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PhD candidate Acushla Deanne O’Carroll.

Virtual marae? No thanks

Today more than one in six Māori live outside New Zealand, and there is no end to the diaspora in sight. We have multi-generational Māori communities living overseas and many others living in New Zealand but away from their haukāinga, their home.

Māori continue to migrate away from their homelands to pursue new beginnings and opportunities in education, work and family life. The pressures of modern society are hard to resist, but as each whānau moves away there is an adverse affect on the marae.

Traditionally, the marae has been the focal point of any Māori community. The marae is a stronghold of histories, traditions and localised knowledge, where multitudes gather to discuss, debate, celebrate and mourn. It is one of the few remaining physical spaces in which Māori identity, culture, language and traditions are unquestioningly accepted, acknowledged and upheld.

Today, we are at a watershed point in Māori cultural history. The Māori diaspora, alongside a more general move towards urbanisation, means that many Māori (physically) no longer visit their marae on a regular basis. But there is still a powerful need for those who have moved away from their Māori institutions to find alternative ways to connect with their people and culture. 

For many, the use of social networking sites are now a way of life. Cultural survival and vitality are key priorities for marae, hapū and iwi and, for younger generations at least, social media is becoming a platform for realising these priorities. We are seeing a gradual ‘virtualising’ of Māori culture – the live webcast of Labour MP Parekura Horomia’s tangi earlier this year is just one example of how technology is being embraced and used in new and innovative ways.

Let me share a personal story as an illustration. A few years ago I was elected to the board of trustees for my marae and hapū. At the same time a relative of mine, who was living in Australia at the time, contacted me through Facebook wanting to connect to our marae.

I asked the boards if I could create a Facebook group page where people of our hapū would have the opportunity to virtually connect and participate in their marae. It took a long time for me to convince our kaumātua that this was a good idea. They were understandably hesitant about releasing hapū information, like whakapapa, in a virtual environment that could be accessed by anyone.

But the desire for those overseas to stay connected became obvious once the Facebook page was set up. Over a period of six months over 430 people ‘liked’ the page – descendants from all over Taranaki, New Zealand, Australia and beyond connected to the page. They were all looking for a way to maintain their roots and stay in touch with others from the same marae.

This experience triggered my interest in the growing importance of social networking sites to Māori – both as a culture and as individuals. I can see how new technologies have a role to play in cultural revitalisation and preservation, but fear what they mean for the underlying principles of Māori society and culture.

My doctoral study explores how Māori use social networking for cultural purposes – for whanaungatanga (kinship or family ties), identity construction and practising tikanga Māori.  

The scale of the modern Māori diaspora clearly requires new thinking and social media provides Māori with the ability to connect to each other and engage in meaningful ways. It allows relationships to be maintained, regardless of geographic location, and in some cases new familial relationships can actually be forged, contributing positively to whānau ora. 

People can farewell their deceased relatives, grandparents can Skype their grandchildren, and nieces and nephews often meet their aunties and uncles for the first time through social networking channels. These connections are far from trivial and inject life into whānau and extended whānau.

Social networks can provide participants with similar environments to the marae, where cultural expression and identity are celebrated and acknowledged. It can strengthen and enrich cultural identity and many of those who actively use social media see it as a positive means of cultural revitalisation and self-determination.

But whenever an aspect of Māori culture is virtualised, there are profound concerns from some Māori, and a sense that the virtual experience is very much a ‘second-best’ option. For example, Māori are generally content to use technology to connect to tangihanga, or funeral rites, if they can’t be physically present. While this helps them to manage and express their grief, many question the ability to connect to the wairua of the deceased via video link.

While some of the people I have spoken to feel satisfied with virtual forms of ahikā (rights to land through occupation) to give them a sense of belonging to home, it is important that the concerns of our elders are not ignored. In the act of embracing technology and virtual ways of connecting, we must not replace the fabric of Māori society and culture with a virtual substitute.

To have physical kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face interaction), to feel wairuatanga (spiritual connection), to experience tapu, to share mauri (life force) – these are fundamental to creating a meaningful connection to the source for Māori living away from their home. Our elders, practitioners and cultural warriors are also concerned about the integrity with which tikanga is practised and maintained away from their guidance and expertise.

If Māori cultural practices and rituals become heavily virtualised, what will be the future of the marae and its place in Māori society? Will the physical marae become desolate of its people? Will the next generation only experience their culture in virtual spaces? 

The future of the marae is hanging in the balance. 

While it is important that those living away from home can find ways to maintain their cultural ties, it is equally important that the notion of being Māori remains heavily rooted to Aotearoa, in both physical and spiritual ways. Cultural survival and vitality means embracing new technology while also holding onto the fundamental traditions and strongholds of Māori culture and society. 

A future without our marae? I don’t think any Māori would want that for their kids.

Acushla Deanne O’Carroll is a PhD candidate at Massey University. Her research explores how Māori use social networks for cultural purposes. She is currently continuing her research with indigenous communities in the United States through a Fulbright-Harkness New Zealand Fellowship.

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