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Cultural death by apathy

By Stephen Hagan - posted Wednesday, 2 July 2008

On a chilly evening in the small east coast community of Nuhaka in the North Island of New Zealand on May 29 I queried my wife Rhonda if we had in fact underestimated the weather. The Maori International Film Festival program which we were attending identified the first event of the four-day festival as an invitation only dinner for film makers and festival patrons at the Kahununu Marae.

Standing in front of the impressive Marae as dusk shadows gave way to the dimness of night I stood proud beside Rhonda under street lighting as we anticipated out first official Maori welcome ceremony.

However, what I wasn’t prepared for on this auspicious occasion was the lingering wait we had to endure for the host to arrive. And as such the delay had to be tolerated outside the Marae perimeter as Maori protocol forbids the entry on to the Marae grounds until summoned by female elders.


And as we waited the temperature dropped sharply from low double digit figures hastily towards sub-zero readings.

As we patiently stood on the side of the road we were warmed by the generosity of spirit of the guests in the official party who greeted us with their traditional hongi (rubbing noses) greeting - not to be confused with hangi (Maori feast).

When the host finally made his entrance onto the quiet residential street of the smallish community of a couple hundred people the female elders called out for their warriors and guests to enter the grounds of the Marae.

I walked closely with the men and Rhonda took her position with the women. On entry to the Marae I was steered towards the front row of seats in the middle of the large room. As the front row filled the second row was soon taken up by other men.

I was none the wiser as to the seating arrangement but must say I felt honoured to be sitting in close proximity to the host elders facing us on the other side of the room. The seating arrangement was a mirror image of our side with men occupying the front row and women taking their place at the rear of the Marae.

Not once did the elders speak in English. The interesting process of elders speaking first (inexperienced to the most experienced), followed by their female relatives leaving their seats to stand next to him to conclude his address by singing a Maori song in unison, generated by his insightful words, was a marvellous sight and one I will always cherish.


I wanted so much to ask the gentleman sitting adjacent to me to interpret in English what was being said, or at least have him explain what the order of official business was. But in this instance I was hesitant as everyone looked so silently respectful of proceedings that I dared not speak in case I breached their cultural protocol.

All of a sudden the host elders appeared to have completed their formalities and with an acknowledging nod of his head in their direction Mayor Meng Foon of the Gisborne District Council stepped off to the right and commenced his official response in Maori, gesturing to elders and other dignitaries present in the Marae.

What troubled me even more as I sat totally unaware of what was being said, was the fact that I had only met Mayor Foon and his elegant wife, both of Chinese descent outside in the car park, and now he was on his feet speaking fluent Maori as if it was his first language. To make things even more worrying for me was that Mayor Foon concluded his long address with the customary Maori song.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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