Some lessons from Te Ao Maori

As part of our series on Matariki, Craig Fisher reflects on the mahi (work) he does in Te Ao Maori (the Maori world). In this article Craig shares his learnings & takeaways - this is his story. 

I am a Pakeha New Zealander.  I am a passionately proud kiwi.  I love our country and every day I am grateful to have struck the genetic jackpot to have been born into this country and culture. 

Yes, we have much to improve. But we can do so looking to the assets and unique features that we have. And more and more as time goes on, I am appreciating how much I, and we as a nation, have to learn from Te Ao Maori.

I had what I consider a fairly typical upbringing. A child of the 1960’s born to hard working kiwi parents. Not overly religious but imbibed with a Protestant work ethic from their hardworking forebears to firstly work hard, secondly be resourceful, and in doing so hopefully improve oneself. 

Possibly they also indoctrinated me with the kiwi distaste of being a tall poppy and standing out too much? Sir Ed Hillary was the most famous New Zealander by far. Not so much from conquering Mt Everest but more for being a beekeeper who loved the outdoors and epitomising greatness with great humbleness.

The All Blacks were national icons representing our country on the world stage in a kiwi way through hard work, resourcefulness, and letting their deeds do the talking. The after-match speech a vote of thanks to the other team and some mumbled comments that we were lucky that the game went our way.

Sadly, my formal education taught me relatively little of New Zealand history. 

Apart from trips to Rotorua, a few words like Haere mai, stick games and poi dances at Elm Park Primary School, and tourist clichés like plastic tikis I am embarrassed to say I knew little of Maori culture. A product of my time?

I think Maori matters first really entered my consciousness with the land protests of the 1970’s. Dame Whina Cooper’s famous hikoi from the far north all the way to Parliament. That beautiful and powerful image of her holding the hand of her mokopuna on the gravel road seared into the national psyche. Eva Rickard battling to reclaim the golf course at Raglan. And then the Bastion Point occupation led by Joe Hawke and images of Police and protesters on the TV 6 o’clock news.

As a 10 year old I had an appreciation of people with passion and obviously a strong sense of injustice to be taking these actions. They were on the news after all.  But it wasn’t talked about in my family. 

Another decade on I saw the Waitangi Tribunal start to be more effective and appearing to become a process for addressing historical grievances. This sat well with my ethics and moral compass. If something is not right, then it should be put right, and fairly. But I didn’t apply too much thought to it as I was finishing University (a higher qualification that my parents never had the opportunity to achieve) and looking to embark on a career in accounting.

I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed to admit it but I think the first time I thought deeply about Maori and their relationship with my understanding of the culture of New Zealand was when I was living and working in Japan.  

Living within a radically different foreign culture is a great opportunity to question so much about what you understand of both their culture and yours. It begs a deeper dive and exploration of your understanding in order to make sense of things you may have previously taken for granted. 

Many similarities to Maori popped up. The strength and celebration of family, the importance of duty and reciprocity, the appreciation of your local kai, the connection to your ancestral land, to your place, and ceremonies to remind you of all these.

Yet Japan is largely a monoculture unlike Aotearoa’s bi-culturalism and multiculturalism.

Japan taught me much about business, or rather a philosophy towards business.

How there is so much protocol to be understood and observed if you are to fit in. Respect towards one’s elders and honouring one’s family is sacrosanct. Something as simple as how to properly give and receive a business card can set the tone for a future relationship. How relationship building is a delicate dance and slow to truly form.  But once formed the bonds and duty of respect to the other is strong.

Japan also introduced me to the importance of the long game. The first time I had heard of a 50-year business plan, instead of New Zealand’s 3-year at best. Taking a longer-term view helped you consider more things, and make different decisions. In my view better ones.

Coming back to New Zealand and into business I had a new appreciation of the importance of relationships, of taking a longer-term view, of reciprocity. After spending some time living and trying to exercise in London, I also had a greatly enhanced appreciation of the importance of Aotearoa’s natural environment. Assets we are but stewards of and must protect for future generations. 

Through building a business and career as a professional in New Zealand I have (I am embarrassed to admit) slowly gained an appreciation of many of these important things in my own country staring me in the face. And interestingly many have always been embedded into a Maori worldview.

