THE MOON IS A BASKETBALL
—Notes from a field journal
Young people tell each other stories about the world every day. We think we are listening but often we are not. We have plugs in our ears that drown out their words. I initiated the Through Our Eyes project because there was a story that I wanted to hear about growing up Māori in New Zealand. I wanted to find out what young people themselves had to say not only because I found myself speaking in increasingly meaningless adult slogans about Māori youth but also because somewhere along the line I began to lose the plot of my own childhood story of growing up Māori in small town New Zealand.
Let me explain. Like many of my generation I have both Māori and Pākehā parentage. In the 1960s I lived in the slipstreams of these cultures. My parents held their courtship at the Saturday night dances down at Te Papaiouru Marae in Rotorua and I imagine, almost as if I had been there myself, the bright lights strung around the wharenui [meeting house] and the echo across the lake of Howard Morrison singing Twilight Time. Of course, there were few other places where a brown boy and a white girl could fall in love away from the prying eyes of the town.
Later, my family moved back and forth between the steaming suburbs of Pākehā Rotorua and Te Papaiouru Marae with its neighbouring St Faith’s Church where the Reverend Manu Bennett gave his Sunday sermons and conducted the weddings, baptisms and tangi of the pā. As a child, I had no sense of connection between these worlds. We simply walked between them. I think of the mid-way point around the lake where my family bought our fish and chips as a kind of portal where we shifted gears between cultures — cautiously rearranging ourselves like guests at a wedding who had inadvertently turned up in their slippers and pyjamas. I do not have a vocabulary for these stories.
It seemed to me that young Māori might have explanations that I had overlooked and that perhaps 21st century life has furnished them with answers to the decades-old questions their own parents had about growing up Māori in New Zealand. I hoped that where many of my own generation had fallen silent— young people of today might have stumbled across those places— and filled them with sound and light.
In the summer of 2005 I arranged for a team of Māori researchers to travel to communities in the Far North, the central North Island, the Wellington region and a small town in the South Island. The Through Our Eyes team worked with young Māori aged between 14 and 16 years in each of these districts to create a photographic record of their everyday lives. I told them that more than words, I wanted pictures. Words can disguise meaning. Pictures have their own way of speaking.
Each of the researchers had tribal or other whānau links to these areas and for each of them the project represented a particular kind of homecoming. Carey, one of the Ngāi Tahu researchers, for example, returned to the small town of Kaiapoi in the South Island to work on the Through Our Eyes project. Some months beforehand I had asked each of the team to write about their reasons for wanting to return to their tribal areas to carry out the research. Carey wrote:
I am able to fly over the whenua of Te Wai Pounamu in my mind’s eye—so deeply etched in my memory are the contours and folds of the maunga, the indents and flow of the awa which have given life to me and those before me on their journey to the sea.
But perhaps the longest awaited return home was that of Michelle. Michelle had been studying for her doctorate at a leading university overseas and came back to New Zealand to write up her research. She began work on the Through Our Eyes project in the spring of 2004 and a few weeks later some of the team members and I accompanied her to her first meeting with a group of young people in a small, rural community in the Far North. We travelled from Auckland in a rental car on a hot January morning. As we drove away from the grey humidity of the city, the light changed gradually to reveal a clear blue brightness which is peculiar to the North.
“Do you see it?” Michelle asked suddenly, “Do you see how the light changes?” We nodded.
A little later she said, “There’s a point in the road—wait— we’re coming to it soon. You’ll see.”
We were heading across the steep, winding road known as the Brynderwyns— a range of hills south of Whangarei known for its difficult terrain.
“We’re nearly there.”
There is a point in the road where the landscape changes abruptly and the mountains give way to a view of the sea below— a disconcerting moment of readjustment as the land seems to become ocean and the forest disappears behind the hills. In the far distance across the harbour are the peaks and valleys of Whangarei Heads.
Michelle stopped the car and looked out at the sea and the sky with its strange clear light. “We’re home,” she said, and she nodded firmly as if something important had been resolved.
