Toku pepeha mai i te taha o toku Koroua,
Ko Mātaatua te waka;
Ko Putaūaki te maunga;
Ko Te Orīni te awa,
Ko Ngāti Awa te iwi.
Ko Ngāi Taiwhakaea te hapū,
Ko Taiwhakaea te whare tipuna,
Ko Te Pāroa te marae, me tāku tūrangawaewae,
Ko Whakatāne te rohe,
Ko Wairaka te wahine.
Toku pepeha mai i te taha o toku Kuia,
Ko Mātaatua te waka anō;
Ko Pouerua te maunga;
Ko Waitangi te awa;
Ko Ngāpuhinuitonu te iwi matua,
Ko Ngāti Kawa te hapū me te whare tupuna hoki,
Ko Oromāhoe te marae, me te papakāinga i te nōta,
Ko Taiāmai me Pewhairangi ngā takiwa,
Ko Rāhiri te tangata.
Nō Pāroa au.
Ko Jani Katarina Taituha Wilson toku ingoa.
Tēnā koutou katoa.
Toku toa, he toa rangatira
(My courage is inherited)
While the men engaged in reconnaissance on the land, stranded in choppy seas in a bay on the anchored Mataatua waka, my whāea tipuna (female ancestor) Wairaka, had to be incredibly brave; she defied tikanga (correct practice, procedures) by handling a paddle which at the time was part of the male domain, to save the other women and children of our iwi from drowning. Over my twenty years in the academic system, I – like many Indigenous researchers before me – have had to exercise courage in various forms, and I often have to draw on the strength of Wairaka to help navigate my way forward even in my research. To put my current research into context I must reflect back to my post-graduate projects in Film, Television and Media Studies; for my Master of Arts I wrote The Cinematic Economy of Cliff Curtis (2006) which experimented with mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) as a kind of scaffolding for analysing Māori in fiction feature film. The thesis focused on Curtis, an incredibly versatile, and the most successful Māori and multi-ethnic character actor. My doctoral thesis Whiripapa (2013) explored conventional film studies concepts: theory, audience and history, but I reframed them to centre on mātauranga Māori equivalents, namely tāniko, whānau and kōrero, all of which – as I will unpack further on – speak to the same core idea as the identified ‘traditional’ film studies counterpart. The purpose of the doctorate was to design tools for Māori and Pacific Islander (MAPI) film students to delve deeper into the discipline, as many of our cohort struggled, particularly with the purpose and relevance of theory. Whiripapa materialised largely from frustration that the MAPIs, the majority of whom either left film studies and/or tertiary study altogether, did not see themselves as relevant to the study of screens. My study – and all of my subsequent research and teaching since – begs to argue that. Māori have been present in New Zealand film since screen production initially ventured to Aotearoa, and over a century of participation on screens is unquestionably a significant contribution. Furthermore, according to the New Zealand Film Commission’s website (2019) more than half of New Zealand’s Top Twenty films of all-time are Māori-centred. The study of Māori-centred film, and why they are so important, should then be encouraged and valued, and this is a stipulation of the New Zealand Film Commission Act (1978). With the exception of a brief hiatus into public health, my research and teaching has been primarily concerned with experimenting with and refining aspects of Whiripapa, integrating it into classrooms, and the long-term goal, influencing creative screen production practices. To do so has taken much study, strategy and – because film/cinematic/screen studies is a predominantly a Euro/North American discipline – courage.
At this moment, my areas of research predominantly reside in three spheres. First, the ongoing examination of Māori in New Zealand feature film, and more recently across screen studies. The wider aim is to impact policy and funding outcomes, and consequently Māori and Indigenous filmmaker decision-making. As an example, I am currently writing an article which concentrates on the tikanga (Māori ways of operating) and kawa (marae protocols) aspects in the short film Kerosene Creek (2004, dir. Michael Bennett) which is partially set on a marae (traditional residence) during a tangihanga (funeral). Recalling some of the unpublished materials from my doctoral studies, my Ngāi Taiwhakāea hapū (subtribe) responded to the film and were uncomfortable with various elements. The essay demonstrates how these fundamental mātauranga Māori concepts can be utilised as robust tools of critical analysis and demonstrates how each hapū are likely to have distinct readings on these key aspects according to the tikanga and kawa we were or were not raised within. Ngāi Taiwhakāea views for instance may starkly diverge from that of the Ngāti Rangitihi people who hosted and assisted in the film’s production, and to whom the filmmaker Bennett connects. Developing distinct hapū close reading/critical analyses in such a way aims to empower Māori screen scholars to read film through their own diverse worldviews. This is more robust than a Māori person conducting a close reading perhaps through production analysis or reception theory, because we must understand and show we can utilise both sets of foci. The potential impact publications such as this could have, is to consider whether films like this is consciously produced in, by and for Māori audiences (Henry & Wikaire, 2013) who are aware of how tikanga and kawa function, or for a non-Māori audience who aren’t.
