Ka Hao Te Rakatahi
COVID-19 and Te Ao Māori in 2020

Nā Laken Wairau

Mate urutā. Coronavirus. COVID-19.

A pivotal moment in our lives. I must admit I have remained pretty calm despite Aunty Cindy declaring a state of emergency and the World Health Organisation announcing this a global pandemic. On the other hand, I am here to hold space for te iwi Māori and let this serve as a reminder that we have the right to make our own decisions about our issues. We’re not here merely to provide ‘advice’ or ‘consultation’. We make our own decisions, period. Eleven weeks ago Cabinet introduced a 4-level alert system to manage and minimise the risk of COVID-19. I was left feeling a little uneasy about the possible arrangements and, ultimately, some of the decisions made by our country’s leaders.

Cabinet updates have been a constant moodswing between anxious and restful. Tikanga is doing what is right based on a fixed set of values and doesn’t exist in isolation. Tikanga shifts and changes when the norms of society shift and change. For me, as long as we came out of this pandemic healthy and alive, then that’s a massive win. Let’s take it easy on our minds and hearts: the pressure to be productive is so real, but looking after our wellbeing is more than enough this season.

COVID-19 and its implications on our tikanga Māori were quickly brought to the fore as Government released strict guidelines enforcing a temporary ban or rāhui on our traditional Māori rituals of encounter, mourning, and congregation. Marae forced to close their doors, hongi, hariru, kihi, wānanga and tangihanga all put on hold as social distancing and no contact requirements were adhered to. Yes, I understand these measures were put in place to protect us, and don’t get me wrong, I do understand the necessity. He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. But there’s a difference between helping and harming, between being an ally and being a saviour, and a massive difference between being “by us, for us” and being “about us, without us”.

As a child lucky to have been raised in Te Ao Māori, Kōhanga Reo and in Kura Kaupapa Māori Aho Matua, I see the importance of believing in our culture as a way of life, as a philosophy. We are literally living through a moment that will be taught in the history lessons of future generations. It’s crazy to think that one day they might turn to us and say “Tell me about the time when …”

As a child lucky to have been raised in Te Ao Māori, Kōhanga Reo and in Kura Kaupapa Māori Aho Matua, I see the importance of believing in our culture as a way of life, as a philosophy.

With that in mind, I began to develop the stories that I would like to pass down. So here are some things I would tell them. We are hardwired for human connection and we long for a sense of belonging. Alert Level 4 looks like self-reflection, personal responsibility and understanding the landscape of the walls of your home. Level 3 looks like a two-metre distance between strangers at the supermarket but feels like two million oceans between you and the loved ones who aren’t in your bubble. Level 2 looks like education being taught through a screen that separates some, from all.

Every day, our human rights matter more than ever, yet the first time I saw Human Rights offered as a subject was at university. A place with narrow gates and even narrower minds, and even then it’s still only optional. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) consists of 46 articles, each one just as important as the rest. I particularly highlight articles three and four which sought to bring clarity to indigenous people’s right to self-determination and the autonomy in making decisions about our own internal and local issues. When this document was released, New Zealand didn’t sign it straight away on the basis that it was ‘incompatible with New Zealand law’. Basically, it was due to the fear that Māori would receive too many rights. As if our rights and treatment were ever equal in this country for us to receive “too many” of them anyway.

I believe this fear still exists today.
It shows in the overload of decisions and assumptions that are made about us, without us. It showed the moment bars, malls, and sports teams were regarded as safer, more trustworthy and more important places to congregate than tangihanga, without any valued input from our people who actually do the mahi. I never realised how much strength existed in this right alone. The act of self-determination is one thing in theory but is currently barely felt in practice. I feel like the “self-determination” we are offered is tokenistic and only deemed appropriate when it suits whichever political party needs our votes. Don’t get it twisted, I know that the New Zealand Government eventually signed the declaration and there have been moments where they’ve lived up to it. But a moment isn’t good enough. We deserve full self-determination, so don’t just sign it. Live up to it.

I do whatever I can to help create spaces for the voices that aren’t being heard. Representation must be valued and that looks like continuously challenging every idea and decision being made. Indigenous people and lenses must be considered, honoured, and a part of these processes to create the change we wish to see. We must strive to establish our own mana and fulfil our potential. Only then can we achieve Tino rangatiratanga in its truest form.


Laken Wairau (Ngāi Tahu) was born and bred in Ōtautahi, a child of Rangi and Papa, of Te Aho Matua, of the many tūpuna that come before her. She is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Te Reo Māori and Indigenous Studies.