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  • Mairātea Mohi

Culturally INcompetent

Māori students are starting to understand their place in a system that was not inherently made for them, and they’re rightly mad.

(Names have been anonymised for their own privacy)

Talking to Māori tauira and staff across [University of Auckland] campus, it has been found that the performative nature of practising tikanga is just not cutting it; they call for better access to Māori equity initiatives, better resources to help disenfranchised tauira and practising authenticity when dealing with tikanga.

An issue for Māori that arises at the forefront of learning within the current pākehā curriculum is that te reo Māori is not given its proper recognition as an official language. This is most evident in the mispronouncing of place and students’ names which in turns affects the inherent mana of the name. Butchering names has led students to losing confidence in self and culture, manifesting in self hate. One student recalls, “I internalised my own identity as being an inconvenience for other people. It came to the point that it no longer sounded wrong when people mispronounced my name.” This tauira struggled for a long time with her identity and it wasn't until she began working with tikanga-led initiatives like Tuākana did she start reclaiming the mana of her name and correcting any mispronunciation. “It is a gift passed down from my ancestors and I am old enough to understand its significance.”

Not giving te reo Māori the mana it deserves is said to have a ripple effect on tauira as it sets out the undertones of being second best from the very beginning. Mispronunciation shows a lack of care. This lack of care is said to have manifested itself into more performative rather than authentic use of tikanga. A noticeable example is the beautiful saying, “he waka eke noa” losing its meaning in the sea of good intentions and performative reo. An ancient proverb that champions kotahitanga and in its purest form tells everyone, “we’re in this together.” However, it lost its significance by its overuse. It was echoed that while we may all be in the same waka, for some of us we never even had a paddle to start with. It is the responsibility of the University to recognise these inequalities and remedy them.

Sentiments of impersonal actions have not only been felt by students but staff also. A member of the administration team here at the University believed te ahurea Māori, or the Māori culture to be one our greatest strengths. “Our mission statements aren’t that different from the University of Melbourne or Sydney. Why not ground ourselves in our culture and make our Uni stand out from the rest?” He often wonders why our culture receives better reception abroad, than it does here at home.

Students also believed that cultural competency encompassed cultural wellbeing. However, there is great frustration in the limited resources for Māori, the inequitable access to these resources and lack of Māori funding and Māori focused schemes.

A frustrated Māori Law student claims that, “there are people within the university whose role is to help navigate Māori students through the institution. However, the spaces allocated are not big enough and there aren't enough people within the space to give adequate help to all of our tauira.” These sentiments are only amplified in the absence of a Pouāwhina Māori at the Law School. A position that Māori Law students deemed essential for not only their academic success but their cultural wellbeing also. “Our Pouāwhina were expected to help out every Māori student within their faculty when there's only a small team of them trying to help — they’re stretched so thin.”

Cultural awareness has become a huge issue for students when it comes to official processes and cultural understanding. One student states, “There’s a huge issue with the lack of understanding and sympathy in regards to practising cultural competency. Like having to produce a death certificate when applying for an extension.” A lack of support in regards to students taking leave to participate in tangihanga, koroneihana or kaupapa Māori at home has left tauira having to pick a side. Whānau or school?

The distraught student who had just been denied an extension for a tangihanga continues, “we are expected to jump through hoops to prove eligibility for these extensions but are shown so much insensitivity and very little aroha and support around the actual kaupapa, which is the loss of a loved one.” She calls for better systems and believes it would not only benefit tauira Māori but all students as this is an issue that is not only Māori-focused but needs to be addressed for all students.

It was said that the people trying their hardest to incorporate tikanga into the school are unsurprisingly the Māori staff members. The institution's tuākana facilitators, pouāwhina and teaching staff make less than 7% of staff but have had the sole responsibility to incorporate Te Ao Māori in the University. Tuākana mentors who play the role of both staff and student, have found that they have been taking on the responsibilities of incorporating and upholding tikanga all on their own. It’s unreasonable to expect these students to lay the foundations of tikanga and culture in the University.

There is a huge individual effort with student leaders facilitating Te Reo Māori lessons with staff members on campus. While they commend the individual efforts of University staff they are often left wondering where senior staff members are. These students call for more leadership from the top and urge senior members to lead by example. They have seen the first hand effects of culture in the University and believe the institution to be more prosperous when the ideals of tangata whenua are at the forefront. They attribute the doubling of their class in just one semester as the success of culture in the University. Stories of self fulfillment, lost and found whānau and better reception with students have come out of these spaces.

The University has recently been making steps towards including tikanga into the curriculum from having karakia begin important meetings to student made waiata for the faculty. However, it must be reiterated that these initiatives are often student initiated and led. To stray away from the potentially performative nature of practising tikanga, students believed that the University must keep the ideals of kotahitanga and authenticity at the forefront and ensure they are acting inclusively. Frequent references to the teaching resource ‘Tātaiako’ were made and it was believed that the University should use this as a baseline for cultural competency around teaching with tauira Māori. It has been mentioned numerously that a good starting place would be to engage with more professional development staff to educate the institution about what tikanga looks like in its purest form, then go further into its facets and see how it is already within the University and where we can go from there to see tikanga’s better integration.

Māori need to keep in mind that the education system was not built for us, we do not fail within the system, the system fails us.


Mairātea Mohi (Te Arawa)

Originally posted in Craccum Magazine on July 26, 2021


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