Second, motivated by my long-time love affair with kapa haka (Māori Performing Arts) is my interest in the ongoing evolution of screened kapa haka. In particular, I focus on the impacts of screen production on the art, on the performances and performers, both the positive and the not so. A preliminary critical historical analysis of what is hoped to be a wider, funded project was presented at the Screen conference in Glasgow, 2019. The purpose of the research aims to generate rangatahi (young) interest in continuing to tertiary education, and in particular to post-graduate level of study where they can contest the many writings about kapa haka by non-performer academics, many of whom observe the art, but do not and would likely never, practice it. Many rangatahi are, or have been, very much engaged with screened kapa haka as competitive regional and national kaihaka (haka performers), and therefore are participants, theoreticians, observers, composers, fans and fiends of an important and intrinsic part of contemporary Māori popular culture. The potential project encourages kaihaka to pursue what they love and are good at to the highest academic level, and to transition their practice into research. In this, academia benefits from the innovative creative practice of kaihaka, kaihaka too can contribute to advanced research, and the development of research skills will feed back into our beloved art.
Lastly, I’ve lead MAI-ki-Aronui, the AUT arm of a national Māori and Indigenous network for doctoral and potential doctoral students since 2017. MAI-ki-Aronui is an unapologetically kaupapa Māori collection of Indigenous disciplinary ‘misfits’ who meet regularly to support each other through manaakitanga (kindness, generosity, showing respect), whanaungatanga (building and maintaining relationships) and kotahitanga (unity). We can often be heard practicing our many waiata (songs) and haka, our Mangarevan ditties, Samoan pese (songs), an anthemic chorus in Spanish, and have a vision to learn more from each other. The ‘O. G.s’ (Old Girls, previous MAI-ki-AUT graduates) and I give ear, space and advice to students who experience challenges within the context of often being one of the first – and in some cases the first – Indigenous person in their discipline. In many more cases, MAI-ki-Aronui members are the first Indigenous people to design and pivot their research on cultural concepts, philosophies and knowledge in the discipline they reside in. The doctoral journey is incredibly isolating, but as Indigenous scholars pursuing a qualification in a Western education system, it can be even more so. Therefore, we must do all we can to ensure that these students have the necessary tools and encouragement to complete their studies to the highest quality, to leave a legacy, and to create space for those coming behind them, creating a kind of academic whakapapa (genealogy) that ensures resolute succession plans are in place for when we are gone and they remain. Consequently, my third area of research is exploring the building blocks of Indigenous academic excellence in tertiary education, which also hangs over from the travesty of having lost the majority of my MAPI colleagues from the University system.
I’m equally passionate about all of these trajectories because they push the boundaries of – and challenge – academia’s status quo. As a kind of tribute to this, I have a forthcoming book chapter called “Wairaka: Challenging the Status Quo” being published in a wider project Valuing Mātauranga Māori at the Interface (Ruru, Nikora & Calman, 2020) which comprises a number of vignettes written by Māori scholars who battle for new space in old disciplines. But I’m also mindful that challenging long-standing academic conventions requires the courage that I’ve inherited from my fearless kuia, Wairaka.
Potential of Indigenous research
Academic Indigenous research satiates both the academy and the community it represents and is therefore a holistic research strategy. When I wrote the first draft of my doctorate, my supervisor was on sabbatical. We’d discussed at length what my tasks were prior to her break. With this newfound independence, I wrote a film history that reflected events that took place in my tribal regions and I held whoever would read it to account for the hurt and suffering of our people. Needless to say, on her return, she read the first pages of the draft and was extremely disappointed because that was NOT what we had agreed the project was. She argued that it was “too Māori” a comment that I was initially offended by. However, she explained that it may have gotten through examination if I was pursuing a doctorate in Māori Studies, but I wasn’t. In order to be situated in and to change Film Studies, I needed to prove that I could comprehend, articulate and utilise the existing disciplinary conventions, and marrying the two became the central challenge of the last year of writing the thesis.
