The Lost World of Maori Wealth & Abundance

I absolutely love this picture, because everything about it screams abundance.

hakari

The picture was painted by Cuthbert Charles Clark, at a hakari (feast) held in the Bay of Islands in 1849, it is an enormous erected structure of a stage, where massive amounts of kai (food) were stored. Each section is about the height of a person and the hosts were effectively showing their generosity to their guests.

Why this picture is so important is because it gives us an indication about how well our economic system and way of living was for us. It signals the abundance by which we were living by. It signals an era of wealth.

What a lot of people don’t realise or give credit to, was just how well the Māori way of doing things provided sustenance for Māori. An economy is basically understanding how a society produces stuff and who benefits from that stuff. The Māori had a koha economy, or a gift economy. It centered on giving, exchange and reciprocal relationships. Everything produced came to a central place and then it was redistributed. Kai was the main currency.

The system we have today is based on accumulating as much as you can, as fast as you can, for yourself. This system is what causes Māori poverty, not Māori laziness, violence or being uneducated, but a system that was not designed to suit our relational way of being. We had a brilliant system that knew how to look after us and each other, where no one hungered.

Ranginui Walker, tells us that prior to pakeha arrival, no one hungered, there was no such thing as poor people. And in actual fact Māori didn’t even have a word for poverty. Nowadays we hear the word pōhara for poor, but this is quite a new word in the Māori language, which is a transliteration from the words poor fulla.

poor + fulla = poor fulla

pō  + hara = pōhara

The real irony, is that the New Zealand settler government thought their way to be superior and better than the Māori (and some still do) and so forced us (through violence) to change. So we were moved from a system of being sustained and fed, to a system where we now experience devastating child poverty rates and hunger.  Capitalism has caused huge fundamental issues globally, especially around poverty and we now need new ways of looking at economies to correct these problems.  This is where koha/gift economies are starting to make more sense.

Another brilliant part about our koha/gift economy was people chose to be a part of it. They had choice. People could opt out and gap it to go live with another whanau (family) or hapu (extended family) if they didn’t like where they were. We had many whakapapa (geneology) lines that we could choose to align with that gave us freedom of choice.  It was a system that was for the main part based on free will.

Not only does this picture scream wealth and abundance, it also shows panache! Those flamboyant colourful flags attached to the structure flying high, showing themselves off. Such ‘the Māori way’ to always add that spark and glitz into everything we do.

We had values in our traditional system that need to be brought back. Most people would say that we cant go back to the way we were, and no we can’t. But we can go back to the principles by which our lives and society were driven by. We can create economies that are stimulated  by values of giving, instead of taking, and driven by meaningful relationships. These principles work because they are people centered values. And this photo is proof that they work.

29 thoughts on “The Lost World of Maori Wealth & Abundance

  1. i love the maori people their culture and language…that being said just like our first nations people in canada we cant turn back the hands of time…the world is progressing faster than ever, it would be nice to see the simple way of life come back but it wont so dont dwell on it..

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    1. We look back to hopefully learn from history, and provide answers to questions we face today. “Progression” is in the eye of the beholder, I don’t think our descendents will consider our age as “progression” when they’re faced with the reality of climate change and global warming.
      Maybe if we hadn’t viewed non-western cultures as “simple and took them as complex and more connected and rooted in reality than western culture, then I would call that progression, and leaving this world a better place for our children than when we found it.

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    2. Roger Kealy I don’t think the author was wanting to bring back to life a way of being that is gone. She said the values such as giving and collaboration are what underpinned successful Maori life, for many many centuries I might add. Are you a first nations person from Canada? If you are it would be interesting to know of the values that you hold today from our culture.

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  2. Ka rawe! I was first amazed by this structure five years ago at a Matariki symposium, the presenter was discussing traditional economy. This image has guided my thoughts of traditional economies, of the link between kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga. You needed an intimate knowledge of the food system ecology in order to bring it together at a hui, and a sustainable approach to do this long term. So good!

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  3. History binds us our existence.
    Without it brings confusion.
    Place it back into today, to see/share/evolve into our everyday lives.
    written word has become a screen of preference over action.
    We are born to ‘do’ use all parts of our bodies together.
    Thank you for sharing this piece of our history that exists and is new to me.

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  4. Reciprocity was/is an awesome model which ofcourse continues today in some communities and whanau but could be a far bigger national institute. Of immense interest are the pakaukau and takaro which once sustained ALL social gatherings, for example hakari of old were imbued with prolific game playing, a cultural imperative which was the absolute matrix for our forebears. You note the flags/manu in this painting…their story is far more significant from a spiritual viewpoint and once graced every hui/tangi/whakataetae.

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    1. Here is the link where he says this. He doesn’t give ‘evidence’ for his statement, but i tend to agree that systems of good relationships and co-operation, would mean very few would go hungry.

