Maori culture adapting to presence in online media

When Vicki-Jane Ross's sister died suddenly, she could only just afford to fly home to New Zealand from Perth for the tangi. Her 12-year-old daughter had to stay in Australia.

"She was devastated that she couldn't participate in seeing her aunty off. It felt like something was missing," Ross said.

If an online video stream of the tangi had been available, it would have helped her daughter grieve and learn the traditions of the Maori culture, she said.

"There are a lot of Maori over in Australia who can't afford to come home who would want to participate in that way."

Online tangi is a part of the growing cultural participation by the Maori diaspora on the internet but elders are concerned that the online portrayal of dead bodies is a breach of sacred Maori custom and they're worried the culture cannot keep up with the rapid digital change.

"The older generation are saying that we need to be careful how we practise those sorts of protocols of ours in virtual spaces," said PhD student Acushla Dee O'Carroll.

Her thesis investigates the way the internet and social media have assisted in constructing Maori cultural identity and how they have facilitated whanaungatanga (relationship building) in strengthening ties with the family, iwi and marae.

The effects of the transition of Maori culture online have been both positive and negative, the Massey University student has discovered. Education and access to Maori culture has been welcomed, but the online adaptation of traditions and culture has been less smooth.

Photos of dead bodies have been published online for the benefit of those who can't attend a funeral. This was considered a breach of tapu.

"Some young people are posting these photos of their passed away aunties and it is uncomfortable," O'Carroll said.

"We have that strong constant connection to our mate [the dead], so to put it into this virtual space where it is not just you and your family who see it but it is potentially all of Facebook, a lot of my participants talked about that transgressing tapu."

Others say the culture must adapt or it will lose relevance.

"By allowing the culture to change it will create more participation and tighter families," said Karaitiana Taiuru, a leading figure in the online presence of Maori.

"When everyone has ultrafast broadband we are going to see a shift in how tangi and hui are performed without the expense of travelling."

But the gatekeepers still need convincing.

When O'Carroll was asked by her family in Australia to start a Facebook page for their marae she had to first approach the elders.

"When I went to my elders, they said no. They weren't sure that the new technology wouldn't relinquish our mana," O'Carroll said.

"Once I told them about the positive aspects of connecting these people in Australia to our marae - virtually - they agreed."

As the marae Facebook group passed 450 members, the potential for the online transfer of knowledge was welcomed.

"But as long as there was some strict control over what was posted. They didn't want me to post our whakapapa on this page because it was stuff for home."

Taiuru helped create new Maori words for the te reo version of Facebook. They coined words such as ngatautuhinga tamataitinga (privacy settings) and whakahau tanga (update status).

"It is important that the community grow the language themselves. If we don't, the language will become non useful because the vocab is not there."

But the Maori Language Commission (MLC) was concerned that the creation of culture cannot be done in an ad hoc fashion and needs to be carefully managed.

"I would like them to have some sort of sense of the translations coming from a Maori cultural perspective," said Te Haumihiata Mason, language services manager at the MLC.

"The MLC should be the caretakers and keepers of the Maori lexicon."

Taiuru recognises the importance of cultural history but wants the MLC to move forward at the same time.

Sunday Star Times