We Are Groot! My Tribal Mātauranga is not “Ethnic Essentialism”

When I was growing up, my grandfather would often advise us to “never let anyone tell you who you are as a Māori and Ngāti Porou person.” I’ve tended to take a liberal interpretation of what that meant, but the underlying message was always about coming to know who you are, aspiring to that identity, and embracing the need and right to protect it. Today, I have a much deeper appreciation that this is a collective inheritance and not merely an individual endeavour. I am Ngāti Porou, but I didn’t just make it up along the way, it was passed on and entrusted not just to me but an entire generation. We are Groot – that is to say an interconnected people who even though many of us are living our lives around the world share genealogy and a desire to be Ngāti Porou. Some were brought up with or have put time into learning the culture and language, while others have no knowledge aside from the fact that they are descendants.  This is crucial, because when you are part of an iwi (tribe), most, but not all, come to understand that not just anyone can claim the right to speak about “us.”  You have to know what you’re talking about, and as one relation always says, you need to know “who is who in the jungle”, who are the leaders, who are the experts in the language and culture, those people who are the guardians of the Ngāti Porou galaxy: those people that speak for us and those who don’t.

This understanding of iwi (tribal) identity has always informed my perspective as an historian. I don’t talk about other tribes because I have no right to do so. One of our upoko ariki, tribal leaders, once put it this way:

Kaore e noho ma tētahi kē e kōrero ngā kōrero mo tātou (it is not about others talking about us). In terms of this I don’t expect a Ngā Puhi to come along and talk about Ngāti Porou, in the same way he doesn’t want me to go there and talk about Ngā Puhi.

Most of the time, other tribal people I encounter have always seemed to understand that “insider” iwi-centric positioning perfectly. For us, this is common knowledge that each of us are part of, adhere to, and are constantly striving to deepen and live our tribal identities. But during my time in academia I have come across those who see this view as narrow, problematic, and apparently unscholarly. Some critics accuse those who assert and aspire to tribal identity as being elitists who shut others out by putting in place “essentialist” identifiers to control who is an insider or outsider.  According to these critics, this “ethnic essentialism” either grants or denies access and is denounced as too narrow, shutting out the experiences of those who cannot speak the language, do not know tikanga, or grew up away from home and have no knowledge of their own tribal history, geography, practices or genealogy. But this attack on our right to define ourselves appears to completely discount the idea that active tribal peoples share explicit knowledge, aspirations, and ways of viewing the world that connects us together as a nuanced collective. This is not a simplistic essentialist community, but a vibrant, varied, and conscious iwi that knows how we are different within a tribal network. We have lots of unconscious members of the tribe, who are indeed Ngāti Porou but couldn’t tell you about what Nati history and identity looks like.

The irony is that essentialism is actually a real problem as Edward Said rightly pointed out in his critique of the binary essentialist reductions of both the West and the Orient. For Ngāti Porou, the most destructive essentialisations used to identify us have been produced not by our people but predominantly by colonisers. Some historians and writers have oversimplified Ngāti Porou as “kupapa” or Crown loyalists. This essentialisation has since been rebutted by scholars like Monty Soutar in his excellent history on the leadership of Rapata Wahawaha. Ngāti Porou are far more multifaceted than this. Hirini Kaa’s recently completed doctoral study, for instance, offers a brilliant insight to the complex and varied world of Ngāti Porou religious sophistication as a tribe regularly conscious of its own spiritual experimentation, direction, and colourful core identities. Where there has been a degree of “ethnic essentialism” it has tended to come from European colonists who have over the years offensively described Māori as “savages” and “barbaric” backward “heathens.” Māori have often been type cast as an oversimplified “warrior race”, as a culture of “entertainers” and “singers”, with sections of our people being referred to as “terrorists” and “wreckers and haters.” One New Zealand sports commentator, only a decade ago now, infamously argued that Māori and other Polynesians don’t play cricket because apparently we can’t concentrate for more than 80 minutes, and therefore prefer the physicality and violence in games like rugby. Yes, ethnic essentialism is a problem, but those who have accused tribal peoples of subscribing to narrow ethnic essentialist constructs fail to appreciate how an assertion of our tribal identity is paramount to cultural survival and well-being in the face of already harmful essentialisations.