We were taught that Media Studies hinge on understanding production, reception and text. In brief, production is about the fundamental aspects that together lead to getting something to the screen/broadcast or the processes involved in constructing messages; reception is how the intended messages are perceived by the audience for whom the messages are primarily composed; and the text is what is screened/broadcast and how the messages may be interpreted (Horrocks, 2004, pp. 18 -31). Similarly, Film Studies pivots on some hefty continental theory (mostly psychology and philosophy), audience and history. Contrastingly Te Ao Māori comprises theories that are palpably demonstrated in all of our traditional arts, for example in our whakairo (carving), raranga (weaving) and tukutuku (lattice patterns) and is the heart of all of our many forms of waiata. Every artistic representation tells a story that emanates from the oral traditions; history, theory and practice are brought together through the arts. It made sense then, to develop a methodological and theoretical framework on one of our ancient arts, and I chose tāniko, our traditional fine-finger weaving.
For the audience study, hapū are interrelated whānau (families) who traditionally would reside together on papakāinga (village); wānanga (intensive learning of traditional skills and knowledge) were conducted within the hapū where people of all ages would learn amongst each other. Directing whānau as a hapū-centric viewing audience therefore became a viable equivalent, and an opportunity for the hapū to express their distinct views about characterisations constructed supposedly to reflect them on the screen. I based four hunga mātakitaki (viewing groups) in my two predominant tribal areas in the Bay of Islands (Ngāti Kawa) and in the Eastern Bay of Plenty (Ngāi Taiwhakāea), and members of my hapū responded to a selection of Māori-centred film screenings.
And lastly, an old whakataukī (proverb, aphorism) says “ko te kai a ngā rangatira, he kōrero” (the food of chiefs is oratory), as it is believed that the true mark of leadership isn’t what goes into one’s mouth, but what comes out of it. Kōrero, in the sense that our culture is orally transmitted, is a mātauranga Māori equivalent on which I could build an appropriate history, shaped by the views and voices of the whānau. How my hapū responded to the films became the historical thread in the research.
Exploring film/cinematic theory, audience and history – or indeed other disciplines – via corresponding mātauranga Māori or mātauranga taketake (Indigenous) concepts can lead to a deeper cognisance of the conventional academic qualities required to satisfy the university. At the same time, the research maintains authenticity in the eyes of the whānau who were in the scholar’s life well in advance of the research, and certainly, well beyond it. Indigenous research is significant because when drawing on and framing our research in cultural concepts, they are guides passed down from our ancestors.
Transdisciplinarity is by no means easy; as illustrated in the previous section, Indigenous scholars often straddle both a discipline and a community. The Indigenous researcher is essentially the negotiating conduit, who must make every effort to ensure both parties are satisfied with how they are framed. An unquestionable challenge is when the discipline and community are in disagreement or misunderstand each other. Here, the researcher must present themselves as an envoy within both, which can be an extremely uncomfortable situation. For instance, presenting one’s self to the whānau for the first time in a professional capacity can be tricky and has added pressures because although you are a relation to the participants, you also want something from them. When witnessing you in your role as a researcher they are likely hoping your conditioning and commitment as kin is far more devout than what appears to be ‘writing a book’. Here, Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (2006) ethical research protocols are important, and they are:
- Aroha ki te tangata (a respect for people).
- Kanohi kitea (present yourself to people face to face).
- Titiro, whakarongo… kōrero (look, listen… speak).
- Manaaki ki te tangata (share and be generous hosts).
- Kia tupato (be cautious).
- Kaua e takahia te mana o te tangata (don’t trample on people’s honour).
- Kaua e mahaki (don’t flaunt yourself) (p. 120).
