Indigenous Involvement in Institutions

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Our class’s time spent in Wellington has given us a view into the roles Māori have in the major institutions based here. Our visits on Thursday, September 7 included the Waitangi Tribunal office, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, and a meeting with Justice Joe Williams. A major theme that occurred in our conversations with our hosts was the different ways Māori represent their culture and community in the colonial spaces they have worked their way into.

From our morning meeting with the Waitangi Tribunal we had the privilege of hearing about all the different steps in the settlement process from team members of many responsibilities. The tribunal is a committee that was established in 1975 to uphold the word of the Treaty of Waitangi in making recommendations to the Land Court in how to settle Māori land cases. One of the employees we talked to says she started off with her business degree wanting to focus on entrepreneur work, but found herself instead at the Waitangi Tribunal office. She said that she is thankful to be involved because she ended up with an outlet for her education that benefits the Māori community.

When our class arrived later at Te Papa, we were greeted by Senior Curator Māori, Puawai Cairns. The tour started with a discussion in the wharenui (Te Hau-ki-Tūranga) and ended up in the archives of taonga Māori, the cultural treasures that are now under the museums’s care. We learned about not only material culture but the wisdom and value within, the meaning in the language of taonga, the protocols around them, and how the museum and communities interact. Highlighting the complicated relationships the museum has built with its heritage communities helped us understand the goal that the Māori team there had for future interactions. Puawai explained her role as both an indigenous person and a curator. “Sometimes I have to wear the museum hat, sometimes the Māori hat,” she explained, “the Māori hat always wins.” By working our way into institutions that are founded upon the reframing of our heritages and narratives, it is vital for native people to rewrite the rules and make spaces for our cultural framework.

Examples of the tradition and revitalization of waka hourua (voyaging canoes) in Aotearoa

When our class wrapped up the day with a visit to the High Court, Justice Joe Williams was very passionate in his conversation. He drew out a brief history of colonization in Aotearoa and how it has affected the demographics of Māori as well as their treatment by the many systems. When describing momentum that was built by Māori empowerment in the last century he said “we needed to institutionalize that energy,” hence the foundation of programs like the Waitangi Tribunal. The concept of building cultural values and community efforts into the same systems that have caused the issues to arise is a strong example of how to work within a system to change for the better. Justice Williams did look at the different layers of outcomes more critically and acknowledged the drawbacks of every strategy. However the overall message he gave our class is that the Māori community may not have any guarantee of improvement with each new effort dreamed up but at least they have the foresight to try and pave their own future.

“Māori are just like Hawaiians, but cold” -Justice Joe Williams

When we think of the role that museums, governments, and laws have played in settler colonialism often times what is capitalized on is what has been taken away. The role of indigenous communities in these institutions has been one of exclusion and witnessing unequal relations, and seeing how our values are not compatible with the processes that go on daily. However seeing the work of the Māori professionals in Wellington showed our class what can be accomplished if a community continues to fight from both outside and within the very institutions that have held our people back.

-Kamaka’ike Bruecher


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