Virtual marae? No thanks

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(Massey) Today more than one in six Maori live outside New Zealand, and there is no end to the diaspora in sight. We have multi-generational Maori communities living overseas and many others living in New Zealand but away from their haukainga, their home.

ocarroll-dee-03Maori continue to migrate away from their homelands to pursue new beginnings and opportunities in education, work and family life. The pressures of modern society are hard to resist, but as each whanau moves away there is an adverse affect on the marae.

Traditionally, the marae has been the focal point of any Maori community. The marae is a stronghold of histories, traditions and localised knowledge, where multitudes gather to discuss, debate, celebrate and mourn. It is one of the few remaining physical spaces in which Maori identity, culture, language and traditions are unquestioningly accepted, acknowledged and upheld.

Today, we are at a watershed point in Maori cultural history. The Maori diaspora, alongside a more general move towards urbanisation, means that many Maori (physically) no longer visit their marae on a regular basis. But there is still a powerful need for those who have moved away from their Maori institutions to find alternative ways to connect with their people and culture.

For many, the use of social networking sites are now a way of life. Cultural survival and vitality are key priorities for marae, hapu and iwi and, for younger generations at least, social media is becoming a platform for realising these priorities. We are seeing a gradual virtualising of Maori culture the live webcast of Labour MP Parekura Horomias tangi earlier this year is just one example of how technology is being embraced and used in new and innovative ways.

Let me share a personal story as an illustration. A few years ago I was elected to the board of trustees for my marae and hap?. At the same time a relative of mine, who was living in Australia at the time, contacted me through Facebook wanting to connect to our marae.

I asked the boards if I could create a Facebook group page where people of our hapu would have the opportunity to virtually connect and participate in their marae. It took a long time for me to convince our kaumatua that this was a good idea. They were understandably hesitant about releasing hapu information, like whakapapa, in a virtual environment that could be accessed by anyone.

But the desire for those overseas to stay connected became obvious once the Facebook page was set up. Over a period of six months over 430 people liked the page descendants from all over Taranaki, New Zealand, Australia and beyond connected to the page. They were all looking for a way to maintain their roots and stay in touch with others from the same marae.

This experience triggered my interest in the growing importance of social networking sites to Maori both as a culture and as individuals. I can see how new technologies have a role to play in cultural revitalisation and preservation, but fear what they mean for the underlying principles of Maori society and culture.

My doctoral study explores how Maori use social networking for cultural purposes for whanaungatanga (kinship or family ties), identity construction and practising tikanga Maori.

The scale of the modern Maori diaspora clearly requires new thinking and social media provides Maori with the ability to connect to each other and engage in meaningful ways. It allows relationships to be maintained, regardless of geographic location, and in some cases new familial relationships can actually be forged, contributing positively to whanau ora.

People can farewell their deceased relatives, grandparents can Skype their grandchildren, and nieces and nephews often meet their aunties and uncles for the first time through social networking channels. These connections are far from trivial and inject life into whanau and extended whanau.

Social networks can provide participants with similar environments to the marae, where cultural expression and identity are celebrated and acknowledged. It can strengthen and enrich cultural identity and many of those who actively use social media see it as a positive means of cultural revitalisation and self-determination.

But whenever an aspect of Maori culture is virtualised, there are profound concerns from some Maori, and a sense that the virtual experience is very much a second-best option. For example, Maori are generally content to use technology to connect to tangihanga, or funeral rites, if they cant be physically present. While this helps them to manage and express their grief, many question the ability to connect to the wairua of the deceased via video link.

While some of the people I have spoken to feel satisfied with virtual forms of ahika (rights to land through occupation) to give them a sense of belonging to home, it is important that the concerns of our elders are not ignored. In the act of embracing technology and virtual ways of connecting, we must not replace the fabric of Maori society and culture with a virtual substitute.

To have physical kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face interaction), to feel wairuatanga (spiritual connection), to experience tapu, to share mauri (life force) these are fundamental to creating a meaningful connection to the source for Maori living away from their home. Our elders, practitioners and cultural warriors are also concerned about the integrity with which tikanga is practised and maintained away from their guidance and expertise.

If Maori cultural practices and rituals become heavily virtualised, what will be the future of the marae and its place in Maori society? Will the physical marae become desolate of its people? Will the next generation only experience their culture in virtual spaces?

The future of the marae is hanging in the balance.

While it is important that those living away from home can find ways to maintain their cultural ties, it is equally important that the notion of being Maori remains heavily rooted to Aotearoa, in both physical and spiritual ways. Cultural survival and vitality means embracing new technology while also holding onto the fundamental traditions and strongholds of Maori culture and society.

A future without our marae? I dont think any Maori would want that for their kids.

Acushla Deanne OCarroll is a PhD candidate at Massey University. Her research explores how M?ori use social networks for cultural purposes. She is currently continuing her research with indigenous communities in the United States through a Fulbright-Harkness New Zealand Fellowship.

http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/about-massey/news/article.cfm?mnarticle_uuid=768AC76E-AECB-4274-0552-68B9F4D9EAF7

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