So why are those like me, who grew up with an education in our tribal identities suddenly being accused of “ethnic essentialism”? Perhaps it’s simply a reflection of someone else’s insecurities, angry or defensive because they had a bad experience with the language, culture, or the tikanga police? Maybe they tried to go home once but were put off because someone made them feel like they didn’t quite fit in? We might never know. Nevertheless, on the topic of ethnic essentialism, Leonie Pihama recently pointed out that:

Ethnic essentialism is used as a term to silence Indigenous Peoples and to deny our fundamental whakapapa connections to our sovereign right to be Māori and to assert rangatiratanga in relation to our tikanga, reo, whenua – usually those using it do so to claim spaces that they seek to hold power over.

I have certainly seen my fair share of these predators in academia who seek to deny the validity of tribal knowledge because it calls into question their own coveted place in indigenous research. In years gone by this group was populated by Pākehā scholars, who told Māori they were doing us a favour by saving our knowledge from colonial extinction or validating it within what they believe are superior methodological frameworks. John Rangihau once observed how ridiculous it was that these people professed to know more about being Māori than we do. When Māori have reminded these scholars about the tikanga related to indigenous research, some have scoffed at what they say is a lack of objectivity, condemned binary insider / outsider research positions, questioned the underlying political “presentism” in Māori communities, and sought to undermine tribal experts by repositioning them as one-eyed parochial idealists who lack the research skills, objectivity and nous to see beyond their own tribal parapets. More recently, these critics are not just Pākehā scholars, but Māori, who believe that their hybrid experiences or intellectual revelations have shown them new identities beyond the essentialisms of iwi. But in their rush to claim a new intersectional marginality and critique iwi mātauranga some completely miss the fact that by doing so they misinterpret, undermine, and can often cause harm to, Māori and tribal aspirations for self-determination. Perhaps most concerning, however, is the bizarre critique of tribal epistemologies that has surfaced in the work of some scholars, who dismiss iwi mātauranga because it is based on what they believe are wildly essentialist frameworks. These are scholars who have somehow come to the conclusion that an aspiration to the values, language, proverbs, songs, histories, protocols, and politics held by tribal peoples are merely a set of fixed essentialist reductions. These commentators often believe that they are better placed to objectively interpret Māori worldviews and to validate or weed out native knowledge by analysing them within their own specialised disciplines. Accusations of ethnic essentialism, as others have stressed, have long been imposed by the dominant group:

One of the key factors that needs to be considered is who is employing what essentialisms and to what end? Are they being used by members of the group to assert a collective identity? While this can lead to internal conflicts and difficulties within the community (who is or is not a member of the group and who gets to decide that etc), these issues are quite different from those created when essentialisms are being imposed on a minority community by the dominant group.

Those in positions of colonial power have tended to consider their own place as normative and unproblematic. They frequently or conveniently miss a crucial point of ethics in research that should allow native communities to determine and define their worlds on their own terms. Indeed, this is also a point of tikanga lost on some Māori. “The issue”, according to another close relation, is that:

Those who identify others as ‘guilty’ of ethnic essentialism are already painting the world with their own political, ethical, and otherwise, notions of reality. They either can’t, or choose not to identify their own bias. Rather than acknowledge the failing of their own cultural capital to understand the indigenous narrative, they denigrate said narrative for not fitting into their perception or normality. To attempt to produce authentic narratives; me waiho mā te tangata e kōrero mōna ake (leave people to speak for themselves).

