Breaking free from victimhood

Dec 18, 2018

He Whakaaro
Nā Ward Kamo

Taika Waititi recently called New Zealand “racist as f**k”. This was a deliberately shocking statement from a successful, internationally famous filmmaker. Taika now has enough “f**k you” collateral to be able to say what he thinks. And the responses from those who supported this statement, and those who didn’t, were visceral.

Taika’s comment fed into a growing narrative that things are not right in Aotearoa. And by no measure can we say it’s okay that 50 per cent of the prison population is Māori, unemployment is twice that of the rest of New Zealand, and we continue to lag woefully in our health and education statistics.

Taika and I grew up at a similar time in New Zealand. We both witnessed the massive societal changes the likes of the Homosexual Law Reform Act, amendment to the Treaty of Waitangi Act and the subsequent tsunami of treaty claims, caused in Aotearoa.

The waiata “Maranga ake ai” was released in 1984 by Aotearoa (Joe Williams eh) and became an anthem for so many of us young Māori. “Words like freedom from oppression…” were the lyrics we hollered at our various Māori social gatherings – and man did we mean it. By now I was at university and had been reliably informed I was oppressed. The great thing about “being oppressed” is that it made for a sense of camaraderie amongst the Māori students – it gave us a focus and a purpose to “fight the man” (whoever he was).

Perhaps the single defining moment for me at university (apart from completing my degree) was successfully campaigning to have the Māori law students quota (as it was then called) implemented in 1991. It was to be a stopgap measure until the number of Māori law students approximated the Māori population (at the time around 10 per cent).

Measures such as quotas were a response to the effect that colonial settlement of Aotearoa had on Māori. These quotas stemmed from acknowledgement that colonisation in its real rather than abstract sense had a detrimental effect on Māori and that the loss of land had impacted economically and had led to adverse outcomes.

I say “real rather than abstract” because the incoming tide of “it’s the white man what keeps us down” has a very abstract feel to it – after all total Māori wealth is increasing, our Māori economy is estimated at $50b and rising, NCEA results were at 75 per cent and increasing, our life expectancy is closing the gap with our Pākehā brethren and Māori unemployment continues to fall.

Could it be that we have become so defined by our past that the more things improve, the harder we cling to an abstract sense of oppression? Any statistic, even an improving one, that has Māori behind Pākehā is immediately cited as evidence of the inherent and unashamed racism of
New Zealanders.

It’s almost as if we have a tailormade excuse for anything that goes wrong for us, and it’s one of the uglier aspects of the growing victim and oppression narrative that appears to be colonising our collective
Māori minds.

When and by what measure do we stop clinging to it as the root cause of everything that goes wrong for us? Does it help to say to our marginalised Māori whānau “It’s not your fault, you’re a victim of colonisation so sit back and leave it to us also marginalised Māori who are actually doing okay to sort it out for you”? I’m not so sure – sitting back and being a victim is not part of our tikanga – we did not value victimhood.

“But there was oppression of our Māori people” you say. Undoubtedly. “We were subject to racism” you state? You’d be deaf dumb and blind to conclude otherwise. “Our whanau suffered as a consequence” you add. Certainly have. “And we are defined by our historical oppression” you finish. Unfortunately it appears “yes”.

I say “unfortunately” because nowhere can I find one pepeha or whakataukī that in any way celebrates victimhood.

Indeed our tīpuna extolled us to kaua e mate wheke, me mate ururoa (don’t die like an octopus, die like the hammerhead shark – in essence octopus were known to give up the fight once captured, the hammerhead shark fought bitterly to the end).

In our darkest years we were told to get an education and fight from within and in being educated we were then told to “give back to your people”. We were told to be as good if not better than our Pākehā counterparts (or in my case my Pākehā half). And the cry was “tama tū, tama ora, tama moe, tama mate”.

We also admired hard work. Our tīpuna would say “moe atu ngā ringa raupā” and “he kai kei aku ringa”. And most importantly “Tēnā te ringa tango parahia” (well done the hand that roots up weeds). Nothing about victimhood, oppression or colonisation. Plenty about standing firm, working hard and taking opportunities where they present.

The problem with victim narrative and the attendant culture it inspires, is that it turns us inward and makes us focus on what hurts rather than on how we are getting better.

And most alarmingly it takes away agency from those who we claim are victims (which by definition includes me and that’s absurd – I am most certainly not a victim and nor does my Ngāi Tahu heritage encourage me to think of myself as a victim).

Personal agency is a critical component of tino rangatiratanga which is most often defined as self-determination. It’s the one thing that each one of us retains ‘ahakoa te aha’. From self-determination comes collective determination. Both require decision-making and action – something Ngāi Tahu has proven to be good at.

Our Ngāi Tahu history illustrates our traditional response to being victimised. My tipuna Hinehaka Mumuhako watched her whanaunga killed at Taumutu. Her response was to go to Murihiku, gear up her husband Te Wera Whaitiri, her cousin Te Matenga Taiaroa, and a number of other chiefs, and head back up to Waitaha to “sort it”.

When Te Pehi Kupe, Toenga Te Poki, Te Rakatau Katihe, and of course Te Rauparaha (all Ngāti Mutunga/Ngāti Toa) turned up at Kaikōura and Kaiapoi at the tail end of the kai huānga feud, my tīpuna “sorted it”. And when the Crown dishonoured their treaty obligations, our tīpuna (and contemporaries) sorted it and we have been sorting it ever since.

Ngāi Tahu is the ururoa not the wheke. When bad things happen we don’t define ourselves by it – we sort it.

Taika Waititi may be right in calling New Zealand “racist as f**k” – I’m not sure he is. The song “Maranga Ake Ai” is not a call to moan about it. It’s a call to action, to activity – we are extolled to break free from the shackles and that includes victimhood and colonisation of the mind – particularly from those who work to keep us in victim and grievance mode.

Ward Kamo (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga Chatham Island, and Scottish decent) grew up in Poranui (Birdlings Flat) and South Brighton, Christchurch.