Another Way

If you’ve gone on study abroad to a different country, you’re probably familiar with international orientation – the multi-day event which briefs you on everything from academics to safety to which supermarkets are the cheapest. And, of course, there’s always a small language component, detailing common words and phrases that you might not be familiar with already.

On the second day of international orientation at Victoria University of Wellington, where I’m studying History this semester, we reached that last part. A slide ran through New Zealand English phrases (Sweet as, she’ll be right, jandals, etc.), most of which I was familiar with from having spent the past month here, and from my previous visits to the country.

Then they flipped to the next slide, and I was genuinely surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) by its contents. M­­āori Words and Phrases, the title said, and the page listed common terms like whakapapa (genealogy), and Aotearoa (lit. the Land of the Long White Cloud – what Māori people call New Zealand). The presenter also gave a few other offhand words in Te Reo, the Māori language, that might come in handy.

This intersected with my interests, since I’m studying Pacific History and may well write a thesis about differing indigenous and European interpretations of treaty documents. I’m even taking a class this semester on whakapapa. But it also caused me to reflect more deeply on the reasons I hadn’t seen this aspect of orientation coming, in a country that I thought of as predominantly European in culture, but which might not be best seen that way.

I can’t imagine international orientation at Amherst teaches new students terms or cultural aspects from the Pocumtuc or Abenaki native tribes – and, to be honest, I had to look those groups up to make sure they really had anything to do with Amherst and New England.

The reason my orientation went over Te Reo is that New Zealand – or New Zealand/Aotearoa, as it’s often called – genuinely strives towards a bicultural nation. The Māori people of New Zealand, like the indigenous people of many other post-colonial nations, suffered brutally under British colonialism. The divides that that process created still rear their heads today, with Māori people suffering systemic discrimination that leaves a disproportionate number in poverty, in prison, and with low life expectancies.

These issues are mirrored in other marginalized communities in other countries, such as the United States, where Native Americans have a life expectancy 4.4 years shorter than the population average.

Nonetheless, New Zealand’s commitment to biculturalism stands in stark difference to most other post-colonial nations with large and disadvantaged indigenous communities. New Zealand has three official languages, English, New Zealand Sign Language and Te Reo, and many street signs bear both written languages. In school, children study Māori culture and many learn Te Reo – there is a debate in New Zealand about making Te Reo education compulsory.


The logo of my university, complete with its Te Reo name.

Terms such as Kia Ora (hello, goodbye, thanks), Ka Pai (good), and Kai (food) have filtered their way into New Zealand English, such that there isn’t a single New Zealander who doesn’t know them. More complex ideas like whanau (family), waiata (songs), and haka (a war dance) are also well known. (For the record, these ideas are much more complex than my parenthetical translations imply).

Māori people play an important role in politics, with a number of seats in Parliament reserved specifically for Māori MPs. The founding document of New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi between Māori tribes and the British Crown, continues to hold sway – Waitangi Day is the New Zealand equivalent of July 4, and is revered by politicians of all stripes.

Even when there are disagreements, such as conservative prime minister Bill English’s spat with Waitangi Day organizers this year, all political figures make an effort to celebrate Māori culture – for English’s part, he visited an Auckland marae (a communal space or building) and spoke about bonds with the Māori community, something that even the leftmost Democrats in the United States rarely touch on with regards to our indigenous communities.

Also on the political front, since the 1970s the Waitangi Tribunal has sought to adjudicate land claims and reparations in money and land for Māori tribes and organizations dispossessed by colonialism. Embarking on a restoration process like this is crucial in restoring to Māori communities the resources they rightly own, and in moving forward towards a more equal and bicultural society.

The differences between American or Canadian treatment of indigenous peoples and the New Zealand method are manifold. At their heart, however, they come from different aims – one seeks to brush aside past injustices, or at most grudgingly acknowledge them without proposing any sort of restitution, while the other strives to build a bicultural society and nation.

The fact that Amherst only last year shook off the burden of the Lord Jeff mascot shows that we, as a college community and as a country, have a long way to go. But with New Zealand as a model, and while eyeing New Zealand’s own mistakes and successes going forward, we ought to have hope that something more just is possible.

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