Nga Pou Whakapono

Totems of Belief 

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Cultures erect physical, mental and psychological pou to represent themselves as they wish to see themselves and to distinguish themselves from other groups.

At their most benign nga pou whakapono serve simply as markers of identity. Waka hourua, waka taua and whare whakairo have evolved through the ages to serve as pou whakapono that proclaim the mana of ariki, rangatira and their hapu. In modern times a very good example is the rising popularity of contemporary ta moko, which is both a physical and psychological expression of Maori identity, as well as an expression of personal identity. Te Putatara uses the raranga design to make a similar statement of identity.

As beliefs rather than physical markers of identity, nga pou whakapono can serve to provide justification for a course of action or for political and policy direction. They also serve to differentiate Maori from other New Zealanders in a particular field such as business, where perhaps little or no difference actually exists.

Some of these are the beliefs that drive contemporary Maori discourse, including academic and political discourse leading to policy. These beliefs often cannot be logically and reasonably sustained, are impervious to reason, yet nevertheless are widely held to be true. They become the narratives that provide the justification for policy and for Maori development initiatives. In that form they amount to reality denial which is an intrinsic part of human nature.

  • Reality denial is such a fundamental part of being human that one cannot easily escape its clutches. It is also a fundamental aspect of political discourse, and much media coverage of political discourse.
  • Reality denial leads to myth and dogma and these are the comfort zones of reality denial. Data or evidence is denied and discarded.
  •  Narratives are the safe and comforting stories we construct to substitute for reality and data.

These narratives are pou whakapono or totems of belief. They sometimes arise organically out of discussions at countless hui, and gradually become the story commonly believed and accepted. They are sometimes constructed deliberately to serve the interests of those who create the narratives. They include:

  • The iwi as traditional social, economic, political, corporate entity;
  • The whanau, hapu, iwi construct;
  • The Maori economy narrative;
  • The Maori entrepreneur narrative;
  • The Treaty of Waitangi as covenant;
  • Kaupapa Maori in the academy; and
  • Matauranga Maori in the academy.

Part of the kaupapa of Te Putatara is to examine nga pou whakapono, to ask questions and to submit them to scrutiny and to the test of reality.

It is in a way an exercise in examining the past for evidence, looking at the realities of the present as opposed to beliefs, and attempting to prophesy the future to assess the relevance of nga pou whakapono to the lives of coming generations of Maori.

This is not a popular or comfortable endeavour, for the questioning and debunking of belief always arouses the passions of believers. Aroha mai.

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