Māori people: Can the new media make their heritage immortal?

by Christos Mavraganis

If you visit govt.nz and go to the “History, culture and heritage” section, there is a folder, called “Māori language, culture and heritage”. Sometimes there is neither a need for fancy words, nor jazzy introductions to prove how much a country appreciates the historical importance of its heritage. Sometimes just 17 simple words can do the job: “Māori culture is a big part of NZ’s identity, so respecting, preserving and promoting it is vital”.


Photo by newzealand.com

For those who are not familiar, Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, who as the website describes, “came to Aotearoa (the most widely known and accepted Māori name for the entire country) from Polynesia in the 13th century and created a new language and culture”.

The goal and the means

A quick search through the official website of the New Zealand government, beehive.govt.nz, can reveal some interesting facts. One of them is that there is a “Māori Development” section, where anyone can get information about the government’s developmental initiatives regarding to Māori people.

Among those initiatives, there is one that has a clear goal: To connect the historical past of Māori with the future and to be more specific with the ICT, always with a developmental approach. This is “The Māori Development Fund” and according to the government “in Budget 2014, the Government allocated $30 million for a Māori ICT Development Fund to support Māori economic development and support access to Māori language and culture through digital literacy initiatives”.


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Therefore, in order to “respect, preserve and promote” this heritage, the government is trying to use the digital world and the new media to make the Māori tradition “immortal”.

The gap, the bridging

Let’s put more emphasis in the matter of the language. Undoubtedly, this is a very challenging project, principally because of the chaotic distance between the new digital world and the living conditions of this New Zealand’s part. Nederceen Pieterse, while trying to explain how the digital media policies apply to issues connected to development, is raising the issue of the “digital divide”. He points out that there is a need for bridging this “gap” between developing and developed countries and to do so, he suggests that “the combination of rising educational levels in developing countries…  and the business strategies of multinational companies, with ICT as an enabling factor, creates economic opportunities for developing countries” (Pieterse, 2010, p. 167).

This leads us to the purposes of the “The Māori Development Fund”. How exactly will this project help the educational levels to be increased and how will it help to “bridge the gap”? The answer comes from Communications Minister Amy Adams, who explains: “There are a wide range of initiatives that this fund could support, such as projects to improve digital literacy, scholarships to encourage Māori to study ICT, or programmes aimed at increasing the use of ICT by Māori businesses, so we want to see the fund in operation as soon as practicably possible”.

Sharing knowledge is to be a two-way street

A critical goal of this project is the preservation of “Te Reo Māori ” (the Māori  language), which has a history of hundreds of years and was made an official language of New Zealand under the Maori Language Act 1987. But how would it be possible for a “dying” language to be saved and transmitted to the next generations? In Carpentier et Al (Researching Media, Democracy and Participation), there is a very interesting input by Luisse Phillips, who is talking about the problematic conception of how the communication of science is transmitted through an “one way” procedure, meaning that the completed research results are just presented to the public, as de facto knowledge. The author is underlying a shift to this perception and highlights some dialogical approaches which “treat the communication of knowledge as a process of knowledge-sharing between the researcher and relevant social actors” (Louise Phillips, at Nico Carpentier et al, 2006, p. 233).


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The author presents three fields in which the communication of research has taken this “dialogical turn”. She describes, for example, how the second one takes the form of ‘dialogue with the public’, where “…the aim is to take citizens’ views into account in the decisionmaking involved in policy formation” (Louise Phillips, at Nico Carpentier et al, 2006, p. 234).

Moreover, she underlines how -inside the third field- the communication of research has taken a dialogical turn and she uses the term ‘interactive research’, an umbrella term for a number of other approaches (eg dialogical research’, ‘participatory action research’, ‘co-operative inquiry’, ‘action inquiry’ and ‘autoethnography’) that have a goal to “democratize relations between scientists and other social actors in the production and communication of social scientific knowledge”. Even though the author refers to scientific research, there is common ground with the “The Māori Development Fund”. And this is how the New Zealand government chose form the structure of this project.

The group members

A few days ago, it has been announced that the advisory group members have been appointed for a three year term each. The Māori Development Minister, Te Ururoa Flavell, explained that the 8 group members will provide advice on the objectives and the design of the operational framework and he added that the group “has important work to do to ensure the fund is used to its full potential and the new members bring a broad cross-section of skills and experience to the group”. This procedure is the connection to Louise Phillips’s “dialogical” theory. The government could have just created a website, or a web-based educational system, in order to protect and preserve the Māori language. Instead, they chose to assign this effort to people with different and impressive educational and professional backgrounds. They gave them the opportunity to handle the “building” of the digital literacy and to motivate Māori to study ITC. The interaction with the Māori people holds a dominant place in this project. As Louise Phillips would add here, “the claim is that a better understanding from both science and the public can and should be furthered through an exchange of perspectives in dialogue” (Louise Phillips, at Nico Carpentier et al, 2006, p. 236).

The rules and the outcome

Needless to say, that is a very challenging project. Even if we adopt the most optimistic angle and assume that the outcome would be even better than the original plan, there are still some objections. Pieterse, for example, would immediately raise one and it would be about the core of the ICT for Development thinking.