We often treat small towns as a tabula rasa, a kind of blank slate on which we inscribe our dreams and anxieties. There are some who expect the church halls and paint-peeling community centres, reminiscent of flower shows and calf days, to summon up a gentler past— of afternoon teas on the lawn and the clink of bone-china teacups— of delphiniums nodding in the breeze and kindly maiden aunts pressing coins into our hands with the injunction to buy ‘something nice’.
But small towns are also represented as places where violence lies not far beneath the surface. We hear talk of cannabis economies and maverick loners with untreated and ungovernable psychiatric problems. When a man strapped explosives to his body and took several hostages at the Morrinsville Police Station one cold winter afternoon in 1993, I remember that I was not surprised. I have family members living in the town and think of it as a place of barely suppressed extremes. However it is worth bearing in mind that the way people talk about small towns is a little like the way they talk about adolescence— sinister typecasting one moment and an excess of sugar the next.
When the Through Our Eyes research team headed to the regions we were prepared to find both darkness and light in the communities that had welcomed us. There had been a raft of media reports in the lead-up to the project about ‘out of control’ young people. Moral panics about bands of evil, depraved and criminal Māori children lurking in the bushes. We didn’t worry too much about those public anxieties but we did spend several hours in conversation about how we might deal with the sorts of problems that some young people face. For example, we talked about what we would do if a participant disclosed physical or sexual abuse or dangerous drug use. We discussed how our first responsibility was to the safety of the participants and we established ethical procedures for dealing with ‘worst case scenarios’.
I do not regret this. Once many years ago as a junior researcher on a project that involved young children I noticed a problem with one of the six-year-old participants. I alerted one of the senior researchers and a few days later a teacher at the child’s school contacted me to ask for the records of our interviews which had taken place over a 12-month period. But the records were confidential and over the next three days, the adults argued loftily about the ethics of breaking the guarantees of confidentiality we had given the child. In the meantime the girl continued to arrive at school dirty, dishevelled, hungry— and on the third day she was badly bruised and had to be hospitalised. Research ethics practice relating to young children has changed dramatically in the past 30 years and the delay in securing a young person’s safety would not happen now but I have never forgotten that child— or our failure to act.
Several of the young people involved with the Through Our Eyes project were excellent students with high levels of academic achievement. Others had already been labelled as misfits by their teachers and had already turned their attention to the lives they would eventually lead outside of school. The research team members were ready for all of this. But during my first meeting with a group of young people I realised something was amiss with our carefully laid plans and earnest good-will.
It came about like this. I had been told that these particular young Māori occupied a place at the centre of their tribal community. Their kuia had spoken to us at considerable length about her hopes for Māori children in the area. This was not unusual. In fact people in all the Marae and school communities involved with the Through Our Eyes project expressed similar sentiments. But I am a sociologist and moral panics aside— we are trained to look for misfortune— the rebellious child, the teenager poised on the brink of suicide, the sad stories behind the bleak statistics. Sociologists are often highly attenuated to the pulse of human misery. When it confronts us in the course of an investigation we check for sub-texts and alternative explanations. And we practise a particular brand of scepticism that often makes us scornful of other researchers who become so caught up in the life of their communities they believe everything they are told. Those kinds of researchers, we tell ourselves, are suffering from some form of Stockholm Syndrome— as deficient in objectivity as other people are deficient in iron or Vitamin C.
One of the young people at that first meeting took a photo which I keep on my desk. It shows me and some of the other researchers seated at a picnic table surrounded by a group of young Māori participants and their brothers and sisters and aunties and cousins. It shows the kuias’ laughing faces and the remains of the enormous feast we had just eaten. In the background, children are singing and playing guitars and the last of the afternoon light is fading behind the rugby field. I remember the warmth of that day and a sleepy late-afternoon feeling of having eaten too much. I remember too, that when it was time to go, I didn’t want to leave.
It occurred to me then that when the kuia told us that young people are at the centre of that small rural community that was exactly what she meant. As the months passed and the photographs started to come in it became clear that the young people in all of these communities were seen as the beating heart of these places regardless of whether they were good kids or good students or good athletes or even good citizens.