Over 10 years ago I attended the Institute of Directors 5-day residential Directors course. It involved some interesting learning material, and if I am honest, some rather average presenters and learning experiences. 

However as is often the case with such courses, as much learning can be gained from interactions with one’s fellow attendees as can be from the formal course. I was fortunate to be on a course with some inspiring experienced professionals and aspiring directors. But most of all I was blessed by sharing this experience with some members of the Raukawa Trust Board’s asset holding company. 

Members of a central North Island iwi that were in the process of settling with the Crown and would soon be stewards of significant assets for their whanau. These attendees were different. They were Maori and bought a truly Maori world view with them.  Most of them had little or no “big business experience”.

At first in my hurry I found this frustrating as some basics had to be explained in discussions. And yet I learnt by far the most important lessons from them. Lessons that have stuck with me ever since. 

They asked why. They had a truly long-term view; they brought the decision-making perspective of their mokopuna’s mokupuna to discussions. Their grandchildren’s grandchildren. They also taught me with their questioning that a director’s number one role is to be a true kaitiaki. To be noble and thoughtful stewards of the assets they are guardians of, and especially of land.

As the respected teacher Wairangi Jones recently wrote:  "Toi tū te whenua, whatu ngarongaro te tangata - The land is permanent while people come and go." 

As I get older, I increasingly appreciate the connection to place. I feel an almost spiritual connection to my mountain (Karioi) and to my harbour and sea (Whaingaroa). I am not Maori. I worry these feelings may be seen as cultural appropriation. Yet the feelings deeply resonate.

I have been inspired to try and learn some Te Reo. Sadly, I have few natural skills at learning and speaking other languages. Yet living in Japan taught me that some Japanese words just fit better than English. Now I am finding the same with some Te Reo. I also appreciate the beauty of a language spoken well. And while I still understand relatively little of Te Reo, it is a simple joy to hear a good orator.

I have also been inspired to learn more about our history as a nation and my family history. Both are hard to do. Yet I increasingly appreciate the importance of one’s whakapapa, one’s ancestry.

To understand where and who you came from helps to put in context who and why you are.

My ancestors were of Irish, Scottish and English stock. A number of them relatively early arrivals for Pakeha to New Zealand in the 1840’s and 1850’s.

One an Irish Catholic (a surprise to learn I had any Catholic forebears) who apparently had been in prison in Ireland and came to New Zealand to improve his future as a fencible.  He received land in Onehunga for his role as a fencible. I can only assume that this probably involved fighting in the (in my view misnamed) Maori Wars.

I’m not sure how I feel about this? A sense of guilt. A sense of responsibility? Yet I also appreciate it was a different time and with different norms. 

Rather than dwell on the past and that which I cannot retrospectively change I have resolved to try and focus on positive change for the future. As such I specifically sought a governance role where hopefully my audit, risk, organisational, business, and governance skills and experience can assist Maori in some small way.

As such I was honoured to take on the role of Independent Chairman of the Risk, Audit & Assurance Committee of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei – An impressive organisation in many regards; its business, its social, and its environmental initiatives. But especially for the sense of place and importance in protecting the wonderful resources of culture and Tamaki Makaurau for the future.

Already the experience has put me on a steep learning curve. But I see that that reciprocal sharing of skills and expertise, and charting a future for the benefit of future generations as really positive mahi.

We are all in this country together. And many people call it home. We must appreciate and learn from the past, both good and bad, in order to make it better in the future. Collectively we all have skills to make it a better place. And the concept of Matariki is a beautiful opportunity to remember that and celebrate a New Year and new beginnings for all of us proud to call Aotearoa home.

My lessons so far:

  • We must do better at teaching history in Aotearoa New Zealand for a more understanding and inclusive society.  
  • All of us can, and must, be kaitiaki – guardians of our country for the benefit of our heirs we will never meet.
  • Learning is hard, especially another culture and language. But it also rewards those who put the effort in.
  • Knowing your spiritual home is a powerful foundation in life. It centres you and gives you strength.
  • Utu is not just a negative concept of revenge sensationalised by movies.  It means reciprocity. A powerful value for good. 
  • Plant more trees.  Native ones.

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Craig Fisher