Floating Stones

I spent some time watching the ebb and flow of the waves on Lake Taupō after a summer storm this weekend. The waves had washed the pumice stones from the beach into the water and they bobbed up and down, swept powerless by the flow of the water until they eventually washed up back on the shore and came to rest. Floating Stones. As an immigrant to these shores, I still find it fascinating that stones can float. After years as a child and then as Mum of two boys skimming flat stones across rivers and lakes, marvelling at how they skate and jump across the water until they eventually sink, I still expect the pumice stones I throw in to sink, but they just bob back up and float. Funnily enough, I’ve never tried skimming them – I wonder what would happen? 

But what have floating stones and skimming stones got to do with colonisation or de-colonisation? I’m not sure yet, but I have ideas bobbing around in my head and I’m not sure yet whether they will sink into the depths or rise to the surface! 

Over the last few weeks, I have been trying to read “Colonising Myths Māori Realities” by Ani Mikaere. I say I am trying because when I first received it through the post at the end of last year, and eagerly picked it up to read, I found that my head was too full and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. The last two months of 2023 were a bit overwhelming, so I devoured light reading that didn’t tax my brain. 

Back to it, more refreshed, I have opened it up again. I am overwhelmed all over again – just the first few chapters have sent my brain into overdrive, so this post is an attempt to bring some order to my thoughts. 

As I have read I have inevitably drawn parallels with the education system as I know it and how the ideas relate to my mahi working in schools with kaiako and ākonga.  


Ani talks of the challenges in Higher Education and organisations generally when trying to develop a bi-cultural approach – the majority of NZers have been brought up and educated in an overwhelmingly mono-cultural and racist education system which in itself a microcosm of NZ society in general (p.8) 

Are our schools still mono-cultural and racist? Many are, many are multi-cultural which is an argument I hear a lot from kaiako who say we are not a bi-cultural nation we are a multicultural nation. It is true that Aotearoa New Zealand is home to many people from diverse cultures and we should respect and celebrate all of them. However, this is the only place in the world where Māori are indigenous and where te reo Māori is spoken. Te Tiriti o Waitangi is a treaty between tangata whenua and the Crown which enables all the other cultures to be here, we are first and foremost a bicultural nation and our systems and organisations should reflect that. 

She talks about the ‘bi-cultural’ nature of the Law Degree at the University of Waikato and how some students, especially Māori were attracted to the course because of the Māori content, others were interested and intrigued and willing and keen to learn more. 

“Many, however, do not appear to realise that the bicultural commitment is intended to be anything but tokenism.”  

p11 Colonising Myths Māori Realities” by Ani Mikaere.

Is this what many of our schools and kaiako think too? That a few signs, whakataukī, karakia at the start of the day, the odd waiata are enough? I know that many are trying to do more and truly intend to design curricula that are bicultural, but I know that many stop at the ‘safe’ parts. They are comfortable seeing the images and the trappings but don’t want to be confronted by more than that and really embed biculturalism across the whole ecosystem of their schools.  How do we go from ‘token’ to authentic?

“Being a bicultural teacher is part of being a professional in the context of Aotearoa”   

p.11 Colonising Myths Māori Realities” by Ani Mikaere.

Teaching in context means teaching in a way that gives credence to mātauranga Māori, Māori perspectives, tikanga. So when it comes to designing learning it needs to have more than a Māori image, or a story or a whakataukī at the start. 

As Moana Jackson says;

“It will never be enough to simply redecorate the colonial house by placing kōwhaiwhai panels over the door, or make it less alien by filling it with brown faces.  It needs to be dismantled and then rebuilt from the ground up as two houses with a marae ātea between them where issues common to both can be worked through in accordance with an agreed tikanga.”

We have to shift hearts and minds. Educate, inform, unlearn old histories, relearn true histories. Without an understanding of how those structures and systems have colonised Māori and how colonisation has led to the dire social and economic situation many Māori find themselves in, we will continue to tweak and be tokenistic. However, kaiako all over the motu are open to learning, they are mostly a product of an overwhelmingly mono-cultural and racist education system, that selected carefully the histories that were taught so that a vast proportion of adults in Aotearoa have a very distorted understanding of the history of this land. When I and my colleagues share the real histories, they react in several ways;

  • Shock and horror that they didn’t know but a desire to learn more (most)
  • Shock and horror and resentment, guilt, or shame. (some)
  • Shock and horror and then immediate denial (some)
  • Shock and horror and vehement rebuttal (not many)

They probably accurately represent the Pākehā population as a whole in their reactions.  Nevertheless, many kaiako are embracing the challenge of learning more about Te Tiriti o Waitangi, about all the histories of Aotearoa New Zealand. They are embracing the hītori, mātauranga Māori, te reo Māori, the pūrākau and they are truly embedding these things into the learning experiences they are designing for their tamariki. The learning is deep and meaningful and it promotes critical thinking, looking at different perspectives and challenging long-held beliefs and knowledge. 

