Friday, May 29, 2015

Homeward Bound

Earlier this afternoon, some of our class was keen to ride the cable cars to the top of a local mountain here in Wellington. Hungry, and dreading the 12+ hour trek home, I opted for the only place in New Zealand where a man can eat for less than $10. McDonalds isn't the healthiest option, but the burger was fine, and the view of the city below was not unwelcomed.  

Strange to think that the trip is winding down already. In fact, just this morning two members of our group left for an extension of their travel abroad, off to destinations in Australia. One other member of the class left for Laramie yesterday. 

Soon, the rest of us will board a plane here in Wellington for a brief jaunt to Auckland, where we'll connect to LAX and eventually to Denver, and to home. 

I suppose with every trip there's a bit of wistfulness for the memories made. Over a year ago, when my family and I left New Zealand for Oklahoma, I wasn't sure that I would ever return. And yet, just over a year later, here I am with a fresh set of experiences that were only enhanced by the students and my colleague on the trip. 

It's a bit cliché, but like to think that farewell isn't good bye. If the relationships developed here are any indication, a visit to New Zealand or hosting visitors from New Zealand in the near future isn't only possible but perhaps quite likely. International travel, something that was once quite alien to my life experience, now seems to be a part of the natural order of things. Sometimes it's a lot for this kid from Cotton County, OK to absorb. 

At any rate, I'm quite pleased to be leaving for home. I have a wife and son that I've missed very much, and plenty of Call of Duty left to play now that classes are over - not to mention the academic research and writing that I need to do as well. 

But in the meantime, I'll keep a special place in my heart for Aotearoa - the land where my son learned to walk, and the first place our newly minted family called home. 

Until next time, farewell, Friends. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Visit to the Museum


Te Papa Tongarewa Museum here in Wellington, New Zealand is every bit the epitome of a modern state museum. But what makes this one especially interesting is that its cavernous halls are home to some of the most exquisite collections of Māori artifacts in the world. Our group from the University of Wyoming traipsed through this morning for a quick 90 minute tour of the museum's Māori highlights. 

Our tour guide was a surly woman. Short. Somewhat portly. The tenor of her voice bespoke an annoyance with the very premise of answering questions. Naturally, this effect was amplified on those rare occasions when one of us dared to ask one.

This seems to be a thing with tour guides on this trip. In a separate incident while touring Parliament yesterday, a different guide actually yelled at a poor girl from our class when she paused to use the restroom before the tour even started. Later, the same guide badgered my colleague, a staunch feminist, over Wyoming's decision to grant women the right to vote.

To be clear and fair, this guide was very much in favor of women's suffrage, but his point seemed to be that New Zealand had led the world on this score by becoming the first country to grant women the right to vote as opposed to being merely a state. My colleagues position was that Wyoming's decision on women's suffrage was actually done under "false pretenses." Now that I think about it, I suspect they were talking past one another.

Nevertheless, fireworks ensued and we all enjoyed the festivities, albeit a bit awkwardly. The name "Te Papa," according to our tour guide is derived from the Māori words for treasure and basket. As a result, the museum fancies itself as a treasure basket of sorts, or to put matters less obtusely, the home of the nation's treasures.

At Te Papa, one of the more interesting parts of the collection was the Māori "meeting house," or wharenui in the photo above. This particular wharenui was actually stolen (or "confiscated" to quote our guide) from one of the New Zealand tribes as a showcase piece for visitors to Parliament as luck would have it. Perhaps our guide from Parliament gave the tours.

For the indigenous scholar in me, all of this, of course, begs the question of whether the museum is actually a home to the nation's treasures or a safe house for the country's plunder.

Tomato, tomāto, I suppose.

In all, it was a lovely visit to the museum. It's no Smithsonian but the coffee was nice even if the tour guide wasn't.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Dispatch from New Zealand

The Tukorehe Marae is an unprepossessing structure. Nestled behind a grove of lush palm trees, its paint is gradually fading, unveiling layer upon layer of cosmetic efforts past. The predominance of white paint is strong in the front. But in the back, it yields to flecks of salmon, and some of the wood has worn itself bare. 

Our host at the marae is a man named Shawn, or "Papa Shawn," as the kids call him. And while he's hardly the garrulous sort, he clearly loves this place - a place that he simply calls home. 

