What Makes A Māori?



Otaki Beach, the home of Ngati Kapumanawawhiti, my hapu.

What does it mean to be Māori? 

This is what my tutor asked the class yesterday. Arguing about the treaty and constitutional rights. That was easy. But what does it mean to be Māori? No really, what makes you ‘Māori’? That was hard.

We started with the easy answers. 

  • Whakapapa
  • Tikanga
  • Whanaunga 
  • Te whakaminenga
  • Te reo 
  • Whether you identify as Māori

But our tutor wanted more and so we had to dig in. Because the question wasn’t necessarily what makes us Māori. It was also what others think makes us Māori – or by the same token, is why people think it’s okay to say that some of us aren’t actually Māori or that we’re not a ‘real’ Māori or not like ‘those other’ Māori. 

So what makes a Māori? 

  • Social stigmas – Māori beat their kids, Māori are poor and have addiction problems, they’re violent – there’s a ‘warrior’ gene don’t you know? And they’ll probably want to steal your things. 
  • Skin colour and qualifications of ‘how much’ – ‘Oh she’s pretty fair, she must be only a quarter, nah, an eighth.’ 

This brought up a discussion of feeling like you need to quantify your whakapapa, both to Māori and non-Māori to show that you were legitimate. Stories about people being made to feel uncomfortable not just for being Māori in the first place but also for not looking ‘Māori’ enough. And then we got into why. 

Following colonisation the New Zealand government began to implement policies with the specific aim of assimilating Māori culture. An act where this is clearly evident is the Native Schools Act of 1867 which prescribed that all education should be conducted in English only. The 20th century saw further drives to disintegrate Māori culture with pepper potting in housing policy (when Māori were moved into the cities and deliberately housed amongst Pākehā so that urban Māori communities could not emerge) and then the Hunn Report of 1961 where assimilation gave way to miscegenation – essentially the melting pot idea of integration.  

Skin colour is important in these policies – the fewer people who look like Māori – the better. It emphasises that Māori are a minority – therefore it’s a small group wanting to make all the Treaty claims etc and it is a form of separatism – you can only be Māori if you look Māori, but you also can’t be Māori if you look like anything else. While at the same time you’re getting told that ‘there are no full blooded Māori anyway). The whole thing is both upsetting and insulting. 

Why can’t I look like the amalgamation of all of my heritage? – Māori, Dutch, Irish, Portuguese, Bohemian, Scottish – the lot? Why am I expected to quantify in percentages ‘how much’ of these things I am? And for that matter, why can’t I identify with multiple cultural and ethnic identities. Because that’s the dichotomy that this debate creates. 

The tragedy of this debate is the exclusion it creates. It excludes people with Māori heritage but who have been disconnected from their iwi from feeling like they can claim their Māoridom. It emphasises the negative stigma surrounding Māori culture and finally it divides us a country, creating an us and them mentality. An environment where you may have Māori ancestry but feel like it was so long ago that Māori issues aren’t relevant to you because they’re exclusively for Māori. Or if you don’t have Māori heritage that you see Māori issues as being so far removed from you that again they don’t matter. But they do, because they’re not just Māori issues. They’re New Zealand issues. 

About madicattt

Curator of The Things That Are Good. Sharing the things that stand out in the worlds of theatre, food, beauty and style.
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3 Responses to What Makes A Māori?

  1. Another interesting dilemma with identifying as Maori comes from a report I saw recently from TPK estimating that there are probably between 115,000 – 125,000 Maori currently living in Australia. That’s a huge proportion of our overall population. For the most part, they’ve moved from New Zealand to Australia in the past 15 – 20 years, taking experiences of their heritage & culture with them. But when their kids are born in Australia, how will they feel about being indigenous to a country they’ve perhaps never been to?

    • madicattt says:

      Yeah exactly, and then to confuse things even more – what does Māori actually mean in itself? It’s a post colonial term used to collect all iwi and hapu under one umbrella, but that’s not really how they traditionally work.

  2. Pingback: huttrivervalley | Former Warriors NRL league legend Wairangi Koopu tackles Maori action movie…

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