ÉPATER LA BOURGEOISIE, or, in English, “shocking the middle-class” was something the decadent poets of La Belle Epoque worked at. Louche, promiscuous, absinthe-soaked and opium-addled, there was nothing Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud enjoyed more (apart from the aforementioned vices) than sticking their artistic needles into the stuffed shirts of France.
I sometimes wonder if some secret cultural connection exists linking these French provocateurs with Te Ao Māori. More and more these days, Māori leaders seem impelled to Épater la Pakeha.
An entirely forgivable impulse, some might say, given how easily so many Pakeha are shocked. Merely to suggest that Te Tiriti o Waitangi should be taken seriously is sufficient to set some Pakeha off. Others are shocked by the inclusion of more than a word or two of Māori in a news item, or the reciting of a karakia. The temptation to startle these fragile colonial creatures must be hard to resist.
Certainly the creatives who came up with the latest ad campaign for Te Whanau Ora – “Our Future Is Māori” – didn’t put up much of a fight. According to Stuff: “The ‘Our Future is Māori’ message will be visible on billboards, bus stops and televisions throughout Aotearoa, asserting that Māori must take control of their future.”
“Their” future? “Our” future? Pronouns are such tricky things these days. How many Pakeha, do you suppose, will read these ads as something other than an exhortation for Māori to take advantage of Te Whanau Ora (and its big dollop of Budget funding) to shape their own and their family’s destinies?
“Quite a few!” would probably be understating the Pakeha reaction.
And, to be fair to the colonisers’ descendants, the content and structure of the television ad do rather lend themselves to misinterpretation. Not least because they are challenging. “We have been separated,” declares the voice-over, “tikanga pulled from our arms, torn away from the whenua.” Pakeha do not care to be reminded of these truths. Nor are they made comfortable by the potent image of a Māori war canoe being driven through the water by a score of muscular paddlers. It is a troubling image of unstoppable momentum. “We carve our own path,” intones the voice-over, “a path for Māori, by Māori.”
Watching the ad, it is difficult to avoid adding the words: “So, you Pakeha better get out of our way.”
But then the imagery shifts. We see Māori health workers carrying the Covid vaccine to the rescue of their people – doing for themselves what the Ministry of Health had not only taken too long to do, but against which it had also raised legal barriers. Unbelievable? No. The “By Māori, For Māori” kaupapa has always had a revolutionary edge.
The ad shows more. Māori kids enjoying themselves in total immersion Māori schools. Rangatahi, back on their marae, helping to feed the people when the skies opened and the waters rose over Tai Rawhiti.
And, behind these images, a Māori choir singing the anthemic ‘Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi’. A solemn version, this one, performed to the slow beat of a drum – its rhythms matched by the paddlers of that unstoppable waka.
As the ad draws to a close, all the Māori we have seen, the paddlers, the health workers, the rangatahi, the whole cast, stands tall – offering their steadfast gaze to the audience. Not aggressively, not exactly, but definitely not passively or defensively. The voice-over concludes the ad with the words: “There is strength in our whakapapa.”
Was this particular Pakeha shocked? I was, yes, watching the ad for the first time. It confronted me with words and images that made me uncomfortable. That was, I am sure, part of its intention. Pakeha have been telling Māori what to do, and how to do it, for more than a century – seldom to their collective advantage. Now Māori are telling Pakeha to get out of their way. Now they are carving their own path.
In the end, however, the ad is not for us, or about us. That some Pakeha will bristle with indignation when they drive past a billboard declaring “Our Future Is Māori” is certain. As certain as Talkback Radio crackling with anger at Māori presumption.
Épater la Pakeha? You betcha. We’ve had it coming for a long time.
But not as long as the whakapapa of tangata whenua.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 May 2023.