Māori in New Zealand often call a particular "marae" such as this, home. For the descendants of Tukorehe, a Māori ancestor from the distant past, this marae is theirs, carrying with it all the trappings of ownership as if they had helped Tukorehe himself hew the logs that support its roof. 

By way of explanation, the focal point of the marae grounds is the meeting house, or wharenui, which resembles a small wooden chapel that congregations in the Southern United States might have used over a century ago. However, far from practicing Christianity, Māori consider their meeting houses to be the living iteration of their ancestors. Photos of deceased relatives line the wooden walls of the wharenui, each ancestor looking after the occupants in a very literal and symbolic way. The walls themselves are ornately decorated with wood carvings and flax tapestries that tell both the exploits of the ancestor, as well as the philosophy/theology that undergirds the Māori worldview. 
The marae, then, is not so much a chapel as it is a cenotaph dedicated to the presence of the absence of ancestors who never truly left to begin with. 

If there's a nugget of wisdom I've gleaned from the complexities of the Māori cosmology (one I will admittedly I never fully understand), it's that they do community rather differently than we do in mainstream America. 

I won't say it's better because I'm not sure it is. But it is different, so I'll leave it there. Just different. 

The first difference is the Māori emphasis on all things communal. Sleeping in the marae, for example, is a wholly collective affair. The end result is that our group of ten from the University of Wyoming have spent the past three days sleeping in the wharenui, sharing snores, showers, and sleeping patterns alike. This is, of course, a stark contrast to America where privacy is the order of the day, no matter how much the NSA might say otherwise. 

The second difference is in the Māori emphasis on social extroversion. Back home, my normal routine involves quiet, reflection, dedicated time for writing, and the occasional game of Call of Duty

For Māori, nearly every interaction is focused on the shared, lived experience of family or whanauFamilies and extended families all come in equal turn on the marae, sharing meals, entertainment, and social activities in common. Needless to say, this American's time for reflection has been almost non-existent, and in all honesty this has taken its toll on my frazzled nerves. It seems I crave quiet in the same way Māori crave togetherness. I suppose both the individual and the collective have their place and needs. 

Of course, I knew all of this coming in. The marae was never a mystery to me given the year/plus that Gwyn, Clark and I lived in New Zealand. But perhaps the difference on this trip is the presence of the absence of my own whanau. While the Māori ancestors look after us from behind their frames in the wharenui, my own family is ensconced miles across the mighty Pacific, visiting family back in Indiana. 

It seems this is the real lesson from Māoridom. There's precious little that's more important than family.  Of course, we all take this to different extremes. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Children at Play

We took Clark to the park today. The playground equipment had all the usual trappings of a large park in the center of town, including scores of parents, kids, and pooches out for their afternoon walk. 
Amid the chaos, we discovered the slides fairly quickly. Clark and Gwyn spent most of the time going up, and down the slide head first. No worry given to broken necks, or petrified father watching from the side. Only the occasional mischievous glance, and the squeal of joy at landing in the wood chips beneath the slide. 
It's a remarkable thing to see a child at play. Engrossed in the moment. Utterly fascinated by whatever it is that captures the attention, and imagination of a young mind. 
But what I envy most is Clark's ability just to be. To enjoy. To play. Some nights when my mind races with things to do, with the things that I didn't get done, with the typical cares of life that keep one awake late into the night, I wish I had his young heart, and innocence - things forever etched on the face of a child at play. 
I suppose that's something I can't get back. And yet, I can't help but pray it's something he never loses. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

On Leaving


The hardest part of the holidays is always the ride back to OKC Airport. I've made the trip a fair few times now, and while it becomes more familiar, I can't say that it's ever any easier.

In my discipline, we often talk about the unique connection that American Indians have to their lands. And I think that's right.

But on days like today, as we prepare to depart and return to the regular business of busy and hectic lives, I wonder if we're only discussing half of the issue in the relationship between native peoples and their lands.

For my view, any attachment to place has to be coupled with the family/friends/loved ones who are there. Without relationship, a place is just a place. Land is just land.

But when one adds in family, and friends, and loved ones, and multiplies this across the generations, an attachment to lands makes a lot more sense.

In a way, we call this attachment, "home." And leaving home is always a hard thing to do.
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Pax Plena has been providing organic, free-range thought since 2004. And me? Well, I'm just your average, coffee-addicted, American Indian, Republican, academic. Post-Doc @UWYOAIST. The thoughts here are mine alone and should not be attributed to my employers, colleagues, or any other sentient being.