Beyond the Haka: how Māori culture is changing meetings

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Indigenous Māori culture is increasingly taking centre stage in conferences held in New Zealand, providing unique and innovative content, knowledge, and values. Rochelle Long reports...

Māori culture gives New Zealand a distinct identity on the international stage, but Māori involvement in conferences hosted in New Zealand is going far beyond the well-known hongi (pressing noses in greeting) or haka (war dance).

With an asset base worth over $50bn, Māori are rapid risers in the wider New Zealand economy. They are frequent innovators of new technologies and methods – whether that be in commercial areas like fisheries, tourism or food; or in education and health, where they have developed their own models of delivery that are improving outcomes.

“Increasingly Māori are taking centre-stage in business events and conferences, not just in the performance of cultural protocols, or as the natural entertainers they are, but as business pioneers who bring fresh thinking and provide inspiration and provocation, based on values and principles handed down through generations – values and principles that are increasingly relevant today,” says Karl Wixon, Partner & Creative Director, ARAHIA Pathfinders.

“Māori have a kinship-based relationship with their land and duty of care for it, and for all people who walk on it. This makes them great hosts as well as staunch environmental guardians, who will happily share their culture, philosophies and stories with all who care to connect.”

This was evident at the 2019 International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE) Conference, which brought 1,185 attendees from 73 countries to Rotorua in April 2019.

Discussions with local Māori leaders inspired the theme, ‘Waiora: Promoting Planetary Health and Sustainable Development for All’, explains Sione Tu’itahi, Executive Director of The Health Promotion Forum of New Zealand.

“Rotorua is New Zealand’s cultural heartland, with our Indigenous Māori peoples leading from the front in terms of governance, education, health, commerce, and community and iwi (tribal) development. New Zealand is recognised as a world leader in terms of knowledge, research, and practice of Indigenous health promotion, and this was a central theme of the content,” Tu’itahi says.

“Health does not begin at the hospital. Health promotion works with communities and peoples where their health begins: where they live, learn, love, work, play and pray.”

Trevor Shilton, a member of the board of the IUHPE based in Perth, Australia, said: “The Māori culture has got so much in common with health promotion when it comes to respect for the planet, respect for land, water, air, and the central importance of family. They're all important Indigenous values that the rest of us have a lot to learn from.

“It was terrific as a visiting Australian to see the themes unfold. I was particularly interested in seeing the complementary aspects between the Māori culture and our international experts; hearing things that are brand new and hearing things that are hundreds of years old.”

Māori have a kinship-based relationship with their land and duty of care for it, and for all people who walk on it. This makes them great hosts as well as staunch environmental guardians, who will happily share their culture, philosophies and stories with all who care to connect.” Karl Wixon

Dr Mihi Ratima, Taumata Associates, editor of the The Waiora Indigenous legacy document released at the conference – a first for the event – adds: “Planetary wellbeing for me is about understanding that our planet is a living being, that we are part of the natural ecosystems, the natural environment, and that we need to start thinking about that, and we need to act like that.”

That perspective is echoed in the organisation of the upcoming 11th INTECOL International Wetlands conference, which will be held in Christchurch in 2020. It is expected to bring some 1,000 experts from around the world to discuss best practice in wetland research and management.

Local ecologist and wetland expert, Dr Philippe Gerbeaux from the Department of Conservation’s Freshwater team, says: “The theme that was accepted for the conference – traditional knowledge and innovative science in wetland research and management – reflects the high regard the international science community for New Zealand’s Mātauranga Māori approach, which underpins our policy, science and management needs,” he says.

“Bringing experts from all around the world will generate some good discussions and outcomes on sustainability practices for our existing wetlands and how to re-develop wetland areas where they can protect us against floods and pollution.”

The strong reputation of Māori in the Indigenous Studies space, the strength of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s Indigenous culture and the ability to incorporate the local Māori community into proceedings made 2019’s Native American & Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) Conference an overwhelming success. Held for the first time outside the United States, Canada and Hawai’i, the edition hosted at the University of Waikato in Hamilton attracted a record 1,872 registrations.

Professor Brendan Hokowhitu, Dean of the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato, was instrumental in securing the event, which incorporated 257 sessions from 900 presenters over three days. Themes included Indigenous leadership, sovereignty, justice, health, biosecurity, and the State removal of Indigenous children from their families.

“Māori have been seen as leaders in the Indigenous Studies space because of the general perception that Māori culture is strong and prominent in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s life, culture and politics,” he says. “The strong Māori cultural renaissance over the last 50 years has made Māori Studies a significant site of not only language and cultural revival, but also of cultural studies and political and socio-historical research and analysis. So, from the perspective of other Indigenous peoples, they are interested in what we’re doing here and how we've done it.

“The pōwhiri (ceremonial welcome) was extremely emotional and simply beautiful. The karanga (call of welcome) to begin, followed by whaikōrero (speeches) and waiata (songs) from Indigenous peoples from all over the world was so powerful and beyond words. The conference was unique because of the manaaki (hospitality) we as hosts demonstrated, which was as simple as providing kai (food), food for thought, laughter and song, through to the poroporoaki (farewell) dinner which was a wonderful showcase of Māori talent.”

Other recent conferences in New Zealand – including The Australasian Animal Studies Association (AASA) Conference 2019 in Christchurch and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (ILGA) World Conference 2019 in Wellington – have hosted their events based upon tikanga Māori (Māori values and practices). These include beginning each day with a karanga (call of welcome) and karakia (traditional Māori incantation), through to decolonising the conference’s organisation, speakers and content and prioritising indigenous voices.

Dr Mihi Ratima, Taumata Associates, notes: “It's critical that we attract conferences to New Zealand because we have distinctive ways of doing things, drawing so much on Māori worldviews – and that's world-leading thinking. Bring international thinkers and doers here, let them listen, and let them go out into the world around the world and make change drawing on our knowledge. We've got so much to contribute, let's share it.”

Māori values in practice at conferences: (from ILGA 2019)

  • Mana Motuhake | Autonomy and Leadership - Respect between each organisation of their respective skills, experience and motivation
  • Whānau | Intergenerational Roles and Responsibilities - The strength of intergenerational collaboration
  • Manaaki Manuhiri | Honouring Our Guests - Providing a warm welcome to all and valuing diversity
  • Whanaungatanga | Extended Relationships - Providing solidarity and building on relationships and understanding
  • Pārekareka | Having Fun!

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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