The release of the ‘Poi E’ movie, sub-titled 'the story of our song' made me ponder how a song sung completely in te reo Māori (Māori language) captured a nation and became 'our song'. Māori is acknowledged as the one thing that makes Aotearoa (New Zealand) unique. But as Māori culture features more and more in our everyday lives, should we tread with caution? Do we risk losing the essence that makes Māori culture unique, and is it time for Aotearoa to step up and protect this taonga (treasure) from misappropriation and over-commercialisation?

Māori culture in context

As a nation, we are all enraptured when the Pātea Māori Club performs Poi E, or when the ALL BLACKS rugby team performs the Ka Mate or Kapo o Pango haka, but have we stopped to consider the extent to which Māori culture enriches our everyday lives?

  • We all sing with pride our national anthem firstly in Māori and then in English.
  • Pōwhiri (Māori welcoming ceremony) is now an accepted practice when dignitaries or important guests arrive into New Zealand.
  • All government departments have English and Māori names, and many have adopted Māori tikanga (customs).
  • Māori language is now an accepted language for proceedings in all our courts.
  • Many law firms, accountancy firms, banks, and major businesses in New Zealand feature a Māori or Māori liaison team.
  • Maimoatia, another song sung completely in te reo Māori, released during Māori language week, made it to number one on the iTunes New Zealand sales list.
  • Another song, Ana Hi!, has just been released to support our athletes at the Olympics.

Legislation exists to protect aspects of Māori culture, but is it enough?

Many New Zealanders would have gotten upset when they heard that overseas companies are using pictures of our Māori ancestors on shower curtains for commercial gain, or when seeing pictures and paintings of a Māori girl selling for significant sums of money overseas. Non-New Zealanders may not appreciate that commercial exploitation of Māori cultural elements is regarded as offensive in most cases.

In a recent case involving the use of a picture of an iconic Māori ancestor on a local beer product, the brewer asked who or where one should go to, to seek approval to use Māori culture. While the company should have known who to approach in this particular instance, that is not always the case.

Is it time for Aotearoa to develop its own regime that ensures our Māori culture is used with respect and in accordance with tikanga – a regime that helps to preserve the values on which Māori culture is based, and that ensures the integrity and uniqueness of our culture is not lost in translation?

These issues were discussed in the WAI 262 claim, and it seems appropriate that I raise these issues again 25 years after the WAI 262 claim was filed and five years since the report issued.

In that report, Justice Joe Williams described the claim as ‘the claim about mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and its place in modern New Zealand life.’ The claimants had argued that ‘mātauranga Māori has been marginalised and at times suppressed to the point where its very existence is now under threat’. The claimants sought relevant protection measures to ensure that mātauranga Māori would be available for future generations.

The report proposed a new commission that would serve a number of roles, including administrative and adjudicative functions, but would also be able to approve or deny any proposed commercial use of aspects of Māori culture.

There is no doubt this commission would have helped the beer producer locate the appropriate iwi (Māori tribe) to approve its proposal. So why haven’t we adopted the recommendations in the report?

Perhaps the answer lies in joining some of the dots

We can find support for a commission of this kind in other parts of New Zealand’s legislative framework.

Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which New Zealand signed in 2010, states that ‘indigenous people have the right to maintain, control, protect, and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions … have the right to maintain, control, protect, and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions’ and that ‘States shall take effective measures to recognise and protect those rights.’

The purposes of Te Ture mō Te Reo Māori 2016 (The Māori Language Act 2016) are to affirm the status of Māori language as:

  • an indigenous language of New Zealand
  • a taonga of iwi and Māori
  • a language valued by New Zealand
  • an official language of New Zealand

and to provide means to support and revitalise the Māori language.

Couldn’t we establish the commission proposed in the WAI 262 decision as part of meeting our obligations under UNDRIP or as a means to support and revitalise the Māori language under Te Ture mō Te Reo Māori 2016?

Let’s not forget that our laws do currently protect small aspects of mātauranga Māori or Māori culture.

The Flags, Names, and Emblems Act 1981 provides that certain words and phrases cannot be used commercially without consent. The act was initially introduced to protect words such as ROYAL, GOVERNMENT, and ANZAC, but now provides similar protections for the Māori word RUAKURA and the Māori names for the Māori Batallion, TE OPE HŌIA MĀORI 28, TE OPE TAUA MĀORI 28, and TE HOKOWHITU MAORI 28.

The Haka Ka Mate Attribution Act 2014 requires any person who uses the Haka Ka Mate in a commercial manner to acknowledge Te Rauparaha as the composer of the haka and as a chief of Ngāti Toa Rangatira in a prominent manner.

In the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill currently before a select committee, the bill proposes special protection measures for the name Te Awa Tupua. If passed, no person can use the name Te Awa Tupua commercially without consent from Te Pou Tupua, the organisation established under the Bill to oversee management of the Whanganui River.

At present, it is necessary for iwi and hapū (sub-tribe) to negotiate special protection for minute aspects of mātauranga Māori. Is it time for Aotearoa to be an example to the world, and recognise the value of our Māori culture by introducing stronger protection and preservation measures? I think the answer is yes.