For Maori people, there is a place of sacred reflection called the marae, in this building they spend time with their hapu (sub tribe) and discuss matters that affect the community. Since the place is sacred, it only makes sense that the structure that encapsules such sanctity is also highly respected.
Such is the case of the marae, which is constructed with columns on the sides called pous. Each of these columns holds a different meaning and is carved to represent a specific chapter of the hapu’s history or geneaolgy.
In some maraes the pous don’t just represent the tribe’s ancestry, but also New Zealand’s history. The marae I have had the pleasure to visit is located within the Mount Albert Campus of my university, called Unitec Institute of Technology, and because it is located in the grounds of a tertiary education institution, the carvings in the building are very representative of the country’s history and Maori development up until now.
Along the walls of this marae you can see carvings that represent the eldest ancestors of the first Maori navigators that touched New Zealand, the process of the creation of the world according to Maori mythology, and the first encounters between Maori and Europeans. One of the pous captured my attention because it reminded me of something I had seen or experienced before, but I wasn’t able to put my finger exactly on what it was. It was a familiar sight and at the same time it was strange and ambiguous. Finally it hit me, I was looking at the coallition between traditional thinking and colonization: the clash of Christianity and Maori worldview.
|Pou in Unitec Marae representing the arrival of Christianity in New Zealand.|
Of course if you look at this image you can identify Christianity right away…but can you? As far as my experience goes, when a civilization is colonized, a part of their original beliefs and ways of life are lost, but another part fuses with the beliefs of colonizers and a new culture is born. At least that is how I percieve what happened in my country (México) when Spanish conquerors and missionaries attempted to evangelize indigenous people.
So when I looked at the pou in the photograph I realized that the same process had probably taken place in Aotearoa (New Zealand) when English settlers brought Christianity with them to this beautiful country. And yet, it is not just the face of Christian religion that we see in this image. It is the face of a mixture of cultures and the result of such.
For starters, the name of this pou is “Ihu Kariati”, the Maori name of Jesus Christ. I know of religious symbols that incorporate the culture of a specific people, like Mexico’s own Guadalupe Virgin, but the image of the Virgin in itself, remains the same. In the Maori case, the crucifiction is represented in a traditional way, hence, a Maori image takes the place of the christian messiah.
Furthermore, there are elements like the intertwined vines that are carved alongside the Ihu Kariati that represent the union between the two cultures: English and Maori. We are all well aware of the Christian beliefs and the worldview that accompanies such beliefs, but what about the Maori?
According to them, Rangi-the Sky Father- and Papa -the Earth Mother- where enclosed in an embrace for many years. Inside that embrace it was all darkness and emptiness. It was also in that hollow place where their six sons-also gods-where concieved and delivered to the world. However, the six of them where trapped and remained in darkness. One day, a faint ray of light was visible through the bodies of Rangi and Papa, and their sons realized they would have to separate their parents to be able to experience this light.
|A pou representing the embrace of Rangi and Papa. Picture by Nick Thompson. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pelegrino/3211243430/|
The brothers quarreled when the option of breaking their parents’ union was brought up, since some of them agreed it had to be done, and others did not. In the end, it was Tane, who thrusting his legs upwards, kicked Rangi (his father) repetitively, until he let go of Papa, becoming the sky. Rangi then became the earth, and the borthers started creating the different elements of the world.
The latter is the way Maori concieved the world to have been created, and in a large sense, still do. According to their beliefs, every Maori is descendant of Rangi and Papa, which is why genealogy and ancestry are considered of utmost importance. But now, this worldview has clashed with Christianity, and something else has developed. I wouldn’t dare classify this “other thing”, this new culture that is specific to New Zealand and that can be compared to no other in the world, however, that doesn’t mean it can’t be felt, percieved and experienced.
After thinking of all this, I couldn’t help but wonder what this means for Maori identity in New Zealand. Or waht it means for national identity in New Zealand as a whole. The answers to those questions are tricky, hard to find and often even painful to discover.
I believe this amazing cultural baggage beats in the volcanic heart of Aotearoa, and without it, New Zealand would not be the same.