Rosemary McLeod: Maori culture on occasion

What with the herd of elephants in the livingroom, it's a wonder we can talk about anything that matters.

Try these: who pushed for changes in building standards that have left so many owners of leaky homes out of pocket and in misery?

Who - taking into account the long and tragic history of mining - decided to leave mine safety up to private enterprise?

How did the knowledge that there'd been earthquakes in Christchurch before, and there was a danger of liquefaction, vanish?

Anyone want to discuss the number of gay people prominent in the Labour Party? How about the lowering of the drinking age and what about the fascinating Asian bride phenomenon?

Then there's racism, by far the biggest elephant. Discussing that is a minefield: only the most suave of public servants have the bland finesse required. And then there are Maori.

It's a brave Maori who tells us in plain English about their feelings on - say - immigration policy. But a leaked Labour Department report tells us Maori are more opposed to immigration, and believe there are negative effects from it, than any other group.

Auckland university academic Margaret Mutu was reacting to that report when she said we should cut back on white immigration, in part on the grounds - she suggests - that those who come here from South Africa bring white supremacist attitudes with them.

So this is a surprise? You'd have to be pretty dumb if you thought Maori happily accept the flood of immigrants from all over the world who threaten their numerical status and possibly their influence in the future direction of this country.

If the statistics were reversed, and we were taking in brown-skinned immigrants from all over the Pacific in equal numbers, Pakeha here would soon speak their mind.

Or would they? Would they be cowed into silence? That seems to be the intention of complaints the Race Relations office has received about Mutu's comments. Mutu's university, where she heads the Maori Studies department, backs her right to free speech, as it is bound to do. But in the wider community it seems we'd rather see dissent squashed - for complex reasons, among them a petty, self-righteous desire for revenge over what's seen as special privileges for Maori.

Where's the harm in what she said? Isn't a head of Maori Studies, and chairwoman of her runanga, entitled to speak as an expert on Maori attitudes? Do we seriously want academics to shut up on demand? Have we forgotten what universities are supposed to foster, like enquiring minds?

Or have we mutely accepted that they're rightly just degree factories for whatever dull trade is currently in vogue?

Meanwhile, the aftermath of the bizarre 2007 terrorism raids in Tuhoe country is being played out with most charges dropped.

Among the final four people facing charges is Tame Iti, the apparently terrifying diminutive figure with full facial moko who in someone's mind is our version of Osama bin Laden. I await the evidence against him with interest. Iti is a great one for the theatrics of protest; we're familiar with the sight of his bare buttocks and, as he pointed out after an unattractive spitting and nose-clearing session at Parliament: "We were not there as a haka party performing for tourists."

But how we wish they would be just that, tame brown folk to wheel out on special occasions, when we could get sentimental about them for a few hours, then send them home again.

We love our Maori heritage - hakas and all - when it suits us. Where would the opening to the Rugby World Cup have been without their creative input? What we don't want to be reminded of is the little things like the 19th century land confiscations that simmer in the background of all our dealings with Maori and will wind up future Tame Itis for generations to come. Get used to it.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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