Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Te Papa, Maori, and the Menstrual-Seeking Missiles

Baffled? You will be!

Protecting cultures is generally awesome, but you can end up catching all the little crap from a particular era, like flash-freezing a dinosaur when it's taking a crap. It's important to allow room to develop, a little flexibility.

See if you can decipher this article on Stuff.co.nz. It's about Te Papa, the national NZ museum, warding away pregnant and menstruating women from a special exhibition of "taonga" (Maori and Pacific cultural/historical treasures). So far, so weird. But what makes an odd case odder is the article isn't exactly helpful for people like me, who only know a little bit about Maori traditions.

It mentions that the policy is "for the safety of women". Safety eh? I started thinking, wow, these taonga must be the military BOMB (see what I did there?). Years before the British arrived/invaded with shitty rifles made of lego and bits of twigs, Maori had highly-developed weapons that could detect women who are pregnant or menstruating and cause them serious harm!

"I'm hungry for blood ... of menstruating women and unborn children! Mwahahaha!!!"

Back to the confusing article. It explains "hapu" (pregnant) and "matu wahine" (menstruating women), but it doesn't explain this mysterious "tapu". Apparently they're powerful, these tapu, but what are they? Sacred objects? A set of cultural rules? Are they a bird or a plane?

Unfortunately, after wading through a lot of the comments, it turns out that Maori don't and have never had a secret weapon for wiping out a whole enemy tribe's menstruating and pregnant women - it's just an old wive's tale. I know. If you're disappointed, think how the Pentagon felt. These taonga aren't dangerous, unless they're big and you whacked someone round the head with one. They don't have magical reproductive-radar properties. They're don't even give you a +1 on your D6 roll in Dungeons and Dragons.

The comments section is an interesting mess. First you get the predictable backlash, some of which is actually quite reasonable - "oh what a load of old hogwash" - and okay there might be some racists in there using it as a cheap score against Maori people, but there's very little obvious racism. Then you get the more predictable backlash-backlash, consisting of "how dare you criticise Maori culture, it's all precious, even the bits with ghosts and dodgy attitudes towards women".

Many comments rightly point out that Te Papa is not actually banning women from seeing it, and it's not discrimination because "it's because women are sacred". *Sigh*. Throughout history, religious and cultural restrictions over women's menstruation and reproduction have been justified either because women are "sinful", or because they're "sacred", which isn't quite as bad but certainly is insulting.

Telling women they shouldn't do X Y and Z because it's about "protecting them" really puts the patriarchy into patronising.

I really like Maori culture - it's largely awesome, and since my brief visit in 2003 even I can tell how it's enriched mainstream NZ life with its art, language (Te Reo) and culture. Even some of the bits I don't quite like, like the official national Maori-only rugby team, are well-meant. And despite the numerous outcries in the article's comments section about discriminatinon against women, there's plenty of other cultures round the world with far worse records on women's rights, Europe included.

My problem is that while Te Papa is not actually forbidding pregnant women from attending the tour, they are propagating a piece of - to be frank - superstitious bullcrap under the important umbrella banner of cultural values. Cultural sharing and caring is very important, but in a national museum you really do need a filter for the bullcrap.

You could argue it would be a good idea to warn people before they attend about how Maori traditionally see these objects, and maybe Te Papa thinks that's all they're doing - saving people a trip in case they worry about causing cultural offence.

But for every pakeha (white European-NZ) on that comments board misguidedly "defending" Maori tradition, there must be a dozen or more Maori people out there, both men and women, thinking "god I wish we could dump this mystical nonsense, what a load of claptrap".

To bring it full circle. As I've said, the little that I know and have seen about Maori culture I think is awesome, and the more we share and understand each other, the more fruitful our lives and (arguably more importantly) the better we can get on with each other. But it's incidents like this where a culture risks getting trapped in amber.

Maori culture isn't about paddling around in a waka wearing a flax skirt and doing a haka every time you meet a stranger. It would be patronising of any white person to suggest the whole of Maori culture today was the same as it was 200 years ago, but more importantly it would be simply inaccurate: Maori people get on, do jobs, live lives. They play X-box. And it would be just as wrong for both Te Papa and Maori people themselves, of all iwi and tribes and whanau, to mix up the good practice of preserving their culture with maintaining the backwards little traditions that do no-one any favours.

[Note: I have a feeling this may upset some people, who will probably get the wrong idea and think it's just about respecting Maori culture. I realise this blog is on the light and possibly even dismissive side, unlike posts like this from Elpie which have detail and information. But when you're on the subject of superstition and nonsense, I think the only right attitude to take is to be dismissive. Things like this are not inseparable from the rest of Maori culture - it's not all or nothing. I'd deride anyone for believing in ghosts or spirits or pixies or fairies, and I can do that without causing disrespect to whatever culture and background they're from.]


  1. I think it is important to convey, and attach the appropriate reverence; which in most cultures mean irrational practices - when engaging with outsiders. It is part of the experience and in the end it is still up to you as an individual to decide how to behave in relation to this highlighted social norm still.

  2. Personally, I find the whole kerfluffle hilarious! Maybe because I don't live in NZ anymore.

    I think the whole "these greenstone objects can hurt pregnant women" thing is a really neat cultural relic, which, if Te Papa had approached it properly, could have been done in a tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink manner, like "no one actual believes this anymore, but it's still a neat thing to know about. It reminds me of how Scandinavian cultures put out milk for the pixies. Isn't that cool and sweet, if a bit antiquated? And if traditional Maori want to believe that the spirits in the taonga can harm pregnant/menstrating women, go ahead! It's cute.