Those who had been labelled as ‘troubled teens’ by teachers or local police or WINZ workers— in the context of their everyday lives— were more like ordinary young people with a range of ordinary troubles rather than potential delinquents or criminals. They were not ‘alienated’ from their families and nor were they particularly interested in discussions about cultural identity. In those communities, being Māori is the norm and talking about it is a bit like stating the blindingly obvious.
Certainly there was poverty and economic hardship in these areas and there were also very few jobs for young people when they left school. I did hear reports of child abuse but each of the communities had established processes for dealing with this. These ranged from formal government-funded Marae and School-based programmes to home visits by members of the local Marae. Sometimes their efforts worked. Sometimes they didn’t. Nobody pretended otherwise. So in this project, there were no bulletins from the twilight zone. What we saw was Māori young people and their families, sometimes having rows with their siblings or their parents, hanging out with friends— and getting on with their lives. Alongside these tales of the ordinary came the slow realisation that my training had failed me in some indefinable way. Real life is not a tabloid story with pictures. Truly. It is not.
ON THE EDGE
The researchers taught the young people how to use the digital cameras and over a six-month period they helped them build a photographic profile of their tribal and social communities. By winter, the photographer-participants had generated nearly four thousand images of a world seen through their eyes. This was no small task.
We could only provide six cameras to each community— back then, camera equipment was expensive and the research grant stretched only so far. This limited the number of young people who could participate although they often shared the cameras amongst siblings and friends.
The photographer-participants structured their images around a series of ideas. These were ‘mana’, ‘belonging’, ‘journeys’, ‘the past’, ‘hate’, ‘love’, ‘danger’ and ‘land’. We asked what these words meant in their own lives and then helped them as they turned their thoughts into digital images. The team also asked them to take photographs when they were doing everyday things on weekdays and during weekends.
Each time I opened a new file of photographs I saw something that made me laugh or which stirred my own memories of growing up Māori in small town New Zealand. The keywords that framed the photographs covered a range of cultural meanings that the researchers and I had each struggled with at different times in our lives. We saw these same contradictions echoed in many of the Through Our Eyes pictures but I was struck by the apparent ease with which the young people navigated Māori and Pākehā cultures.
As a child growing up in provincial New Zealand in the 1960s, there were clear divisions between Pākehā society and Māori society and a whole box-set of strictly segregated codes and behaviours that I had to learn.
Fast forward to 2005 and the divisions were still in place but these young people were equally at home in both worlds. They seemed to move effortlessly between haka and hip-hop— between the paddocks and the shopping malls— between their tribal histories and the kind of New Zealand-lite history they learn at school. The cultural map was changing and it seemed to me that these young people were drawing new kinds of boundaries and establishing cultural territories that I could not have imagined 40 years earlier.
I recall my own messy experiments with walking between cultures in provincial New Zealand and later seeking a way of growing up Māori in Wellington city— far away from Rotorua. In the 1960s and 1970s there were a lot of bi-ethnic young people like me trying to find a magical bridge that would provide a passage into the heart of each culture. It was an elusive goal. Yet the Through Our Eyes photographer-participants had succeeded where many of us had failed. They didn’t look for a bridge or passageway that would allow them to emerge suddenly on the other side of a cultural boundary. Where I had struggled to find connections between cultures— these young people knew that they were themselves the crucial connection. As a child I looked for ways of bridging the gaps between these different worlds— it never occurred to me that I was myself the bridge. The Through Our Eyes participants understood this. They know that to pass into the Pākehā world they would do so as young Māori. It’s obvious really. I am not suggesting that it is easy for them or that they do not encounter racism, sometimes very deeply entrenched— only that they recognise the difference between looking for a link that may not in the end, exist— and being the link— the living channel between peoples.
One of my former doctoral students, Dr Fiona Beals, has described this as ‘edge-walking’. She borrowed the term from the work of an earlier student, Dr Anne-Marie Tupuola, who did her PhD in our department at the University some years earlier. Anne-Marie coined the term ‘edge-walking’ to describe how Pacific young people experience growing up Polynesian or Melanesian in New Zealand. Fiona put together the Through Our Eyes photographic exhibition that we took back to the Marae communities at the conclusion of the project. She also pointed out several important details, one of which was how the photographer-participants ‘framed’ their pictures. For example the sea framed the lives of all of the coastal Māori— while mountains framed the world of inland Māori. We have literally hundreds of photographs of mountains and the ocean.