Cultural Safety

Ani talks of when she first started at Auckland University as a young Māori lecturer. In a hui she suggested some ways that other lecturers could show more respect for Māori – simple things like pronouncing names and kupu Māori correctly, having an open door policy so they were accessible to students. Afterwards she was taken aside and told that she needed to watch her tone when talking to her colleagues as most of them were not accustomed to working “‘with women, let alone young women’ – then a pregnant pause, which I took to mean,’let alone with young Māori women.”

She went to the University of Waikato because it had a commitment to being bicultural and the Law School offered a course that pledged ‘to teach law in context and its commitment to biculturalism”.  She discusses in depth the challenges and benefits she encountered both as a lecturer and for her Māori students.  One of the key challenges was feeling culturally unsafe. What does that mean?

We are a bicultural country and schools and workplaces should be spaces where we can see that we are in a bicultural country. What does that look like, sound like and feel like?  How good would it be if the next generation of tamariki to come through our education system were not products of a monocultural system but a bicultural one?  What difference would that make to our society, to our world views and the way that our systems can be fundamentally changed so that tauira Māori, kaiako Māori, and kaimahi Māori don’t feel unsafe?  I have two wee kōrero that help me to understand how Māori feel culturally unsafe. One from my mahi, one from my personal experience.

The first was when a young wāhine Māori who I was learning te reo with told me of her experience on her Midwifery course. They were having a class about Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the conversation turned to how as midwives they could honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi and also give mana to the culture and tikanga of the wāhine they were supporting. She said that some of the students became very aggressive, questioning why they should do that. She and other Māori students felt that they were put in a position of having to explain and justify which inevitably led to the other students directing their anger at them. This was not a safe space for them to learn. They felt that the air was being sucked out of the kōrero as Pākehā students took up all the space demanding explanations and challenging what they were hearing. In the end, they asked if they could have a separate space so the Māori students could learn and discuss the kaupapa on their terms with a Māori tutor and the Pākehā students had a different class which met their needs more appropriately. 

The second relates to some mahi I have done in a school. We were learning about Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the impacts of legislation on the country generally but with specific reference to the Education System so we could understand how that had affected our whānau Māori. This mahi went on over several months as it is complex and it is challenging for many Pākehā hearing it for the first time. A few sessions in, one kaiako Māori asked me why she had to sit through these sessions when she already knew all of this, her whanau had experienced the impacts personally, it had had long lasting effects on who she is and who her whanau are.  Having to engage in the kōrero, the questions from other kaiako, explain and defend the history that they had never known and deal with their guilt and insecurities on hearing it, heightened the mamae she felt on a daily basis. She is a staunch and fierce wahine Māori and I have a huge respect for her. She helped me understand in some small way what feeling culturally unsafe meant. 

I heard a Māori educator talking a few weeks ago about needing to be inside the system to be able to change it, but he also acknowledged that that is hard – emotionally and psychologically – continually standing up for his beliefs, fighting for real representation, authentic honouring of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in the systems of the organisation, supporting other Māori, to bring real change and not just changing the wallpaper. 

As Ani Mikaere says;

“I cannot accept that It is my responsibility to carry the guilt of the oppressor (or silence myself) for the sole purpose that the oppressor will not feel badly. No one has ever offered to carry the pain and anger of being oppressed for me!  Trying to force me to be responsible (at fault) is a powerful tool intended to silence.” 

So what is the solution? 


When I think of schools, I think of the things that we can SEE around school that make it seem like there is an attempt to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi, to meet their obligations as a Crown entity to be bicultural. Things such as bilingual signage, a mural that tells a local story, Māori imagery, karakia, waiata, kapa haka, te reo Māori on the classroom walls.  They embrace the ‘safe ‘ bits and ignore the parts that challenge them, that make them uncomfortable;  the things that we can HEAR and FEEL are more difficult to achieve. But they are the things that make a real difference and a more sustainable difference. We need to fundamentally change constructs within our organisation, even dismantle the system all together and start again. Our education system has been and still is one of the most powerful constructs that has impacted negatively on Māori since colonisation.  Dismantling colonial structures is essential if we are to have better outcomes for Māori. As long as the structures and systems privilege the majority there will be no change. The majority have the loudest voices and the most power and they will hold on to it with all their might! Who is brave enough to do that and what does it look like? 

In this kōrero Ani Mikaere – The Power in Our Truth Ani talks about there being power in the strength of an idea – once out there it tends to percolate and eventually re-surface a bit like my floating stones. She is talking about the concept of ‘Parallelism’ that Moana Jackson proposed in He Whaipaanga Hou in 1988.  Seen as an extreme idea at the time, Ani suggests that Parallel Structures now seems to represent the middle ground, indeed a bare minimum of what should be and it has been implemented in both Health and Education. The Māori Health Authority is an example of a parallel structure. Kohanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa are examples in education. Systems that work in parallel but provide for the specific needs of Māori. 

