Cultural Appropriation is a Pandemic

written by Sian Montgomery-Neutze 

In a recent discussion about cultural appropriation, someone asked me “So are you saying that artists should not make art about Te Ao Māori unless they themselves are Māori?

Everywhere we look, Indigenous imagery, language, symbols and culture are being misappropriated, mutated and sold off in the name of appreciation and diversity.

Cultural appropriation is a pandemic that must be stopped.

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, and other cultural elements of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society, often for personal or financial gain. It is different to cultural appreciation, where someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to connect cross culturally and broaden their understanding.

In a New Zealand context, cultural appropriation looks like cereal brands using a tino rangatiratanga flag to sell their latest paleo-friendly mix. It looks like muesli bar ads built entirely on racial stereotypes and recycled racist tokens from the 70s and 80s. It looks like Pākehā artists painting kuia Māori with nipple rings. It looks like the continued festishisation of wāhine Māori. It looks like companies cherry-picking the bits of Māori culture that they think will benefit them and their organisation while still upholding institutional racism and white is superior New Zealand. It looks like colonisation over and over again.

So why is cultural appropriation harmful?

As a direct result of the ongoing effects and inter-generational trauma associated with colonisation, te ao Māori is still very much in recovery mode. Only over the past few decades have certain aspects of te ao Māori become more ‘popular’ in mainstream New Zealand. But many Māori born prior to the 1990s will tell you this is a very recent and superficial development. They can tell you of not-so-long-ago memories of being called a dumb, poor, ugly Māori. They can tell you of teachers telling them they would never amount to anything. They can tell you that it’s taken them until now to feel worthy enough to learn te reo, or get a tā moko, or learn their whakapapa. Or maybe they’re still not quite there because they grew up in a world that disconnected and shamed them for who they are.

This is still very much a reality that many of our people live with.

What I see is that we as a culture have not had enough time to recover from the historical events of colonisation. Māori are working tirelessly to revive taonga Māori for ourselves and our descendants. We want to share these with the world, to teach ourselves and to encourage our own people to connect and learn about our culture. But while we are working tirelessly towards this aspiration, the outside world is taking what we create for themselves. It’s like knitting a sweater and having someone constantly pull the thread out from the bottom, except the thread is your culture and the sweater is your emotional, spiritual and cultural wellbeing.

Te Ao Māori is suffering as a result.

Whether or not it is the intention, cultural appropriation is in and of itself an act of colonisation and racism. When a person takes from another culture through cultural appropriation, they assume access to and ownership over the parts of that culture that suit their own gains. This is a direct reflection of their (either conscious or subconscious) inherent racism, white privilege, entitlement and perceived cultural superiority. Pākehā New Zealanders are in a position of privilege that allows them to do this, free from the prejudice, burden and inter-generational trauma associated with actually being Māori.

We, as Māori, should have the right to reclaim and practise our culture without the constant impending threat of the outside world assuming ownership over it.

Currently, cultural appropriation is treated as yet another Māori problem. Māori are the ones doing the work to fix the mess that is being created by Pākehā artists and companies across New Zealand and the world. It is exhausting, embarrassing and quite frankly, disgraceful. Disgraceful that there is still so much assumed ownership over Indigenous cultures. Disgraceful that many New Zealanders still refuse to do any work around unpacking their inherent racism and understanding their colonial past. Disgraceful that Māori are still expected to educate others at the drop of a hat, all day every day, for free. Disgraceful that so many people still refuse to understand or address the disparities and power imbalance between Māori and Pākehā in New Zealand that allow cultural appropriation to endure.

So when I was asked the question “So are you saying that artists should not make art about Te Ao Māori unless they themselves are Māori?

My response was “Pretty much. And until every Māori man, woman and child knows their whakapapa, can speak te reo if they choose, and has free and uninhibited access to all their taonga and Mātauranga Māori, I will feel no different.”

About the author

Sian Montgomery-Neutze is a Wellington based freelance artist, moko practitioner and writer/translator of Ngai Tara/Muaūpoko descent. She has worked as a Mātauranga Māori and Visual Arts teacher, resource and assessment developer (Ministry of Education), translator (Te Reo), cultural advisor and project coordinator. 

In 2010, Sian graduated with her Master’s Degree in Mātauranga Māori (Māori Studies). She then went on to study Adult Education and Whakairo (Māori carving) in 2011-2012. She has traveled and exhibited in various towns and cities throughout New Zealand, Australia, Rarotonga, America and Tāhiti. In 2015 she completed her Post-Graduate Diploma in Māori Visual Arts through Massey University, concluding the year with a solo exhibition in her tribal region.

Sian is part of the Toi Matarau Collective. Her work can be viewed here. 

Visit Sian’s website here