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Historian bemoans 'snap-frozen' Maori culture

Tuesday 30 Jul 2013 11:49 a.m.

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Maori culture has been cheapened, the haka has become a corrupted spectacle and Maori tourism villages are degrading, according to one of the country's leading historians.

Paul Moon's criticisms come in his latest book, Encounters: The Creation of New Zealand, where the Auckland University of Technology academic takes a look at the changing New Zealand identity over the last couple of centuries.

Speaking on Firstline this morning, Dr Moon said it was about time someone took aim at the version of Maori culture we – and especially the tourism industry – present to the world.

"For a long time, we've had a snap-frozen version of Maori culture that's been around since the late 19th century," he says.

"It's about time we started to probe this a bit more."

Maori village tours, such as those found in and around Rotorua, come in for special criticism from Dr Moon, who says they are failing to show the world what modern Maori culture is all about.

"If you're talking about a tourist product, that's perfectly fine, but when we talk about Maori culture there are a number of writers, poets, artists, dramatists, multimedia specialists and so on, that just don't get any see-in," he says.

"Maori culture as I say is almost cast in this Victorian mould…. the point is that Maori culture has moved on enormously since that time, and we seem to be ignoring the modern developments."

Perhaps the best-known example of Maori culture worldwide is the haka, thanks to the All Blacks. Dr Moon says the All Blacks are great ambassadors for Maori culture because they are "very well-versed in the meaning" behind it.

"We do see other portrayals of the haka which certainly aren't acceptable – such as some people who go on their OE and they have a bit too much to drink, and they take their shirts off, and all of a sudden are performers."

It's not just Maori culture that Dr Moon puts under the microscope in Encounters, however – he also takes a good look at the idea of the stereotypical "southern man", as featured in a memorable advertising campaign for the Speights beer brand.

"It's one produced by focus groups, let's be very clear, and it has a commercial purpose," he says. "We're one of the most urbanised countries in the world, and yet we persist with these myths of these lonely southern men, don't talk much.

"We see perhaps some of the manifestations of that in a recent episode in a taxi."

Dr Moon says the persistence of "myths" like the southern man is largely thanks to advertising.

"Advertisers in particular have realised there's value in playing on stereotypes – they can attract audiences through that – and so they work to that end.

"The thing is about society, is we evolve at a faster pace than the stereotypes, so we're always outpacing them in a sense."

Dr Moon's Encounters: The Creation of New Zealand is published by Penguin NZ and out now.

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