(Mis)representation in Wellington

3 September 2017

After a stimulating class discussion about representation of Maori culture and identity in Aotearoa, I was itching to explore Wellington on our first full day in the city. I particularly wanted to see Te Aro Park, which according to a landmark map in our hostel, was the site of one of the largest Maori settlements in the Wellington area. Our class has had a lot of exposure to modern Maori culture and spent time on modern maraes, but I was excited to learn about what a Maori settlement looked and felt like hundreds of years ago, prior to the presence of large cities here. Racquel, David, and I bundled ourselves up in coats and hats and began our trek across town.

Te Aro Park, the former site of one of the largest Maori settlements in the Wellington area.

After 25 minutes of fighting the wind—Wellington is known as the windy city of New Zealand—we arrived at the park. The space was filled with murals and sculpture, pools of water, and small trees. However, I saw no obvious evidence of any remains of a large Maori settlement and I began to wonder whether or not I was in the correct place. After a few minutes of searching the park, the three of us found a small plaque that confirmed we had not mistaken the location, stating that the area had been settled as recently as the 1890s by as many as 200 Maori. The plaque went on to say that since then, the space had also been a Mission House, several public service stations (police, fire, and electrical), and a Turkish bath, among other things, until the park as we found it opened in 1992. The surprise between the three of us was palpable; how could a place of such important cultural heritage so often be repurposed?

The three of us went on to see and do several other things throughout the day, but I remained mentally present at Te Aro Park. I thought a lot about the park in relation to Maori representation, and the place that Maori people occupy in the overall representation of Aotearoa. In our class discussion from earlier that day, we talked about how native peoples tend to lose land and resources because they lack the power to represent their interests. In our travels across the country, we have seen and heard numerous examples of this loss of land and resources. What was a thriving Maori settlement as recently as 120 years ago, Te Aro Park—now situated between two busy streets lined with shops and restaurants—is yet another example of the constant struggle for representation and relevance that the Maori face.

 

— Matt

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