Guest post: Individual and cultural mana

Originally two comments by Rob on Without permission.


Cultural appropriation is an interesting one. I know in the US the use of native peoples traditional dress can be a sore point. Using Plains Indians head dress as short hand for all tribes for instance, not to mention using elements of costume inappropriately and/or for commercial gain.

Similarly in NZ there have been issues with the commercial use especially of certain traditional Maori dance/song (the Kamate Haka is an excellent eg) or design motifs without permission. It’s a fair point to consider that in these cases there is a tribal organisation that is empowered to discuss use and licensing. Some things are just utterly insensitive to an entire culture. For example, the printing of the likeness of Maori notables heads onto souvenir tea towels. The head is sacred to Maori (and most polynesians). To use the likeness of the head of a respected person to dry dishes and wipe benches – crikey! Similarly plastic or soap Tiki and making dross out of Pounamu.

In general most Maori tribes seem very happy to share and educate at a personal use level and there is an inevitable bleed of concepts into general usage.

Conflict arises in examples like those discussed in the OP where there is an attempt to exclude a person of a different culture from even attempting to interpret or use general ‘public’ elements of culture. I say go for it in most cases. Roundly criticise and debate when people do a bad or insensitive job. I’m not about to attack Indian (as in India), African or Maori people (for example) for writing music, fiction, or designing clothes that draw on English or Scottish themes.


This is not necessarily a left vs right argument in all cases. When you use the music or design motif, or significant material of a culture in an inappropriate or disrespectful way, or even an appropriate way (unlikely) for commercial use without authorisation, you may in fact cause harm and disadvantage.

Take Ka Mate for instance. Because that was starting to get used inappropriately commercial users all over the world an Act of parliament was passed to control its appropriate use [1]. Some cultures, such as Maori value mana [2] very very highly. The inappropriate use of culturally significant performance, ritual or material reduces both individual and cultural mana.

Tourism and trade is critically important in New Zealand and many Maori tribes are deeply engaged in these activities. They seek to provide high quality and culturally respectful ventures that enhance tribal mana and represent their culture in a good light. Setting up a competing commercial venture deprives the tribe of income that it can use to raise the standard of living of its members. If the competing activity is also of lower quality or misrepresents critical aspects of culture it may also devalue to activity itself. Pounamu (NZ jade) was all too frequently made into low value items, often overseas and thus caused both economic and cultural harm. By treaty settlement any and all pounamu now belongs to Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu [3].

Belittling is different again – and is also wrong.

On the other hand Maori have also been more than happy to share their love of good kai [4] with us.

PS: as one of New Zealand’s whiter (in upbringing and propensity to suffer sunburn) individuals, the irony in me representing this view and argument in this context is not lost on me.





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