It never ever occurred to me growing up that my experience and sense of who I was as a tribal person might be considered by someone else to be a list of “fixed” ethnic essentialisms. I have struggled with the accusations that my entire tribal worldview is merely an essentialist mythology. Encouragingly, those who share my upbringing and aspirations as tribal peoples across the world have echoed the same sentiments, and I have not come across a single tribal person who does not see the multiple, varied, and vibrant, personalities that make up their communities. To them, these are not fixed and essentialist collectives, but are incredibly sophisticated interrelated groupings. We simply do not have the time or often the word count to explain how diverse and rich our tribal realities truly are.  Most also understand how the fight to save our languages and cultures from further colonial decline has required us to experiment and strategize in order to not only assert our rights to our own lands and resources, but simply to exist.  Being Māori is a strategic reality, as is tribal identity, but the rhetorical games scholars play in these spaces, particularly when it comes to the existence of epistemological and ontological foundations, can have severe impacts on real lives. The sad reality is that many of our own people have never known what it means to be Ngāti Porou. Some moved away from home and lost contact, others deliberately turned their backs and forgot their roots. This is why I admire, and support, those who have always remained steadfast in striving to protect our ways of knowing. They strategize and stand staunch in their kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of our tribal knowledge.

When it comes to guardianship and asserting our mana as tribal people, we have a saying in Ngāti Porou that was made famous by our illustrious ancestor Te Kani a Takirau. In rejecting the offer to be the leader of the Māori King movement in the nineteenth century he declared “ehara taku maunga Hikurangi i te maunga haere, engari he maunga tutonu / My mountain never moves, but remains steadfast.” This is an important tribal affirmation, and according to Tamati Reedy has been passed down as a significant Ngāti Porou political statement. When you grow up Nāti and are encouraged to live your own culture, these are the things you learn. Another inherited phrase handed down through our generations is “te wiwi Nāti”. This comes from the local landscape, from the imagery of “close compact growing rushes”, which has long been used as a symbolic reference to the “unity and togetherness” of our people. Being Nāti is our way of saying “We Are Groot” – it describes us as a unified collective, drawn together by our shared whakapapa. It accentuates specific ‘kinship obligations’, and emphasises the notion of inclusivity, indicated in the utilisation of the collective pronouns “our”, “we”, and “us.” We draw on these scripts to explain our identities. They are not essentialisms, but affirmations of who we are. One of my favourites comes from one of our renowned composers Ngoi Pewhairangi who wrote:

If you’re from Tokomaru, Tūranga, Te Araroa

Any place beyond that smoky East Coast line

Then you’re from Nāti

From Ngāti Porou

’Cause I’m from Nāti too.

Her message can be found in other proverbs, sayings, haka and mōteatea (songs) that affirm our tribal identity. Together we call these “kōrero tuku iho” (stories and histories passed on) because they are transmitted and entrusted to future generations. We don’t just make them up, but we are encouraged to know them, and in that process are expected, as my grandfather said, to ensure they are not produced for us by those who don’t know us. In rejecting the accusations of ethnic essentialism, I am also reminded of a powerful example of how this collective relationship works. Because we are part of an iwi, we are also held accountable by that same tribal body. In Ngāti Porou, one of our uncles put it like this:

Ko koe te pu kanohi mo to iwi, ko koe te mangai mo to iwi, ehara ko koe te mea anake kei te kōrero, whai muri i a koe, ko tini raua ko mano e ngangau ana, na reira ka ki “ma te manaia ka tu te whakairo”’ / ‘You are the [spokesperson] face of the people, the mouthpiece for the tribe, but you are not the only person speaking, following behind you, are the multitudes who are biting at your heels [back], so it is said “the ornamental eloquence of the manaia adorns and beautifies all other carvings.