The landscape is never neutral and for many Māori it has tribal significance. Fiona reminded me not only that young Māori have learnt to walk at the edges of cultures here in New Zealand but also that the mountains and the ocean describe the edges of the land. I often wonder if it is perhaps this familiarity with physical peripheries that allows young Māori to navigate both culture and landscape with such poise. Whatever the case, these young people have devised their own methods of edge-walking.
CRADLE TO THE GRAVE
Late Tuesday night and the Through Our Eyes photographer-participants are washing dishes in the bright light of the Marae kitchen at the College of Education in Wellington. The background music is set low and I’m listening to Tupac Shakur rapping:
From the cradle to the grave, life ain’t never been easy
Living in the ghetto.
From the cradle to the grave, I’m glad to say I made it this far.
Many G’s died hard and all they got was their name here up on a wall.
It’s sad thinkin’ about the time
Life goes on, I’m steady lost in this land …
As the war zone I got no home
— Tupac Shakur: Cradle to the Grave (From Thug Life)
Shakur’s songs have been a constant presence over the past few months— his appeal to the project participants is immense. Tupac was an iconic figure on the American West Coast rap music scene before his death in 1996 in what may or may not have been a gang-related shooting. His music is a nervy mix of acapella and R&B that combines earthy lyrics with rich harmonies. The plates are stacked in time to the beat.
In the next room a Cherokee woman who has just arrived from the United States is singing quietly to a sleeping baby. Beside her a group of young Māori practice the waiata they will sing the following day. In the wharenui, a group of Ngāti Whare kaumātua are quizzing a young Sámi woman on her PhD topic and our visitors from Australia’s Murri confederation are preparing for bed.
We brought several of the Through Our Eyes photographer-participants to Wellington to participate in an Indigenous Knowledges conference we were running at Victoria University of Wellington, but we also wanted them to see the 2005 World Photo Press Exhibition as well as some rare historical footage of Māori at the New Zealand Film Archive.
It was a successful visit and the young people from the different regions enjoyed meeting each other. The first evening passed— as Marae evenings do— in an ebb and flow of music and conversation and by the time that people began to yawn and stretch and shuffle off to bed it was as if all the disparate strands of the project were beginning to weave together into a single thread.
I thought about that evening on the Marae a few weeks later when I was visiting my husband’s family in Christchurch. We decided to visit the site of the old Kaiapoi pā because Carey, the Through Our Eyes researcher at Kaiapoi, had told me something of her relationship with the place and of its history.
I kept an eye out for our photographer-participants as we drove past the neat brick houses and manicured lawns of Kaiapoi. We stopped at the participants’ local school. It was closed for the summer holidays but I saw the classrooms and large playing fields that appeared in so many of their photographs. It was my first visit to the township since the photographs came in. On this visit I saw everything differently— I knew some of the stories behind the landmarks— the willow trees lining the river, the main road into town, the clipped hedges and quiet driveways of certain houses. All of these had featured in the photographs. Each time I recognised a building or a road or a tree I made a death-defying swerve across the traffic to stop and have a closer look leaving my husband sitting in the car clutching the dashboard in a white-knuckled panic.
Several of the young people in Kaiapoi have connections with the hapū that once lived at Kaiapoi pā. The fall of the pā in 1831 was linked to a lengthy feud that took place with the people of Ngāti Toa Rangatira— the forebears of some of the photographer-participants in the Wellington region. I thought about this as we drove out of town to Woodend, past the flat paddocks and thigh-high grasses and down the gravel road to the pā.
