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Rākau Kōrero – respecting Māori culture

When Māori perspectives are not sufficiently valued there is a general suppression of the culture on the one hand and an appropriation of it on the other. GSM talks to Johnson McKay about how creatives can navigate the use of Māori culture in a meaningful and respectful manner…

— with Nā Johnson McKay @Ira

Johnson McKay MaoriWelcome to the first instalment of our new regular feature Rākau Kōrero—Talking Stick. In Māori tradition, a ceremonial carved walking stick—a Tokotoko, represents authority and the status of a speaker on a Marae. For GSM, the concept of Rākau Kōrero—is the stick will be passed from speaker to speaker to continue our discussion about Māori culture and Matauranga—traditional knowledge.

These kōreros are intended to provide some guidance and understanding of how Māori culture can be applied respectfully and appropriately to what we do as creative thinkers, business owners and educators. By following this path, we have the opportunity to create a more culturally inclusive and enriched national identity.

Māori culture as a Creative Cultural Force

There is a significant shift occurring in Godzone. Māori culture is emerging as a creative cultural force – invigorating our schools, public service and businesses. Our children learn Waiata. We regularly use Kia ora. And this year, New Zealanders come together for the first-ever official Māori cultural celebration—Matariki (Friday 24th of June). So what’s all the brouhaha about?

There are four core drivers.

First, the upcoming generation believes in justice and equality. Most importantly, they eschew the impacts of injustice on minorities. They demand products and services that are just and equitable. Thus putting pressure on businesses to respond in order to attract and retain customers.

Second, there be gold in them hills! As more iwi settle with the Crown, they become a significant economic force in New Zealand. This creates economic opportunity. The Māori economy is $48bn and growing.

Third, we’re not going to compete for tourism dollars if we are just another Canada, only further away. Our true uniqueness is in our indigenous culture.

And fourth, we’ve developed a culture in New Zealand where fairness is important. Many Kiwis do not know our nation’s history. But when they do, they realise how poorly Māori have been treated and want to remedy that.

Creating a Culturally Authentic Aotearoa

We have earnest people working to create a fairer, more inclusive and supportive Aotearoa for our Tangata Whenua. Because that’s the right thing to do. So, we stand at a point in our history in which many of us are asking the question: How we can contribute to creating a fairer, more inclusive and culturally authentic Aotearoa? One that embraces our indigenous language, stories, art and culture.

But there is trepidation. The fear of getting it wrong, offending or even worse, the ‘A’ word— Appropriation. The fear of cultural appropriation prevents many of us from getting involved.

Establishing Meaningful Relationships with Māori

In this article, we navigate this issue by exploring the three ‘M’s. Mana, Mārama Pū and Manaaki. These principles ensure we establish meaningful relationships with Māori to further our goals and theirs—together.

A genuine concern, that plays out time and time again, is the suppression and diminishment of Māori values while the dominant culture only extracts the parts with exploitable economic value. With this comes the accusation of ‘appropriator’. This shuts down genuine discussion about how to celebrate the mana and influence of Māori culture by businesses and brands. As a nation, we need to work our way through this.

Mana: Respect, esteem

When a person speaks Te Reo Māori correctly and with enthusiasm, it raises the mana of the language for both the speaker and the listener. This increases the acceptance of speaking Te Reo Māori anywhere.

In stark contrast, Ira (my company) was approached by a prospective client who had picked words out of a dictionary to use for their business name. It made no sense in Te Reo Māori. We advised the client that they had an incorrect Te Reo Māori name. Unfortunately, they decided to retain it. So how does this nonsensical application raise the mana of Te Reo? Where there is no care, there is no mana.

Māori have been asking politely, and now fervently, to help the language survive by employing it correctly. As more businesses see the economic value and feel good vibes of using Te Reo Māori, the mana of the language can be enhanced or diminished by the care taken. Our actions directly lead to the culture having more—or less value.

Mārama Pū: Critical Awareness

Aligned to the principle of mana is that of mārama pū. That we consider all aspects to ensure that we enhance the mana of Māori culture.

Recently, a Wellington business received a stiff bevvy of antagonism from some sections of the Māori community. They accused them of cultural appropriation by using Te Reo Māori to name their store. The argument was that the Te Reo name could be offensive (one possible translation was a private body part—enough said…). This potentially showed ignorance and a lack of cultural awareness by the owners when selecting the name.

However, in contrast, Te Taura Whiri I Te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission, supported the name because their intention was to honour the native language. And the Te Reo word in dispute has multiple meanings. One of which was appropriate to the nature of the business.

So the intention to enhance the mana of Māori culture was there. However, the store owners needed to know the potential reactions from the culture they sought to draw from. Unfortunately, they naively assumed their preferred word meant the same thing to everyone. They didn’t consult deeply enough to understand diverse perspectives. Without true insight, we may offend, confuse or simply be irrelevant to our customers.

To those Māori voices who criticised the business. I propose they also lacked appropriate mārama pū or the critical awareness to see that they are making it harder for wider New Zealand to embrace the culture when they rubbish those that are making an honest effort. These Māori critics had to misrepresent that the word had only one meaning to find a negative angle, instead of truthfully acknowledging that it has many meanings.

Perhaps in this situation, both Māori and non-Māori needed to exercise more critical awareness to ensure their advice and actions raise the mana of Te Reo Māori.

Manaaki: Reciprocity

If critical awareness creates understanding and mana guides our intentions, then manaaki is the final piece to ensure we do not appropriate culture..

Manaaki is the process of sharing, giving and enhancing relationships. Of giving more than taking. It recognises that relationships are not just singular transactions. Reciprocal relationships strengthen both sides and provide maximum value.

Speaking to a friend, I asked him how much his Mataora cost (facial tā moko tattoo). He replied that ‘cost was not discussed’. Instead, you provide the best you can to reciprocate the tā moko artist for their knowledge and talent.

It takes genuine integrity not to leverage your power through bartering the lowest price but instead to act with the best intentions for the other party. Finding what is of value to the Māori with whom you are collaborating is an important part of critical awareness. A business model that seeks to reciprocate—not appropriate—is about creating a values driven organisation. One that acts with integrity. Surprisingly, this is hard for many organisations who see Māori culture as a commodity for sale at the lowest price—rather than valued as a cherished taonga (treasure). We don’t ask our surgeons to perform life saving surgery only to beat them down on price. Why do we do this to our Māori knowledge experts?

A Relationship of Trust

For those who wish to bring Māori culture into their marketing and branding, genuine reciprocity builds relationships of trust.

And with trust comes understanding, which leads to mārama pū—critical awareness.

This enables both parties to work together towards mana enhancing solutions.

Simply extracting something of value with no return is what Māori are resisting. Māori want to know that if knowledge is shared, it is enhanced not diminished.

A Matter of Choice

We live in a more transparent society in which people can see through a corporation or individual that abuses its position of power. Because of this we can choose to rally to those who engage with genuine integrity—calling out the fakers and the takers.

  • Being good at business starts with being transparent and authentic. We achieve this by gaining insight and understanding – Mārama pū.
  • Respond with genuine solutions – Manaaki.
  • Act in a way that adds value and enhances – Mana.

Noho ora mai rā.
Nā Johnson McKay
Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa

GSM would like to thank Johnson McKay for providing his insights in this first article for Rākau Kōrero.

If you would like to continue this discussion on culture please contact

This article was originally published in GSM18. To read this, and other great articles, purchase this issue here.

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