Wairaka and the Corn-Rows

Photo by Geoffrey Matthews CC, Whakatane – Wairaka at sunset

When my teenage daughter Manaaki tries to be ‘gangster’, hair in corn-rows, hoop earrings, face full of make-up, looks down her nose at me (she’s taller), with that squint (parents of teenage girls, you know which squint I mean)… I say to her

DIALOGUE Jani: You come from Wairaka ow… stop being an egg!

ACTION Manaaki: look at herself in the mirror… eyes drop, and cheeks – under the concealer, foundation, bronzer and contour stuff – flush

I wonder why she, a descendant of Wairaka, would even think she needed the war-paint, accessories, and attitude of Sepa (Ana Scotney), the bolshie girlfriend of James Rolleston’s character in the recent The Breaker-Upperers (2018) to make a statement…

DIALOGUE Manaaki [quietly, sniffing hupe]: Mum, I don’t wanna get bullied

INNER MONOLOGUE Jani: Corn-rows and 40mls of stuff on your face prevents bullying?

Just wow.

Wairaka is a pivotal tipuna to my people in the Ngāti Awa. She was the daughter of Toroa, Chief of the Mataatua waka. Along with the other women and children of the tribe, she was in the waka anchored out in the harbour off the coast of Kākāhōroa. Meanwhile the men engaged in some reconnaissance on the land to ensure it was safe for the women and children to alight. The clouds rolled in, the winds picked up, stirring the waka. Soon, the weather took a turn for the worst, and waves lashed and rocked the waka. Hoe waka (paddles) were at hand, but as they were the man’s domain, women and children weren’t permitted to touch them. Although frightened, Wairaka stood, pulled the anchor back on board…

DIALOGUE Wairaka: KIA WHAKATĀNE AU I AHAU! (Let me be as a man!)

… she seized the nearest hoe waka and paddled everybody to safety. Ngā mihi rawa ki te whāea tipuna nei; Ngāti Awa wouldn’t be here had it not been for Wairaka.

What has Wairaka and corn-rows got to do with ‘a thing that’s currently on the PhD brain?’?

Whether you’re Ngāti Awa or not, Wairaka is an important tipuna to remember, particularly when we are in disciplines where Māori and Indigenous scholars are underrepresented.  A good proportion of us are researching in Western disciplines, often venturing into unknown, sometimes unchartered waters, or in someone else’s ocean. Wairaka is significant because of her courage and strength to risk herself by superseding a long-standing tikanga, and challenging the status quo. As Indigenous academics, courage, strength and risk are a must, lest we and – even more importantly – our students be ethnic carbon copies of our discipline. We must challenge the discipline for them.

Indigenous scholars are searching for ways to diversify. I’ve been very fortunate to have attended a number of recent international screen conferences. There I scoped out both established and up-and-coming Indigenous film scholars to gauge if and where I could fit into the international scheme of screen studies. A common detail the conferences highlighted to me, is that Indigenous film scholars are searching for ‘something else’, itching to broaden conventional trajectories of film form, psychoanalytic, auteur, post-colonial and other long associated theories, to include significant cultural knowledge. At the most recent international conference I presented at, the audience comprised the fruit-salad of the conference; Latin Americans, Aboriginals, South East Asians and such, all in search for something to latch onto, particularly in terms of how to culturally and theoretically frame one’s mahi. More locally, as our degree title Māori Media suggests, my students have opted to explore media from a Māori perspective, thus all of my teaching needs to be carefully and tightly framed around our philosophies, concepts, and must pivot on empowering our reo and culture. I want them to know the existing media stuff, yes, but I want them to present equally as strong in their taha Māori, and for that to be our conventional film studies here in Aotearoa. Then, our ‘normal film studies’ will trickle into screen studies, and

DIALOGUE Jani (evilly): We will slowly take over!!! Muah-ah-ah-ah!!!

ACTION Jani: Palms together, fingers clapping, pukana!

Indigenous scholars are already standing on the key cultural concepts that can act as anchors in our disciplines. These simply need to be woven into the crucial parts of our work as a through-line, knotting together the existing discipline with fundamental cultural elements.

DIALOGUE PhD supervisor: Jani, this [thesis] is too Māori

DIALOGUE Jani (coldly): Ummm… I know that

ACTION Jani: Tongue click, eye-roll

DIALOGUE PhD Supervisor: Film Studies won’t accept it cos you haven’t shown            you know crucial Film Studies’ stuff to the same extent as the Māori.

       DIALOGUE Jani (receiving a revelation): Ohhhhhh… true….

For example, in my PhD, Whiripapa (a three corded plait) I had three specific film studies strands: theory, audience/reception and history, which I converted into equivalent mātauranga Māori concepts: tāniko, whānau and kōrero. So that film studies would consider these ideas, I needed to show fluency across the conventional strands and innovation in the mātauranga Māori ones. This meant experimentation, a huge proportion of failure, and usually one success per strand. But one was enough.

Here I proffer my kōrero to those Indigenous scholars who – like Wairaka – are preparing to challenge the status quo of your academic discipline, and to carve space for rangatahi coming through, probably inspired by what you do: Be prepared

  1. To feel fear;
  2. To stand alone;
  3. To defy your discipline;
  4. To do the work; and
  5. To fail and succeed.

If Wairaka sat there in the waka, doing nothing, there’d be no Ngāti Awa. That would be a failure of the worst proportion. Failure or success, Wairaka had to defy the tikanga. She had to work hard and paddle for our lives. And like Wairaka, so must we.

Dear Bubba. Take out the corn-rows. Put the earrings away. Wash your face. You come from Wairaka. Ko Wairaka te tipuna, i hoea te waka tapu o Mataatua. I runga, te kuia. Ka maumahara koe ōnā kupu matua, ‘kia whakatāne au i ahau’.

Jani K. T. Wilson

Ngāti Awa/Ngā Puhi/Ngāti Hine, MAI-ki-Aronui Co-Ordinator


One Comment

  1. Abigail McClutchie

    Kia ora Jani, thanks for this gentle reminder that we have our own heroines in Māori culture. Wairaka however was next level. I think our rangitahi and the rest of us are so influenced by pop culture and the (social) media that it’s hard to break away from it. Good luck to your whānau. With Whakapapa like that, the potential is endless. Your list of 5 are so true too and I wish they weren’t. Much aroha.


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