This well known Māori proverb is an encouragement to be modest and conversely discourages people from being arrogant and pompous. I like the idea and have often heard the proverb used in casual and formal occasions to highlight the how nice it is to be surprised by the understated nature of people, places, and events that you might come across. It also contrasts the ideal of ambition and a self-promoting culture where it is understood that unless you sell yourself, you won’t gain opportunities.
The kūmara, the New Zealand sweet potato, was a prized staple food in traditional times but as a root vegetable, it didn’t look like a succulent delight. However we understand the sweetness of the kūmara, that is, we hear its sweetness when we eat it. The application of this proverb can be problematic for Māori when a position of false modesty is taken on and it lowers expectations, ambition, and performance of a person or group.
I recently sat with a group of indigenous PhD students and as we shared our individual struggles about completing research. I was again reminded of how inspirational it was to be a part of this intelligent, creative, hard-working, over-committed, and essentially nice group of people (a little quirky too – but you have to be to want to write a PhD), doing some cool work. I was reminded about how important it is to continue to support each other, to build on the network of Māori academics, to complete our research as examples of excellence in education and as role models for our families and communities. Their varied subject matter is also important and it will influence change for the better in our families, our communities, our country and perhaps the world.
These meeting times are filled with humour, often self-deprecating and a lot of supportive words and actions to move us onward together, in spite of the lingering personal doubts we all have about the value of our work and our capacity to do the job. I understand this sense of doubt is normal for all PhD students and everyone deals with it differently. But I believe this doubt is magnified for indigenous people because we are already living and working in a society, including universities, that devalue our ideas, our practices, our aspirations, our communities, our customs, our language, our image, our research and us.
With these thoughts in mind another proverb springs to mind. Ko te kai a te rangatira he kōrero. The food of chiefs are words (my translation). Words are the staple of a PhD, the words we consume and the words we produce is a job for chiefs.
- You have mana as a kūmara. It is a chiefly activity to research ways that increase the well being of our community, you will be the world expert in your chosen subject, undertake your work with the integrity of a chiefly person, it honours your people and your research. Our people are looking for leaders, they want you to be that leader in your field, accept that responsibility with modesty.
- Along with mana is the attached tapu. There is a level of sacredness attached to any endeavour which takes a person on an arduous journey costing years of their life. Our families and communities also pay a price to support us. It is appropriate to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of your research, as you put your heart and soul into the work, seek support from ritual experts at appropriate times, work in the understanding of the mental, physical and spirituality of your work.
- So, my fellow kūmara. As we sit amongst the rest of our kūmara family it is important to remember that if we wish to maintain our modesty it is vital that we appreciate our own sweetness and look for opportunities to promote the sweetness of the kūmara around us.
Nō reira, whāia te iti kahurangi!
Dr. Mike Ross (Ngāti Hauā) is a part of Mai ki Pōneke and a lecturer in Te Kawa a Māui at Victoria University.