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Cultural window-dressing, a cautionary tale.

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Cultural window-dressing, a cautionary tale.

This month I learnt a valuable lesson.
In hindsight, the kind of lesson that seems obvious, and avoidable, but apparently life considered it necessary that I learn it in a meaningfully indelible way. 

This isn’t specifically Aho related, but in the way my journey as a Wahine Māori, a Māmā, a fledgling on a te reo journey, a person and a whānau on a journey of cultural reclamation is inherently interwoven into the way Aho runs, these lessons feel like they may be valuably shared.

This is a cautionary tale about sowing seeds of trust into an institution that has Māori window-dressing (metaphorical, not that they were using our window film :) ) 

Not entirely dissimilar perhaps to the critique of non Māori businesses who mis-appropriate Māori names for financial gain. Window dressing. Enough of a taste to get you through the door, but nothing beyond the superficial.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are non-Māori pakihi (businesses) with Māori names who are haumi, allies, and whose intent and actions lift up Māori voices, messages, communities, aspirations and more.
However, for customers seeking to make intentional purchasing choices based on the name of a business (and not unreasonably assuming that if it has a Māori name it would be Māori owned/operated/ for the benefit of Māori), only to find this not to be the case. We can hope for benign benevolence in intent, but must stay wary of intentional misappropriation, unintentional misappropriation, ‘culture vultures’ (those who prey on the the cultural capital of another culture for personal gain) and more.

Perhaps an easy example of the harm of such names may be the way government departments adopt Māori names and yet often work to achieve outcomes in complete contravention to the worldview and aspirations of Māori citizens. Oranga Tamariki for example, if ideally interpreted, should be an agency working to uphold the holistic wellbeing as defined by a Māori worldview of tamariki. It doesn’t take much to realise that a crown entity and government department is almost irreconcilable with these concepts.

The giving of Māori names isn’t just an exercise in translation as some may think, but in embodying a connected and mātauranga informed understanding of a Māori worldview. In my opinion, it is more harmful to carry a name or value in te reo Māori and fail to uphold or realise its intent and mana than to just use English.

So back to my cautionary tale.

Our tamariki are our greatest taonga. They have been the guiding motivator behind this pakihi, and life values as a whole.
As a Māmā who has spent many many years immersed in a space of growing and nurturing and strengthening, listening and seeking to deepen my understanding and grounding within te ao and te reo Māori, I sought to find a path that might pass this on to our babes that might make this their first language, rather than a learned second.

Now for a little geographic context, we’re based in Ōtautahi, Christchurch, where the strength, volume and dominance of Pākēhā culture is all consuming. It's an astonishing contrast to even the conservative enclaves of the north island.
Such environments that might nurture the dream are pretty scarce, and certainly sparse on our side of the city.

So when the possibility for one grew in our backyard, so to speak, I invested my aspirations and beliefs there.

It had the right name. It espoused the ‘right values’(insert Māori words here). I mean, the Te Reo wasn’t even the secondary minor font under the ‘actual name’. It was even pronounced correctly.  There was reo and a promise of whanaungatanga. There were visual markers of a ‘Māori space’. In Ōtautahi, that’s rare. 

‘Awesome’ I thought. ‘That’s us’.

That's our dream, as it is for so many of our friends and fellow Māmā. That our tamariki won’t have to work as hard as we do and we have, and that maybe, their cultural inheritance may just ‘be’. Less doubt, fewer ‘impostory’ thoughts.

But one thing I forgot, as I threw my hopes and tamariki headlong after them, was that those wavering impostor-syndrome doubts are more often than not a good sign.
Bear with me here.

The further along the road of life I get, and the many different scenarios I find myself, it is those with deep authenticity who may pause to question themselves occasionally.
That with them dwells a humility that you don’t know everything. It doesn’t make you an ‘impostor’, but it certainly won’t have you overstepping. Real impostors don’t get impostor syndrome.

As I watch those in life who are all-confidence and seemingly ‘know everything’, I increasingly see a disconnect. I see the manu with his feathers fluffed up, appearing bigger and more intimidating, but internally threatened and unsecure.

Nobody knows everything, it’s all an illusion. And you only have to watch for long enough to see the true form reveal itself.

And so I watched. Still leaning in to a desire to believe. Still dreaming a dream for our tamariki.

It’s ‘Covid’ I justified. When I started to notice the gaps. ‘It’s new’, I reasoned, ‘give it time’. 

And in my desire to believe I chose to see the feathers, not the manu.

And then, slowly, then all at once, the words became devoid of their meaning. The kupu Māori I held on to, that I value, that are embedded within the fabric of te ao Māori and relationships and context. They became empty vessels. Just a collection of sounds disconnected from tikanga and action.

And I started observing with new eyes.

That compass that sits in your puku, it bellowed ‘AT LAST”.  And then you can’t unsee. 

And you reflect with others, and they echo your doubts. 

'Shit'. I thought. I fell for it. 

But the real grief is in realising you sowed that seed of a dream for the future in entirely unworthy whenua.


As I step back from it all, my lesson feels like this. 

  1. Trust your puku. Your pito. And act on it. 
  2. Don’t give away/ outsource the gift and responsibility of raising culturally grounded and connected tamariki to an institution or ill-equipped others. Especially Pakeha institutions, no matter how patterned their window dressing. 
  3. Build meaningful relationships in community. We do not stand as one, but as many, this is our collective strength (and history would demonstrate time and again that divide and conquer is a very successful strategy).
  4. Never forget that that those soft doubts, those question of impostory-ness, they’ll keep you humble and asking.
    Don’t be fooled by the facade of someone or some place that puffs out their feathers and struts cockily. It’s an illusion.

‘I’ve got you’, my whanaunga whispered as we left. ‘I see this, and you. You’ll grieve now for what could have been. Should have been.  And then, pivot’.

And pivot we shall. 

With unexpected gratitude for this lesson, and wondering what shape those next tentative steps shall take.

Older, wiser, a little more grounded. And immensely grateful for the resilience of our tamariki.


A thread of thought, still unfolding. I hope it doesn't resonate for you, but I've got a hunch it may.

Ka whawhai tonu mātou.

Comments on this post (1)

  • Jan 28, 2024

    Kia ora – your thoughts feelings and words in regard to imposter syndrome… resonate within me quite deeply. I have just started learning te reo after many years of hesitation, unsure if I could actually learn my language. However hearing my own voice try new words or sentences I feel a connection at last to my whakapapa, te ao Maori, that I have not truly felt before. We are all on a journey. And I am walking my own talk! At last. Kia kaha. Nga mihi Sarah Fergusson

    — Sarah Fergusson

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