Another Ngāti Porou scholar, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, once noted the importance for indigenous peoples to build a critical “capacity” in order to more effectively transform and decolonize our worlds. As I look around at those who are members of today’s Ngāti Porou capacity, I can’t help but be inspired and excited. Our tribal members walk a variety of paths and many of them understand and aspire to live as Nāti people, and to treasure and protect that same identity our grandparents spoke of. My papa, as a captain in the Māori battalion, fought alongside his Ngāti Porou cousins and brothers. After Apirana Ngata, the father of the battalion passed, my grandfather’s youngest sibling alongside other Ngāti Porou leaders was entrusted with the tribe’s future. They lived their lives as Ngāti Porou tūturu, and like my grandfather and his contemporaries, shared Ngoi Pewhairangi’s understanding of the collective “us.” They handed that treasure and responsibility on to my aunties and uncles, and to multitudes of my cousins today – ngā tini uri o Porourangi. I am proud to say that they are the Guardians of the Nāti Galaxy, and together “We Are Groot”!

[1] I have referred to comments made by various friends, relations, and colleagues, in this post. Some of these are from a recent (October 2015) online discussion we shared on the subject. Others are from interviews I undertook as part of my doctoral thesis (submitted 2011). To avoid turning this post into an academic article I have refrained from general referencing.


  1. Digital IwI

    He pai rawa atu ōu kupu whakamarama. E tautoko ana te kōrero nei. Engāri, e kore e tautoko e au te kōrero o ētahi atu takuta māōri i roto i ngā whare wanānga pākehā. Ko tētahi, nana i mea ngā whakaaro e hē ana e pā ana ki tōku nei iwi. E ai ki a ia, ko toku nei iwi he iwi e wha! Hamu paka tēnei! Nana i motumotu tōku nei iwi tūturu! Ka rongo au, nana i tipu i roto i te taone nui, kahore ia i tipu waenganui i tōku nei iwi!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nepiamahuika

      Kia ora e hoa mo tena korero. Ae, tautoko ou whakaaro katoa. Kua kitea e au etahi takuta Maori i puta mai te korero “Me whakatikatika te hitori Maori i roto i te Western Historical methodological frameworks!”. Ki au nei, ko tenei tetahi o nga hua kino o enei Whare Wananga Pakeha. Me haere tupato te tangata Maori ki roto i enei Whare Wananga – kia mau ki te reo ake, te tikanga ake, me te matauranga ake o to iwi. Ko tena to maunga e tutonu ana – te putatahitanga o tou matauranga.


  2. Digital IwI

    Just to clarify, I strongly support Nēpia’s comments. They are clearly from deep within Ngāti Porou, not from academia. It is never for academia to tell us who we are as people in our own hapu and iwi. Their job is to conduct (Eurocentric) scholarly research. This is not our research. I heard that a Māori academic from my iwi, apparently said that my iwi is no longer one iwi but four different iwi. I think he is an anthropologist. I say humbug to that! Our iwi migrated along with a number of partner iwi so that we are now located in four places roughly. Over my lifetime I have witnessed my kōroua and kūia maintaining contact through hui and visits to our whanaunga in the four places. Marriages were arranged between the locations. As far as we the people of the iwi are concerned we are still one iwi.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nepiamahuika

      Kia ora. I have had similar experiences with some Maori academics who have told me they know more about my iwi than I do (based on their written evidence). Completely nuts from my point of view.
      Recently, I heard a Maori academic argue that Maori historical evidence should be verified by western historical methodologies. I think humbug is defintely the right response to that! What really bothers me though is that it came from a Maori, where in the past I have heard that from lots of Pakeha historians. But it is part of our landscape now, so we have to deal with it I guess. Thankyou for your comments! I appreciate them a lot, and enjoy the discussion.


  3. Dara Kelly

    I had the same experience from anthropologists at home! I was only 21, but old enough to know that claiming to “know” more about my history and ancestors than I do as a descendant was a complete abuse of knowledge, arrogant, and also untrue.

    On another point though, Nepia, I have been reading your PhD thesis as I use oral history in my research to explore Coast Salish economic philosophy. I really appreciate the clarity, depth and thoroughness of your research and I have especially appreciated explication of the combined use of oral history interviews and written material. Your work helps to validate and frame my methodological development.


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