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      1. Whilst I don’t disagree with the idea that sharing is better than competing, the idea that no one (or even very few) went hungry is questionable. My understanding is that the pre-European Maori fought battles for control of productive lands. From my (European) perspective, you wouldn’t do that if you had plenty of food. And you wouldn’t need to if there was a culture of sharing.

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      2. Good point. For the most part, people got on, they had to because war was a costly exercise and depleted the tribe. War and battles were not as frequent as it has been historically portrayed. Moana Jackson does a great talk on Maori Once Were Gardner’s. It wasn’t a perfect society, but the main principles and logic behind it make better sense in terms of addressing poverty. No child in this county should be hungry, we have enough food and resources right here and now for everyone to be fed. Its really the philosophy behind the system that interests me.

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      3. Kia ora Kiri, thanks for the fantastic article. I too am interested in Ranginui’s reference to “no one hungered” as I agree my elders also claim the same. Do you know where and more particularly when (yesr) Ranginui made this statement?

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  5. One of the challenges of traditional communities is the ability to accumulate wealth, and to possess capital in order to generate further wealth. Walt Rostow and Neil Smelser have analysed this challenge in depth.

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    1. Interesting, I will check out their work. There is something about the idea of accumulating wealth, to accumulate more wealth that does not quite hit the mark for me though.

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  6. I could make a similar case for us English pre-getting to England. Who can I blame for my ancestor’s non-monetary economic collapse? Who can I blame for the destruction of our semi-democratic society? The Romans! They were the money people. Who to blame for our need to become migrants? Well the Danes were pushing us from Scania and the Islands, The Wends from the east where the Huns were getting at them and the fact that the sea was encroaching and, of course, The Romans. We, like Maori, were also into intertribal warfare (and, sorry, but there were land wars before British colonialism) and slavery. We did, however, leave the head hunting to the Welsh & Irish (including the Scots, who are Irish anyway). Not sure any of the previous peoples were into cannibalism, but the Irish were doing strange things with horses, so I wouldn’t put it past them, especially as it is recorded that after beheading their dead enemies they then bit the nose and cheek and lips off. The Utopia in the article could only exist in a small populace community and that would only survive until its contact with another culture, which one way or another, would cause the original culture to change. We all like to think of a “Golden Age” and desire to think of the “noble savage”, but these ideas are wishful thinking only. Hmm – thinking about it_ destruction of our semi-democratic society?- it was the Normans!

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      1. Poverty is simply the social economic failure to achieve an equitable DISTRIBUTION in the populations needs in food water and shelter. Whose continuity rests continueing educatio and healthcare.

        Humanity’s greatest level in continual wellbeings lays in great risk with out meeting the populations needs wants and continuing desires in a manner of social and economic processes which are respective to that mai yence of lifes living working support systems.

        Specie diversity is being diminished and environmental risks are being taken. I think needlessly.

        An interest in the issues of understanding if there was an opportunity to change our society’s social and economic processes into something which is ecologically and environmentally sound. Has evolved of the past few years into the most remarkable understanding. That there is an opportunity to achieve a very practical change. A simple change made in our most important and influencing infrastructures. Which I call collectively the distribution processes. Whose accomplishment of these processes in a secure & controlled environment would open them up to begin technologically evolving in their new found ability to apply a great number of existing abilities which cannot be so easily or reliably applied in the mostly open air processes of today.
        Enclosure is by any means the cost preventative measure it first seems.
        As once you begin accomplishing the various transport, energy, utilities and commu ications in the sGeorgecure environment and open the to applying known and proven abilities the will begin technologically evolving into a number of unprecanddented efficiencies and enhanced abilities whose realized values then dwarf the cost of investment which is the lucratively achieved not only in a smaller undertaking in a very limited provision in permanent investment. But is all in a manner of forms and processes which are known to be environmemtally and ecologically SOUND.

        I think my MODERN society and ideed that all of Our HUMANITY is standing at the edge of achieving its most revolutionary step EVER.
        simply enclosing and reliably accomplishing these all Important and influencing processes in such an unprecedented efficiency of time energy and resources that it will remove the present barriers preventing an equitable distributikn from taking place.

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    1. I understand the article is pointing out that there are a lot of values that we can take from a previous economy rather than dwelling on a blame mentality. Many readers will agree that we cannot return to the type of economy that existed pre-European times, but come to an understanding and acceptance that an imposed colonial system caused and continues to cause the impoverished economic state we find ourselves in today. Perhaps adopting some of the values from a previous economy may help with finding solutions for todays sad state of affairs?

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  7. That article reminds me of our Tupuna on the coastal Tauranga Moana who would trade kaimoana with the whanaunga who lived inland for their range of kai from the bush.

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  8. Very interesting article, and I agree with your key point – generosity as a foundational principle for economy; or rather more importantly equitable distribution of resources.

    One question I had – how does this relate to the extinction of some *food* species? (I’m thinking moa, but there may be others). I know very little about that, and have always assumed it was related to over-consumption – so, I’m very interested in knowing more.

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