The original kāinga had been built beside the Tairutu Lagoon in the seventeenth century and for more than two hundred years it was a thriving settlement of around a thousand people. In 1831 a war party led by the Ngāti Toa leader, Te Rauparaha, laid siege to the pā. Both iwi have their own versions of the cause of the feud that led to the attack on the pā— but what is known
is that Te Rauparaha and his men piled dry grasses and timber around the wooden palisades of the pā with the intention of burning through the defences and storming the kāinga. In an attempt to drive off the attackers a Kaiapoi chief named Pureko lit the fire himself but a sudden wind change fanned the flames back towards the palisades and burned the defences along the walls of the pā. Te Rauparaha and his men were able to enter through the breached defences and the pā fell.
Nowadays the main settlement is based down the line at Tuahiwi and the Kaiapoi pā is deserted. The Kaiapoi information centre had a brochure about the battle and on the last page, a poem reads:
The trees are smaller here,
the land quieter.
There is an expanse,
a space that breathes slow
as if resting;
air, soil, and water
have recoiled and locked
into a soulless embrace
bare of wild running
& bitter endings;
deaf to the crack
of stone against bone
& the mad passage of bullets
across the smoking flats
where the battle light
has drained from the eyes
of young warriors
into the dripping flax;
on the shoulders of a white stone,
the three fingered tiki
rises into the light –
to a land
that still remains speechless
— Rangi Faith
We parked the car and walked across the grassy field which is the site of the original kāinga. At the southern entrance there is a large limestone monument, topped by an imposing tiki, listing the names of the defenders of the pā and those who attacked it. We walked around the perimeter of the site in silence. In the eerie stillness a flock of birds rose soundlessly from the trees and a sudden change in wind direction left us shivering— and I thought then that it was time to leave.
When I look at the photographs of the Kaiapoi group and then turn to those of the Ngāti Toa photographer-participants I see a deep sense of pride in their tribal histories but I also sense that they are learning to tell their stories in new ways. Tupac again…
… Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots …
— Tupac Shakur: Keep Ya Head Up (From Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z)
But if the past is at times punctuated with brutal collisions, it is also a beginning place for stories that haven’t yet found their endings. I suspect that these young people will write their own conclusions and the endings may well surprise us.
… But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up
Forgive but don’t forget to keep your head up.
— Tupac Shakur: Keep Ya Head Up.
THE MOON IS A BASKETBALL
When a person reaches maturity or a project comes to an end you sometimes hear people say: Kua hua te marama (the moon is full). I’m fond of this saying and probably over-use it when I’m trying to explain the cyclical nature of Māori research to my students at the University. But I rather like the idea that something can come into being and then pass away only to reappear again later. I like the waxing and waning motion of the work we do alongside Māori communities and the rhythmic hum of conversations that weave back and forth across time.
When the Through Our Eyes fieldwork was completed and the researchers had moved onto other assignments I found a photograph that seemed to fit the saying. It was taken by a 14-year-old Ngāi Tahu participant called Mihi. This young woman’s photographs interested me a lot. She seldom took pictures of people. Most of her photos are suggestive of the moods of the landscape or richly colourful portraits of everyday objects. There is an evocative quality in her photographs— of stories not quite told, some darkly humorous— and meanings that lie just beneath the surface of her daily life. There was something odd about this particular picture although I hadn’t paid it much attention at first. But it kept catching my eye as I sifted through the images. It is a puzzling photograph to describe:
The moon is full…
But look again …
A full moon rises over the garage on a dark night…
Look again …
The washing is on the line beneath the orange moon…
Look again …
… The moon is a basketball.
I saw a message in this photograph that Mihi had never intended but which helped me to finish the project. It happened like this. The completion of the Through Our Eyes project coincided with a Waitangi Tribunal hearing in Rotorua at which my husband was an expert witness for a group of Te Arawa Treaty claimants. The hearing was to take place at Te Papaiouru Marae where I had spent so much time as a child so I travelled back to Rotorua the day before he was due to give evidence.
I drove up the North Island with our friend, Moka Apiti, a GIS/Mapping expert who creates maps of tribal landscapes for Treaty claims research. When we arrived in Rotorua at nightfall Moka’s first priority was to consume a large quantity of hot food as quickly as possible and we ended up eating hamburgers at McDonalds.
