches, flights into exile, returns from exile - are well-known, and are part of the history of Pakeha as well as Maori New Zealanders. Many writers, Pakeha as well as Maori, have been inspired to write about Te Kooti, so that he has become a character in poems, songs, and at least one novel, Maurice Shadbolt's popular Season of the Jew.
I would argue that Te Kooti has become, in a sense, a mythopoetic figure, like Odysseus or Alexander the Great, and that his deeds can resonate imaginatively across distant cultures.
The unashamedly Pakeha Kendrick Smithyman wrote some important poems about different aspects of Te Kooti's life: he composed one about a visit to Te Porere, the last battle pa Te Kooti built, and another about Te Kooti's strangely amicable last meeting with Gilbert Mair, the Pakeha commander who had chased round the North Island for years. Smithyman's poems aren't attempts to steal Te Kooti, or to 'write like a Maori': they are attempts to set up a dialogue between Pakeha and Maori history and thought.
When Judith Binney came to write her biography of Te Kooti, she included, as one of her appendices, a selection of songs and poems that Pakeha writers like Smithyman had produced about Te Kooti. She argued that these texts have become a part of the traditions which surround Te Kooti.
Before anyone criticises the Pakeha writers who have made Te Kooti into a subject, they ought to remember that Te Kooti himself was a great investigator of and borrower from other cultural traditions. He took the Old Testament and reinterpreted it in a Maori light, making his people into 'Jews'; he took the European tradition of realistic figurative painting and put it inside the extraordinary meeting houses that the Ringatu Church raised in his honour.
The sort of complex interplay between cultures which Te Kooti and Smithyman in their different ways practiced mocks attempts to put up 'off limits - no entry' signs around one or another culture and history.
As a sort of feeble salute to cross-cultural artistic inspiration, and as an admission that I suffer from what Osip Mandelstam called 'a homesickness for world culture', I wanted to post a poem which recently managed to annoy that distinguished scholar of classical Greek culture, Ted Jenner. After I sent him the poem, my long-suffering friend complained that I'd needlessly pulled not only Homer and Odysseus but his hero, the mysterious pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, out of their properly European context, and placed them in the South Pacific.
My problem, Ted, is that my imagination keeps putting Odysseus in Tonga, not in the Mediterranean, and insists on Heraclitus as a boozy Greek-cum-Aussie fisherman, not some ancient and irretrievable mystic.
Anonymous polemicists should be feel free to use the comments box under this post.
Homer and Heraclitus
Say that Homer and Heraclitus are getting blind drunk
on a bottle of ouzo, in the back room of a cheap Greek
restaurant, on Lonsdale Street, sometime in the fifties,
before the smell of fish got washed out
of the gutters, before the Melbourne cops
stopped taking bribes, before tourists
chased the gangsters away.
Say that Homer went blind
transcribing and revising his poems
after mass literacy made his recitals
Say that Heraclitus lost his eyes
on an Arctic trawler,
after the crew ran out of vodka
and cracked open the meths.
(Say that it hardly seemed to matter,
in the middle of a winter-long night.
At least the dark was warm, after half a glass.)
Say that poet and philosopher
deserve their private room, and their booze.
Neither will see out the summer.
(Say that Homer moves down Lonsdale at the speed
of a walking frame, that Heraclitus smells
like the inside
of a colostomy bag.)
Do the blind old men
toast their health?
Do they reach out
across the table,
listening to the half-melted cubes
knocking together (like smooth-cornered dice
in an old gambler's cup?)
then wait for their frosted glasses
to clink politely, or to strike
a single, sharp note,
or to grind against each other
like floes of ice?
Never mind. In Ithaca, or some other piece
of Polynesia, Ulysses has just tethered his listing ship
to a banyan tree, left his comrades to their duty-free booze,
and headed uphill, through an overgrown plantation,
toward the pou and the kumara beds
of the papakainga. Say that he is filled with space and time.