Further on, Smith says when you are presenting yourself as a researcher, the participants are considering whether or not you are a ‘good’ person (ibid., p. 120). It is even more important to present one’s self with humility when it is your own whānau, to be reliable, to stay consistently involved with whānau events (birthdays, funerals, unveilings and such) and to keep accountable with goings on in the project so that they don’t feel used or exploited. The relationship goes beyond the research and must be cherished and protected above all else. This is a foremost distinction between Indigenous research and non-Indigenous; non-Indigenous can simply move to the next project, whereas Indigenous researchers are likely to have to front up to that community on a frequent basis long after the project has closed off and reported on. Indigenous researchers simply don’t have the luxury of walking away.
Beyond the challenge of straddling roles as an Indigenous researcher and an Indigenous community person, as mentioned there can also be complications between academia and the community. For example, I presented The Seekers (1954, dir. Ken Annakin) in our whare tupuna (ancestral house) to 6 adults and 5 adolescents in my Northern whānau as the final film on the agenda of our two-day wānanga. As I had for all of the preceding films over the weekend, once the credits began rolling, I readied myself to take notes and record the dialogue. However, as the film was one of the less-than-savoury portrayals of Māori, the whānau didn’t want to respond, and rather than ‘say’ what they really thought, they performed it: without saying a word, they immediately began tidying the whare (house) and readied it for the next meeting. In the following days, I headed back to University and confessed to my supervisor about the silent response to The Seekers, and she pitied that there was ‘no data’ proffered about this very controversial film. But having done preliminary research about silent responses to film, I discovered that the exploration of non-verbal or gestural reactions was minimal, and decided I would reframe the silent reaction to The Seekers as a political response through which I could then explore possible reasons why it was so, and support my hapū even though it could appear that I was defying the discipline.
The most important elements within this, was that silence was acknowledged as a valid response, and the tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) of the hapū was sustained rather than simply ‘binned’ as non-data. Herein lies a misunderstanding between Film Studies which saw the reaction as a non-response, and te ao Māori which pivots on not trampling on people’s mana, to be generous, to show respect, to really listen, and all of the temperaments Smith (2006) touched on, which quite simply reflect common decency; perhaps less commonly practiced in academia. Indigenous researchers who do Indigenous research consistently traverse tight ropes: research versus relationships, and career versus relations, both of which are knotty, and neither of which are appealing. However, when tensions are resolved – much like walking on a tightrope – balance is a welcome relief, and this must be the aim.
A last challenge which I don’t have space to delve into too deeply, and at the same time don’t want to simply skirt around, is to address the issue of territorialism by Indigenous academics in power; this could be for example within institutional senior management or equally those who review early career Indigenous scholarly publications, and here I want to briefly focus on the latter. One major component of the academic’s job is to successfully publish their research, and many Indigenous scholars have had poor review experiences by unkind non-Indigenous and – more staggeringly – Indigenous reviewers, likely a practice in disciplinary patch protection and/or to remind the ‘newbie’ they are ‘baby academics’. As Māori academics, a major point of difference is that we are obligated to build Māori academic capacity through manaakitanga. The root of manaakitanga is that it is to urge another person forward by showing generosity, regardless of who they are or how we feel about them; although their mana is upheld as the ‘guest’, the ‘newbie’ or ‘the baby academic’, those who perform this important value also receive mana as the ‘host’ or ‘the experienced academic’. In short, manaakitanga isn’t so if it’s reserved only for people whom one likes, and if you show no mana, in return you don’t receive any.
A number of my early career Māori and Indigenous colleagues – and I too, experienced this as a new researcher – have been subjected to negative and sometimes underhand, personal responses to draft publications by respected senior Māori scholars. This is a very complex situation which counters manaakitanga. With this in mind, in response to the anxieties of some our MAI-ki-Aronui whānau, some of whom had encountered these behaviours, I share here a simple reviewing scaffolding which I encourage our members to utilise as a system that I’ve called ‘Reviewing with Manaakitanga’.
- Acknowledge the work and their courage – kia māia, be brave;
- Underline the work’s strengths – kia kaha, be strong;
- Highlight ‘developable’ elements (the weaknesses) – haere tonu, keep going;
- Guide a way forward – āwhinahia, assistance;
- Commend them and wish them the best – whakamanawatia, honour.
