Role for karakia in schools if less like religious propaganda

19:54, Jun 23 2013

Tihei mauri ora!

Auckland's Kelston Intermediate School found itself the focus of national attention recently when some of its teachers complained to their union, the New Zealand Educational Institute, about being asked to lead pupils in a karakia at the start of the day.

Roughly, and not always correctly, translated as "prayer", karakia will be familiar to anyone who has visited a marae, attended a powhiri, or worked in a government department.

So should New Zealanders embrace karakia being recited in schools? Perhaps not for religious reasons but because, as Pita Sharples says, "they are a vital part of our lifestyle and consistent with the New Zealand Curriculum".

Trouble is, last time I checked, the Human Rights Commission recommended that state schools avoid prayers, and our Education Act makes it very clear that our state schools should be secular.

Although I am not religious, I don't always have a problem with karakia. They can be a nice way to start a meal or some other communal event, and in the hands of a skilled orator, can sound beautiful. I may not believe some of the words that are being spoken and, like most Pakeha, I don't understand all of them. Yet I can marvel at their beauty in the same way I enjoy Handel's Messiah, even though the libretto is mumbo-jumbo.

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And some karakia are not that religious. The well-known karakia that begins "whakataka te hau" basically says "let dawn come and have a great day". This secular humanist can live more happily with that lyrical incantation. And it was created well before European missionaries came to these shores with their Bibles, guns and venereal diseases, so there's some cultural interest as well.

But what about karakia like the one that students at a West Auckland primary school are made to recite? It asks the "Lord" to "look after us, guide us with your work today, in your holy name". Whatever language it is in, it sounds like Christian propaganda.

But the trouble in this country is that if you disagree with some aspect of Maori cultural practice, you often find yourself with some rather unsavoury redneck bedfellows. They see Maori culture as inferior and, to quote a comment on a Right-wing blog, full of "stone age mythology and primitivism".

Yet many Pakeha who object to karakia in schools have no problem with the parliamentary prayer, our "God-chosen" monarch, our national anthem, English prayers recited at assemblies of high-decile state schools, and other forms of state-sponsored hocus-pocus. Yet the minute the prayers are in Maori there is hell to pay.

Though it is quite easy to implement the separation of church and state, it is more difficult to separate religion and culture, especially Maori culture. Some of their words are based on atua (traditional gods) so to learn the language also means to learn traditional beliefs. But there is a big difference in learning about a rich, fascinating culture and being indoctrinated with a karakia that is little more than a translation of an English Christian prayer from Victorian times.

Dr Sharples is right that schools should reflect the community, but in this case, the beliefs of the community clash with the law, even though karakia are an integral part of kaupapa Maori education, which has had a lot of success for Maori students.

When the charter schools that Dr Sharples supports come in, some of which will be run by religious organisations, there will probably be so much religious bunkum, zealotry and devil-talk that the karakia issue will pale into insignificance. But is there a compromise?

In our bicultural society, karakia form an important part of Maori culture so we should respect that. But it would be nice that if we must have karakia in state schools, they more closely resemble the older non-Christian ones so everyone could feel included.

Do we really want "holy" karakia that refer to God, Lord, Him, the Bible and other words that get the privilege of a capital letter when translated into that other language jam-packed with religious references - English.

The Dominion Post