Sunday, November 4, 2012

Feeling Like the Dumb American (North, that is)

Te Papa, the National Museum

This is one of those times when I come face to face with my ignorance.  I can blame the fact that I’ve spent the last 25 years in the Virgin Islands, where we are somewhat sheltered from world news.  I can blame the fact that I’m from the US, where we tend to be somewhat egocentric about world news – and I have to say, watching New Zealand news coverage of the US election does reinforce the notion of the US as the center of world politics.  I can also blame the fact that social sciences and history and politics have never been my strong areas, despite my interest in anthropology and international studies and cultures.

At any rate, Te Papa – Maori for “treasure box” which it truly is – was an eye-opener.  I found out how LITTLE I truly know about New Zealand.  For example, the Maori are most likely from originally from various Pacific islands, but not Hawaii, and came to New Zealand about 800-1000 years ago.  That the Maori aren’t one nation or group of people, but rather are a number of different tribes who formed a confederation to deal with the incoming whites “Pakehas.”  That there have been numerous other immigrants over the years, from other Pacific islands, from the Balkans, from Italy – as well as a large group of orphaned and homeless Polish children after WWII.  That Sir Edmund Hillary was from New Zealand.  That the British signed a treaty in 1840 agreeing to allow the Maori use of their lands, fishing rights, all that – and reneged on the treaty.  Until they apologized and basically signed the treaty back into law in modern times.  And on and on. 

Te Papa is a gorgeous museum – with amazing exhibits of the history, art, and culture of New Zealand.  There are New Zealand artists displayed, as well as European artists like Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner, to name a few.  There are painters who took Maori designs and rendered the symbols in more Western formats.  Exhibits featured a Maori waka (canoe) from the early 1900s, an elaborately carved entrance to a community house, video testimonials and artifacts collected from immigrants, political posters, interactive computer games – on and on. 

I made it through about half the museum before my brain when into overload or hyperdrive or something. 

But I learned so much.  I learned that this nation has always been multicultural, but that it didn’t become the pluralistic society we’ve seen until the 1980s.  That Maori language and culture has undergone almost a renaissance since then.  That it took a great deal of effort and foresight on the part of communities leaders to overcome the prejudices against and marginalization of the indigenous peoples. 

Makes me realize that those of us living in much of the rest of the world have a lot to learn from this small country.

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