• Dr Rawiri Taonui is professor of Māori and indigenous studies in the college of humanities and social sciences at Massey University.
We should all respect how Alan Duff has overcome the past and become a gifted writer. The despairing tones of Once Were Warriors reminded me of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer prizewinner The Grapes of Wrath. I saw the movie three times.
Many of my fellow Maori academics decried the film as reinforcing negative stereotypes. In contrast, most of my non-university Maori whanau loved seeing their lives on the big screen.
I stood in the latter camp having grown up with alcoholic adults, home violence, an absence of intervention from extended family and elders - most cut off or living the same life, spent time inside as a young man and narrowly averted walking the same path as my role models. Today my wife and I raise three children, none has seen a drunken Maori or the bash, each a miracle.
The ending of Once Were Warriors, which attributed Jake the Muss' torment to ancestral slavehood, under-explains Maori domestic violence and child abuse. Current research, for example Mana Tamariki, shows pre-European Maori parenting was much less violent, so why the change?
Writers, like their texts, are works in progress so I read Duff's columns on this topic with some interest. I agree with him that "Real men don't beat up kids" ( May 24). Real men cherish, foster and protect children. However, the more excoriating "No more excuses - let's foster aspiration" (August 12) argued Maori use colonisation as an excuse to explain away abuse. That is patently inaccurate. The comparisons Duff offers, the Japanese invasion of China and wars in Europe, are not helpful. We do not have data about subsequent child abuse from those events. Neither did they result in the permanent long term economic, geographic and cultural dislocation that typifies high intergenerational child abuse communities.
Child abuse rates are disproportionately higher among colonised indigenous in settler societies and among other peoples who suffered loss of land, culture, language and identity, transportation of populations for work either by slavery or urbanisation, concomitant breakdowns in extended family networks, isolation such as indigenous reservations or government housing projects and on-going racism from dominant groups.
Duff connects child abuse, colonisation and anger but doesn't join the dots.
Exacerbated by poverty and alcohol and drug abuse, this is what underpins high intra-family cycles of abuse. The Scots in Europe, African communities in South Africa, African American communities in the United States and the indigenous communities of North America, Australia and New Zealand became the poorest of the poor and have the highest child abuse rates relative to the society within which they live.
This is their reality not their excuse.
Duff's "Time to break silence on Maori violence" (May 17) made a valid and self-evident point: speak up. However, the opprobrium there and in "Maori must help Maori to fly high" (July 19) that claimed Maori leaders utter meaningless platitudes while loafing around in Koru lounges, was unfair.
Some of our leaders are engaged in self-enrichment, the majority are not. Virtually all pre-settlement and post-settlement tribes, and other Maori community organisations have emerging or robust programmes in education, employment, health and youth welfare. Their strategic and operational plans make paramount the investment in the welfare of current and future generations.
The Iwi Leaders Forum's recent signing of the tribal leader Naida Glavish and Judge Carolyn Henwood's bilingual "He Oati mo nga Taitamariki o to tatou Whenua A Covenant for Our Nation's Children" exemplifies that commitment.
Duff's books in homes and schools are great programmes. But books do not advance change without being hands-on with the community of the afflicted. Large numbers of Maori work with communities 24/7 and more.
Duff also accuses radical leaders, such as Hone Harawira ("The bone headed fighter? No thanks", June 22) of being angry mongerers hung up on past grievance with nothing positive to offer. Harawira has a long record of protest alongside others, without which we would not have kohanga reo, te reo as an official language, iwi radio stations, Maori TV, Treaty settlements and Maori advisers in key areas - all vehicles for positive change. Harawira also has an exemplary and decades long community service record in youth focused sports clubs, marae, schools and other community groups.
Duff connects child abuse, colonisation and anger but doesn't join the dots. Colonisation and racism denuding peoples of dignity and wellbeing are processes that systematically apply anger. Target communities internalise that anger.
Those without understanding of the historical position express that anger by targeting the innocent, bashing family and abusing children. Some survivors of that disadvantage, but perhaps hurt or rejected when young, vilify their culture. Others who understand the historical dynamics turn anger into protest. Others, righteously indignant, attempt high-level change. They are our tribal and other community leaders.
Anyone who rises from the mire of a Once were Warriors life is a miracle. Anyone who works to emancipate others from that life is a miracle worker. A further miracle will occur when one of the most powerful writers in Maoridom connects the dark life he so vividly portrays with the reality of its origins.