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Thomas Tarurongo Wynne: Law doesn’t define what what it means to be Maori

Saturday 20 June 2020 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials


Thomas Tarurongo Wynne: Law doesn’t define what what it means to be Maori
Thomas Wynne's great grandparents, Kaitanu Duarte from Portugal and Tupuna Tanetuao. from Tupapa, Rarotonga. 20061916

OPINION: We should not cut off our akapapa any more than we should cut down our tupuna trees.

The sound of the buzzing blade of the chainsaw cutting deep through the marrow of a tree and then the sound of the chipper reducing that tree to mulch is common throughout Rarotonga –another tree gone forever.

Why? Sometimes for the sake of convenience, or simply because they are considered an annoyance.

Just this month two old utu trees were felled in Tupapa and one cut back for convenience, despite having lived for over 170 years.

Jean Mason wrote an eloquent piece on the utu tree still standing at Takitumu School and its significance for us as Maori. For when we cut a tree down we cut down also a story, a piece of history, a witness to sometimes hundreds of years of our being here and flourishing.

And here we are considering whether we should take that same chainsaw to the most significant and oldest tree for us as Maori, and that is our family tree, our sacred and ancient akapapa.

This sacred tree that determines who we are, who we are connected to and that we are actually of Maori decent is being considered by some to be a tree that should be chopped and its branches trimmed back for the convenience of definition or as some have mentioned because those branches do not live here in Raro or simply not pay taxes so they should not be included.

Since when did we qualify our belonging to this sacred tree by where we took our first breath, by where we lived for a season or seasons in our lives, or by how long we have been away from our home land, our Ipukarea.

This sacred tree, that we have relied upon for shelter and shade, for land, titles and most importantly for identification, is dynamic and changing, like branches that grow in many directions.

And yet some suggest we cut branches off and trim that tree back so that only certain branches or parts of the tree can grow.

Or is it that in today’s world we are asked to balance our traditional views on this ancient tree and meet that with modern 21st Century complexities?

Lynnsay Francis yesterday covered this off well when she said, identity like culture is fluid and complex and changes all the time.

Polynesians have multiple racial ancestries, and we see this every day clearly demonstrated in traditional family names like Allsworth, Heather, Peyroux, Hosking, Brown, Wichman, Henry, Cuthers and Wynne – all speak of change to our akapapa and the adaptation of other names and cultures into our own so much so we consider them our own without question.

Famous Pacific author Albert Wendt said: “I came to feel very uncomfortable with terms such as traditional, folk history, folk art. Colonial scholars and researchers used them whenever they referred to us but not to their cultures.”

Traditional, said Wendt, inferred our cultures are so tradition-bound they were static and slow to change; that they weren’t dynamic and growing and changing.

Lynnsay also said in her article, “One only needs to look at our past history and the external influences that have shaped our society. Our ancient customs, attitudes and beliefs have changed through diffusion, intermarriage with people of different races and contact with other cultures.”

Our culture, and traditions are fluid and not static, and this idea was captured when Sir Geoffrey Henry spoke of culture not being something kept in a harbour and instead something dynamic and on an ocean of change.

For when I look into the blue, hazel and brown eyes of my grandchildren, I know they are Cook Islands Maori, not by a legal definition or someone else’s determination of who is and isn’t, but simply because as I look at them I see myself, my mother and my grandmother and 23 generations back to Vakapora Katea te Hora Tangaroa Tuna Ititi and his wife Takupekupe.

Because that’s actually what it means to be Maori.