Western culture is a culture of knowledge. We know a lot about a lot of things—from atoms to galaxies. And the key to this knowledge is rational, objective thought. We ask questions; we observe; we study; we answer… and then we verify. This verification is essential. ‘An answer’ only becomes ‘the answer’—i.e. knowledge—when it can be verified by others.

This type of thought has been very successful. It has created the modern technology that we all live with. However, there is a downside to this success. It has been too successful for its own good. I’m not talking about the downside of technology here, such as global warming or nuclear warfare (although they are not totally unrelated to the point I have in mind). What I am talking about is that rational, objective thought has been so successful that, instead of being just one mode of thought, it has become the mode of thought in the Western mind. The Western mind thinks that rational, objective thought can answer everything.

What’s this got to do with Māori? Well, ever since Pāhekā have laid eyes on Māori, ‘we’ have been fascintated by ‘them’. ‘We’ have studied ‘them’, drawn conclusions about ‘them’ and written books about ‘them’. There have been a steady stream of anthropologists, historians, linguists, sociologist, and scientists gawping at ‘them’ ever since Cook stepped foot in Aotearoa in 1769.

So… what have ‘we’ learned? What do ‘we’ Pākehā know now about Māori culture? Well, ‘we’ know that ‘they’ do haka. ‘We’ know ‘they’ say kia ora to mean “hi”. And ‘we’ know that ‘they’ were once cannibals. All very interesting. ‘We’ know a lot.

Actually, ‘we’ know very little. Or rather ‘we’ are asking the wrong questions. Apart from the fact that ‘our’ study of ‘them’ is highly patronising (how would ‘we’ like a steady stream of experts coming into our homes and studying ‘us’?), our insistence on rational, objective thought means ‘we’ have got it all wrong. While ‘we’ may know rational, objective things about Māori culture, ‘we’ are forever missing the point. ‘We’ still don’t know what’s really important in Māori culture. And, even more fundamentally, ‘we’ never will.

For Māori culture is not a culture built on rational, objective thought. The key to Māori culture is subjectivity. Everybody and everything is related to everybody and everything else in the Māori world. What the world is, depends on who one is.

Every Pākehā is at least vaguely familiar with the idea that Māori place great importance on their line of ancestors going back generations, i.e. their whakapapa. However, what few Pākehā realise is that ‘whakapapa’ extends beyond people. It extends into the natural world as well (and the spiritual one, for that matter). There are lines of connection joining every individual to everything in the world.

For this reason, one does not ‘know’ Māori culture. One ‘experiences’ it. Or, more correctly, one is ‘part’ of it.

So, what do we Pākehā ‘know’ about Māori culture? Not a lot. And how much can we Pākehā ever ‘know’ about Māori culture? Not a lot. But how much can ‘we’ Pākehā become ‘part’ of Māori culture?

Well, that’s a completely different matter.

(For further discussion of this topic, see Chapter 2 in Guilty as Charged?. This appears in the free sample chapters available by signing up at the top right of this page).