Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Karl du Fresne: Honouring those gentle, benign stingrays

I read recently that the New Zealand Geographic Board proposes to change the name of Frank Kitts Lagoon, on the Wellington waterfront, to Whairepo Lagoon.
Fair enough. Sir Frank Kitts, a long-serving Wellington mayor, is already commemorated in the name of a nearby park. And while Whairepo may not be the easiest name for non-speakers of Maori to get their tongues around, it has local relevance. Whairepo is the Maori name for the eagle rays – commonly known as stingrays – that are frequently seen basking and feeding in the lagoon.

So far, so good, then. But hang on a minute.
In a submission requesting the name change, the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust, which represents the original Maori occupants of the land around Wellington Harbour, said Maori believed the eagle rays acted as kaitiaki, or guardians, ensuring the safety of waka (canoes) and people in and around the lagoon.

This belief was solemnly cited in a Geographic Board press statement.  At this point an otherwise unexceptionable proposal starts to look decidedly flaky.
Was this a practical joke, intended to take the mickey out of earnest Pakeha liberals, or are we really expected to take such mumbo-jumbo seriously?

I doubt that even Maori genuinely believe the eagle ray is some sort of mystical, benign presence, kindly watching over recreational lagoon users.
It’s a fish, for heaven’s sake. What’s more, the eagle ray is capable of inflicting a very painful wound on any idiot gullible enough to believe that it feels benevolently inclined toward human intruders.

In instances such as this, the desire to show respect for other cultures collides head-on with common sense and empirical knowledge about the real world.
It’s one thing to respect Maori heritage and to acknowledge their legitimate interest in conferring names on public places, but that doesn’t mean deferring to folklore that we know to be absurd.

But here’s the problem. Many liberal Pakeha New Zealanders, desperate to do the right thing, buy into this nonsense. Ironically, even people who scoff at conventional religious belief, deriding it as so much fearful superstition, happily abandon their scepticism whenever the tangata whenua invoke primitive mythology. It’s tikanga, and therefore sacred and not to be challenged.
In a rational world, the Port Nicholson Settlement Block Trust would invite mockery by expecting us to believe that fish possess some sort of spiritual power. But in our eagerness to be fashionably bicultural, we defer to statements that we know to be preposterous.

The trust could have made its case quite persuasively without resorting to superstition, just as a former mayor of Masterton, Frank Cody, recently argued for the summit on State Highway 2 between the Hutt Valley and the Wairarapa to be renamed.
It has customarily been known as the Rimutaka Hill Road, but the word Rimutaka is meaningless. It’s a corruption of the original name, which was Remutaka, meaning “to sit down” – so named, according to Maori tradition, by the Maori chief Haunui when he rested at the summit while looking down on the land beyond.

Those in favour of restoring the original name have made their case rationally and convincingly. Changing the name of Frank Kitts Lagoon to Whairepo should be similarly uncontroversial. Why, then, do its backers resort to the equivalent of fairy tales?
I can only surmise that it’s a means by which Maori interests seek to exert influence over public decision-makers who see it as career-enhancing to display cultural empathy, even if it means bowing to beliefs they know to be ridiculous.

At least this time there’s no economic cost attached, unlike the preposterous incident in 2002 when construction of a new highway in the Waikato was halted because of Maori concerns that it would disturb a resident taniwha. Transit New Zealand meekly caved in and agreed to re-route the new road.
On that occasion, Dr Ranginui Walker, a former professor of Maori studies, defended the belief in taniwha as a cultural thing – “just as the same as goblins are part of European culture”.

The difference, of course, is that no one pretends goblins actually exist, and I very much doubt that any European highway was ever re-routed to avoid upsetting them.
Granted, there may once have been a practical basis for stories about taniwha. Walker cited a dangerous place on the Waikato River where Maori children were warned against swimming because a taniwha would get them.

In that case, telling scary stories about a taniwha was a sensible way of keeping kids out of trouble. But it’s a credibility-breaking leap from there to asserting that taniwha genuinely exist and that we must humour them.
But sadly, we should expect more of this sort of thing. It’s not so long since Radio New Zealand reported, without a hint of scepticism, that volcanic activity on White Island and Mt Tongaririo was a sign that Ruamoko, the god of earthquakes and volcanoes, was unhappy about the government’s plan to sell off state assets.

Karl du Fresne blogs at This article was first published in thNelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.

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