After he had finished his fries and licked the salt from his fingers, Moka looked around him and with deep satisfaction he said, “It’s just like being up home on the [East] Coast— everybody here’s got a brown face.” He was right. All the people in the booths around us were young Māori. The people we saw walking down the street and passing by as we drove to the lakefront, were Māori. You tend to notice these things when you’ve come directly from seeing the pale and worried-looking city people in Wellington and Auckland.
But on that trip I also noticed that the tired young waiters and service industry staff working for minimum wage in the glitzy, expensive hotels in Rotorua were also by and large, Māori. It was young Māori waiting at the WINZ office— just as their parents had when the forestry industry collapsed in the 1980s and so many people lost their jobs. And it was young Māori handing out brochures by the evangelical church on the corner of Tutanekai and Pukaki Streets and looking for a kind of hope and salvation that was not available to them in the present— and despite all the years that had passed I still felt the same sense of anger as I drove through the streets under the bright full moon about being young and being Māori and growing up in a country that still— today— discards young Māori with such negligent ease. And I knew then that there were stories still waiting to be told.
I had been longing to hear Ngāti Whakaue’s stories being told at Tamatekapua (the wharenui at Te Papaiouru) as part of the Treaty claims process. At previous Tribunal hearings in other regions I have listened attentively to Māori claimants giving evidence and heard stories about Crown misdeeds that have left me feeling shaken or enraged. I thought that at Rotorua I might find that one last elusive piece of the puzzle and that my own history would somehow fall into place— that it might finally begin to make sense.
But the next day as the stories of the past were shaped by witness after witness— a curious lassitude crept over me. I was acutely aware of a blowfly buzzing over our heads and the terrible heat of the room. A group of people from a government agency sitting behind me gossiped endlessly about their protracted drinking session of the night before. In the end I couldn’t listen any longer and I stumbled out of the wharenui into the light of the late afternoon.
Down at the lake there is a point just between St Faith’s Church and the Marae where you can look out towards Mokoia Island and see the steam rising from the vents in the earth around you. When I was a child I evolved a theory of navigation as I stood in that particular place. I knew that if I was flanked by Tamatekapua to my right and St Faith’s to my left as I looked out to Mokoia Island, I would always know exactly where I was and where I belong and how to get back home if ever I got lost. This is where I go whenever I am in Rotorua and when I left the wharenui I turned instinctively to that spot. In my pocket I found a piece of paper with a list of the Through Our Eyes photographer-participants and as I stood by the Lake reading through it, I thought about each of them in turn.
It seems to me that the stories we tell as Māori are full of broken pieces. There is always a point in tale when we laugh and another where we weep. But there is a time for healing too. Our children may not always get it right but they will tell our stories after us and we need to trust them to find their own voices. The Through Our Eyes project did not ultimately provide an ending for my own story but the young people who were involved showed me that it is possible to begin new stories that start in different places– and that you can, in the end, forgive.*
As I stood at the edge of the Lake looking out to Mokoia Island, I had a brief recollection of the Reverend Manu Bennett holding forth in the pulpit at St Faith’s and gentle afternoons in the wharenui. In my mind’s eye, I saw my parents dancing through the warm Tamatekapua nights and I knew I could begin my story once more. The Through Our Eyes young people gave me this and a lot more besides. Tena koutou i nga taiohi. Kua hua te marama.
I think of them often now that the project has finished. They have each moved on to new things. Some have left school while others have moved to different regions. We have lost contact with one or two people but the others are still around and most are doing well. As young people, they will keep moving and changing and growing and time will pass. But in the mean time I like to think of them as if they are out there still— beneath the basketball moon.
Based on notes from a field journal
* A small section of this essay appears in a chapter I wrote for a book I co-edited with Kabini Sanga: Harvesting ideas: Perspectives from a niu generation of Pacific leaders. Suva, Fiji: University of South Pacific Press, 2012.
Photographic images: Permission for the use of images on this site has been negotiated with the individuals and groups involved. Research involving photographic images received institutional ethics approval and participation in the project for young people under the age of 16 years was subject to parental/guardian consent.