By utilising a scaffolding such as this, even if the commentary it garners is accompanied by a ‘rejection’, it aims to aid in the development of the researcher and the publication, and perhaps a successful submission in the future. Arguably, it does require a little bit of thoughtfulness and effort, however this could be a key practice to fostering an Indigenous academic future we aspire to be a part of. Academia does not need to remain the same, and Indigenous scholars are key to developing it into what it could be.
Importance of Indigenous research partnerships/collaboration
Screens, how and why they are manufactured, and what materials are produced to be shown on them is ever evolving. In their various iterations, screens are omnipresent in a high proportion of our lives; they serve many purposes: socialising, communicating and relaxing; they inform and educate us and are part of our work; they are leisure and within seconds can transform our pleasure to anger on repeat; we watch them, we permit people to watch us on them, as we build wanted and unwanted audiences. Screens can be awkward. Not too long ago, screens were clunky, heavy, and stationary; either in theatres, gaming parlours or in the corner of the sitting room where the furniture was arranged in direct relation to where it was positioned. But now we have screens in cars, on planes, buses, they are jumbo billboards at the traffic lights, and at sports fixtures, festivals and kapa haka/cultural competitions; we carry screens in our pockets, and we use them to schedule our lives on and around. Truthfully and disturbingly, screens are pervasive. They are not going anywhere. Studying what and who is on them, how, when and why we watch them is increasingly significant in this technological age.
At the same time, despite some attempts to make it not so, Indigenous people are also not going anywhere. For the most part, screens serve us by showing our histories, the vitality, dynamism, movement, the colours of our cultures, and of our skins. They proffer useful and throwaway knowledge to our rangatahi and taiohi (pre-adolescents) and build actively ‘informed’ citizens who have a universe of information at their fingertips at any time. However, there is also the damaging side of how Indigenous peoples are portrayed, the poor health and education outcomes, poverty, mental illness, suicide, violence and other criminal statistics that ultimately keep us far outside the mainstream and ‘in our place’. Mass media, which in the digital age hinges on screens as a central apparatus, reinforces power and it’s opposite, by exposing, repeating and archiving these into a history that we can either feel proud of or extreme whakamā (ashamedness, inferiority).
Māori are not the only Indigenous people to have been poorly represented in cinema or on various screens; it is also the case in a range of Indigenous communities. An international collaboration that I’m interested in pursuing when time and funding permits is based on Indigenous responses to portrayals of screened Indigenous people through Indigenous cultural concepts. There are very few Indigenous-based texts that are appropriate for high school students, to ensure that our rangatahi are not simply consumers of screens, but are critically aware and conscious, and equally critical thinkers about what they see. This would require Indigenous scholars to explore the various previously mentioned elements in screen studies, meanwhile hinging their responses on fundamental cultural concepts. A collaborative international Indigenous effort such as this could be useful and practical audio-visual/digital texts, and potentially significant cultural knowledge exchanges. Furthermore, the majority of online materials that show the pre-production, production and post-production processes are not presented by Indigenous people. I would love to exchange ideas about how these much needed resources could and should be produced, supported by influential Indigenous screen producers, teachers and researchers to ensure those who are instructing the up and coming screen producers reflect those who we are trying to support.
Kerosene Creek (2004, dir. Michael Bennett).
Seekers, The (1954, dir. Ken Annakin).
Henry, E., & Wikaire, M. (2013). The Brown Book: Māori in Screen Production. Ngā Aho Whakaari, Māori in Screen (for download) https://ngaahowhakaari.co.nz/brown-book/.
Horrocks, R., ‘Why study media production?’, in Media Studies in Aotearoa/New Zealand, eds L. Goode and N. Zuberi (Auckland: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 18–31.
Smith, L. T. (2006). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books Ltd/Otago University Press: London /Dunedin.
Wilson, J. K. T. (2006). The Cinematic Economy of Cliff Curtis. Unpublished Master’s thesis (FTVMS), University of Auckland: Auckland.
Wilson, J. K. T. (2013). Whiripapa: Tāniko, Whānau and Kōrero-based Film Analysis. Unpublished Doctoral thesis (FTVMS), University of Auckland: Auckland.
Wilson, J. K. T. (2020). “Wairaka: Challenging the status quo” in J. Ruru, L. W. Nikora and R. Calman (Eds), Valuing mātauranga Māori at the Interface. Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga/University of Otago Press: Dunedin.