Editorial: Nod to Maori culture not much to ask

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Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

A predictable torrent of outrage greeted Te Papa's request that pregnant or menstruating women should not go on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of its exhibits.

Critics said such a policy was based on superstition and decreed scornfully that it had no place in modern society. They could have afforded to be a little less strident.

In much of the criticism there was an unfortunate echo of a cavalier disregard for matters of Maori spirituality that arrived with the first European settlers and continues to flourish in some quarters. Surely it should not be too much to make a small nod to Maori culture.

Most of the critics were clearly unaware of this aspect of the culture. Maori asked for the Te Papa policy because the Taonga Maori collection is included in the tour, which will be undertaken next month by regional museum staff.

Items in the collection have been used in battle and to kill people. Maori regard pregnant or menstruating women as sacred, and the policy is designed to protect them from the objects.

If an object is tapu, it is forbidden, and if the tapu is not observed, it is thought something bad will happen.

It is easy to ridicule such beliefs. They seem incongruous in this day and age and, if imposed broadly and rigidly, would clearly be discriminatory. But that is not the case. It may well be that many Maori women tend to disregard much of the practice, including not gathering food or going to the beach while menstruating.

Obviously, it would also be extremely difficult for Te Papa to police the policy. The temptation to mock should be resisted, however. Maori spirituality warrants respect, as is the case with matters related to Pakeha culture, or any other culture for that matter.

Those unable to do so probably adopt the same posture whenever the issue of wahi tapu - Maori sacred places - is raised. Often, this is in relation to the building of highways.

Most recently, it has cropped up with the recognition of wahi tapu in the new foreshore and seabed legislation, the Marine and Coastal Areas (Takutai Moana) Bill. Critics of this rail against the powers handed Maori wardens to police the sanctity of wahi tapu sites and the $5000 fine that may be handed those who trespass.

Wahi tapu, however, are no different from European graveyards or cenotaphs. They should be recognised in law and be suitably regulated.

And New Zealanders should be able to appreciate why their access to a beach may be hindered slightly. After all, even putting spirituality to one side, each could easily find aspects of their own culture that invite ridicule on the grounds of incongruity or irrationality.

Recognition of such aspects of Maori belief would involve no great sacrifice. It is important to note the Te Papa request was not directed at public attendance throughout the museum but a background specialist tour taking in the Taonga Maori collection.

Surely only the most dogmatic, those who want to ignore matters of Maori culture, could discern a real menace in this. The policy could easily become part of the national consciousness. Recognition is important, if only because the denial of such matters can confirm an arrogance that can, itself, be menacing to minority racial groups.

The Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister, Chris Finlayson, tried to play down the controversy over Te Papa's policy. He suggested it was really just a piece of advice that women could choose to disregard.

Belatedly, the museum adopted the same posture. If that, indeed, calmed the waters, it also largely sidestepped the issue. The Government has shown an aptitude for promoting inclusiveness. This episode was another chance to press the case for respect, not ridicule, in race relations. Unfortunately, it has been passed up.

- NZ Herald

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