In the Development Theory, there is a chapter called “ICT4D as a package deal” and the author is pointing the obvious. That the ICT field is working under certain and specific rules which of course are set by the developed countries, in favor of their interests. Therefore, he suggests that the very nature of the “bridging the gap” procedure is contradictory. Quoting Wade, he could not have put it better than this: “‘efforts to bridge the digital divide may have the effect of locking developing countries into a new form of dependency on the West. The technologies and “regimes” (international standards governing ICTs) are designed by developed country entities for developed country conditions’” (Wade 2002: 443, referenced by Pieterse, 2010, p. 169).

To sum up, the New Zealand government has a very promising project, along with a serious financial investment. If this plan succeeds, the benefits will be priceless, as a very crucial ingredient of the Māori culture, the language, will be protected for good. But the question remains: Will the outcome be really beneficial if the “The Māori Development Fund” uses the practices of the developed countries as a “Trojan horse” and ends up to be dependent on the West?

A middle ground solution is always the best solution, but also the most difficult one to be achieved.


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Nederveen Pieterse, Jan (2010). Development Theory (Second Edition). London: Sage

Carpentier, N., Pruulman-Vengerfeldt, P., Nordenstreng, K., Hartmann, M. and Cammaerts, B. (Eds.) 2006: Researching Media, Democracy and Participation. Tartu: Tartu University Press.

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  1. Hi Chris, this is such a good post. In my first post on this blog I looked at the role of indigenous media, film in particular, in bringing people together and creating solidarity. In that respect it is a kind of media enabled social activism. The case I had in mind in Solomon Islands concerns a Polynesian people from the province of Rennell and Bellona. These are two small islands to the south of the Solomons, raised atolls. They are cursed with bauxite deposits, now the subject of disputes, massive corruption and rifts in the close knit community, even violence. However, initiatives are taking shape in the community to appeal to customary values. This is exactly the area where I think the new media and indigenous production can help. And yes, there is a connection with the Maoris… read on!

    The Polynesian ancestry of Rennell (Mugaba) and Bellona (Mungiki) is related through the legend of the two canoes (the islands also being characterised as such) that came from ‘Ubea, possibly the islands now called Wallis and Futuna (French Pacific territories). The legend tells how the two newly discovered islands were divided into two chiefdoms, with the hero Kaitu’u lording over most of Rennell and East Bellona. Rennell (where I enjoyed two marvellous years as a volunteer teacher in the late 90s) is a spectacular island, the largest raised atoll in the world, with a huge freshwater lake (Tegano) at one end that is a UNESCO World Heritage site (sadly now officially at risk due to the mining).

    The cultural heritage is a deep source of meaning for these people (of whom I number my wonderful hahine wife, Ma’ea). When I was a teacher there, young men (especially) would come to me to show their family tree of 26 generations tracing back to the two legendary heroes Kaitu’u and Taupongi.

    The people of Rennell and Bellona are keenly aware of close connections with the Maoris. They identify strongly, for instance in the recent rugby world cup. The language is similar, as many Polynesian languages are, with some substitution of consonants as the main difference. In 2007 Maori TV made a wonderful documentary, the Mystery of the Lost Waka (canoe).

    “The hour-long film follows former Maori Language Commissioner, Professor Patu Hohepa, and wife Erena as they travel to Rennell (Mu Ngiki) and Bellona (Mu Nggava) in search of the ‘lost waka’ – the link in the geneology, mythology and lapita design between Maori and the people of these islands.” (Maori TV 2007)

    Professor Hohepa is shown exploring and sharing stories, comparing language, cultural artefacts, tattoos, customary ways and mythical tales with the people in the two islands. By way of a sort of cultural forensic archaeology, the Professor and his new cousins arrive at Lake Tegano where the film culminates in a scene that is so electric with meaning that all those depicted are shown tense with emotion and I couldn’t watch without a feeling of my hair standing on end, and tears coming to my eyes. The scene shows the moment Professor Hohepa realises the significance of some Maori-like fortifications on one of the small lake islands, as being the place where Kaitu’u’s head was buried as per the legends.

    These sort of powerful media productions can put to right the damage modern media culture can do and restoring pride and the bedrock strength of a culture. I think of the pride of those young men who had made their personal connections to the legends in their exercise books, and I think of the solidarity that could be built in this way to create a unified front to the mining and thus to share the benefits whilst protecting against the worst.

    The two islands are also lucky to have been researched extensively by Danish researchers led by Dr. Torben Monberg, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s and until 2007. This heritage is now made available to them online, through the new media in the website http://www.bellona.dk.
    Thus, I agree with the proposition that new media can help preserve the heritage. But it requires a participatory approach!

    Maori TV (2007) Mystery of the Lost Waka, http://newzealandfilmtv.co.nz/2007/10/mystery-of-lost-waka-canoe-featured-in-documentary/

  2. Matthew Robinson

    Chris, this, along with David’s comments, brings to mind several points that I think we would all find interesting. First of all, regarding the preservation of Maori language and culture, there’s an insightful documentary called Voices in the Clouds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vc-nSXV19qc) that deals with very similar issues related to the languages and cultures of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples, in particular the Atayal people, who have faced ongoing marginalisation and assimilation for hundreds of years.

    Second, it’s now believed that the Maori people, along with other Polynesians, are descended from groups like the Taiwanese Atayal. There are documentaries about this, as well as numerous online news sources. Here’s one example: http://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/destinations/asia/67390585/New-Zealands-long-lost-Taiwanese-cuzzies

    Polynesian-Taiwanese histories and identities are fascinating. I urge you both to read up about what I’ve said.