Ani talks about how in the Criminal Justice system too there has been a lot of mahi done around tikanga, programmes to support rangatahi, te reo lessons etc. We have done the same in the field of education – I have talked already of all that schools are doing. But more structural change is also happening. Te Mātaiaho is the exciting and brave new curriculum that puts Te Tiriti o Waitangi front and centre, the Aotearoa New Zealand Histories curriculum seeks to tell the many stories of Aotearoa New Zealand and not just the whitewashed colonial history.  BUT can these things fundamentally change the systems? Do they really make them ‘bi-cultural’? The intentions of them have to be implemented with fidelity, kaiako and school leaders need time to understand them and implement them. The language in Te Mātaiaho, the whole whakapapa of the framework is beautiful. However, some kaiako have struggled to use the language, to pronounce the name of the curriculum itself – Te Mātaiaho – let alone the kupu in the framework. Some kaiako genuinely find pronunciation of Māori kupu hard, others simply refuse to try. I come back to the quote at the top;

 “Being a bicultural teacher is part of being a professional in the context of Aotearoa” (p.11)

In her documentary  “Portrait of a Quiet Revolutionary” Moana Maniapoto asked Moana Jackson whether having more Māori MPs in Parliament has made a difference. In response, Moana Jackson talked of how incrementalism can become stasis – it can consolidate injustice. Incrementalism is often so slow that no impact is made. An increase of Māori in the system will alter neither its function nor its purpose as long as that system exists. 

As in Parliament, there are more Māori kaiako, working both in mainstream schools as well as in Kura Kaupapa. Some of them in mainstream schools work in a Rūmaki setting, others in English Medium. Have those increased numbers made a difference? Are those schools more bi-cultural? Do they break down barriers and enable Māori tamariki to achieve success? Definitely, in some schools it has but the pressure on our Māori colleagues is huge. As I have heard from many of them, they cannot bear the load alone. They shouldn’t have to be the ones always defending, arguing, justifying, explaining, sharing stories, teaching te reo Māori, running Kapa Haka, leading waiata practice, baring their souls and being vulnerable. It is too much. 

Moana Jackson talks of ‘the carceral imperative’, something that Andrea Smith calls the ‘logic of genocide’, this follows the premise that as indigenous people disappear, the colonist will supplant them in their own lands. How was this done? War, legislation, sickness, assimilation, incarceration. These are all ways of making people ‘disappear’. Our education system was designed to assimilate Māori, for them to adhere to the expectations of being a good British citizen and to limit their academic expectations. Indeed, the Director of Education argued in 1931 that the aim of Māori education should be to turn out boys to be good farmers, and girls to be good farmers’ wives consigning Māori to the working class and to servitude to the Settler community.   We need structural change to reverse the ‘disappearing’ of indigenous people, not wallpaper. 

So, is Parallelism a solution for improving educational outcomes for our Māori tamariki? Is it a way of embracing biculturalism and will it provide culturally safe spaces for Māori to learn.  Ani Mikaere believes it can and will. 

“These considerations have led me to the conclusion that for some purposes, Māori and Pākehā students would be best taught separately. This would enable Māori staff to employ the energies where they are most needed amongst Māori  students it would also require Pākehā lecturers to take responsibilities for Pākehā students’ learning and in helping them through the problems that they have with such material.  It should not be the job of Māori staff to expose ourselves and our students to Pākehā students’ feelings of guilt and racism. It should be added that the approach that I suggest here would not preclude Māori and Pākehā streams from coming together for particular topics or even to discuss the topics upon which they have both been lectured separately. A healthy exchange of views should still be possible and desirable and could be factored in through the use of tutorials or regular combined lectures.” 

Colonising Myths Māori Realities” by Ani Mikaere.

What might this look like in our schools?  

It’s taken a long time for my stones to float to the surface and they are still bobbling around! I can see how this might work within schools but is having a Maori and a Pākehā stream, as some have suggested especially in regard to the Māori Health Authority, a form of Separatism? Is it an exclusive system that privileges Māori to the detriment of Pākehā? Is it equitable? How is it different from academic streaming? Or single sex schools? I might have to leave those stones to float a bit more! 

Whatever we do though, we could do worse than adopting Moana Jackson’s quiet approach by gently prodding and pointing people in the right direction, calmly, without judgement but also holding ourselves to account so we don’t lose sight of our goal of biculturalism. In schools, we need to make time to imagine the future and all it should be, then decide on multiple strategies to achieve it with honesty and integrity constantly holding a critical lens to our actions. 

Throw a stone in the water and see if it floats. Or skim one and see how far it goes. 

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