Labour's cultural challenge — the taniwha term

Last year ended with much harrumphing about taniwha and wahi tapu. The National party, retreating into the depths of Southland, made fun and bogeys of these intrusions on progress.

That put culture at the centre of the power debate — which is where culture always is, as the government is finding out. Culture is its biggest issue by far for this year and for its second term.

The challenge is to find a way to fit two pre-eminent cultures into the power structure. Suppression of Maori culture, dominant cultures’ usual recourse in history, has failed. Modern official readings of the Treaty of Waitangi accord Maori culture a special, perhaps equal, place with “western” culture.

For most New Zealanders that is puzzling and for some enraging, the more so because most New Zealanders’ culture is post-christian and Maori culture is animist.

Animists believe all things, living or not, are interconnected. So Maori culture accords whakapapa to all things. A rock may be an ancestor, a river a relation.

This is not unique to Maori. A visiting native American (indian), Leroy Little Bear, explained it in those terms to a conference in Wellington in November.

Animism is a way of making sense of a world in which the inexplicable happens frequently. A death from disease or a crop failure seems to be the work of invisible forces — forces in some way connected to humans and all things and needing to be propitiated.

Post-christians live in a world which science has explained. A drought or a disease is not the work of mysterious forces — not even of the christian God. The mechanisms are known and science provides counter-mechanisms. The battle against global warming is a high-profile example of this know-all science.

Hence the decline of the christian God. If science can explain and fix, who needs God?

So post-christians, possessing an explanation of phenomena which baffled and battered peoples of earlier ages, are baffled that Maori cling to, let alone take seriously, the existence of taniwha.

Older white New Zealanders can remember taniwha as a washing powder — a product of engineering, the name a marketing device.

Post-christians have pigeonholed much of Maori culture in mythology. They say myth mustn’t impede progress. The road must go through.

For many Maori it is not mythology. It is a deep part of the belief system.

Many Maori are also post-christian. If they remain firmly Maori culturally, they resemble those scientists who choose to believe and practise non-scientific christianity.

But the scientist’s belief in transubstantiation and the like is in the private sphere. Taniwha have intruded into the public sphere. Why?

Because preservation of culture is critical to maintaining a position in the power structure.

Prominent lawyer Donna Hall, proposing a “middle path” in a speech in Vancouver in October, stated firmly that “it is no more possible to divorce Maori culture from its political dimension than it is to separate the body of a person from their soul”.

To underpin the traditional authority of the hapu (tribe), the traditional culture of the hapu must be maintained and asserted. And unless the hapu’s traditional authority is upheld, the basis for dealing with and claiming Treaty partnership status with the Crown is undermined.

Turn that on its head. When government agencies — and local governments — come to “consult” with Maori, that means the hapu in respect of whose land the consultation is about. (Or, if the hapu is not in good shape, relevant whanau, but that is another story.)

And the consultation, if the Treaty is to be a partnership, must take seriously into account the cultural dimension. So taniwha and wahi tapu and all the special connections with features of the landscape must be respected and factored into the outcomes.

Without that, the deep reconciliation with Maori, which is vital if this society and economy are to work, won’t happen.

Accordingly, legislation is progressively embedding this into our political and economic life.

But how can you run a modern economy and society, one founded on science as it is has developed in industrialised and post-industrial societies, if stone-age animist beliefs must be accorded partner status with science?

Only with great difficulty and only if, as respect for Maori culture deepens and reconciliation is assured, Maori modernise — become “post-animists”, assigning taniwha and like traditional beliefs to the private sphere.

The initiative lies with the government. In its first term it did little more than retreat before each new Maori demand or assertion.

But now some senior ministers have got edgy or frustrated. They talk of a need to put pegs in the ground, draw boundaries around the Treaty and Maori influence.

Some task. Getting the two cultures in balance is the issue for this government’s second term. It is the biggest by far because it infuses all other issues, including the economy. You might call this the taniwha term.