Whose values? What narrative?

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From left: Luke Veikoso, Fatai Latu, Sione Fataua and in the front row, from left, Tevita Siola'a, Kolo Fekitoa, Mano Totau. Photo: Rutger Bregman/Twitter

Recently, the Guardian website featured an article titled ‘The real Lord of the Flies : what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months’. In 1965 six Tongan youths, Tevita (David) Siola’a, Sione Fataua, Luke Veikoso, Fatai (Stephen) Latu, Kolo Fekitoa and Sione Totau (now known as Mano) became stranded on ‘Ata Island, at the southern end of the Tonga archipelago. They remained there, in good health and spirits, for fifteen months before Australian Peter Warner came upon the island, returning the young men to their homes, and later employing them.

As other commentators have noted, there are problematics associated with the representation of this story, the framing of the tale from the white saviour perspective, that of Warner, being one, with another that the first image the reader encounters in the article is not the Tongan men involved, but a still from a film adaptation of Golding’s book featuring British boys brandishing sticks and painted faces. This article was not about the unique Tongan values and expertise the young men displayed, but a variation on a tired old colonial refrain; Moana peoples are child-like heathens who need to be saved. An excellent response to these problematics comes from Torres Strait Islander and Tongan storyteller Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi, in an interview with ABC Pacific Beat, and a piece in the Spinoff, which provide a strong and culturally-informed critique.

With the original Guardian article receiving over seven million views in just a few days, much of the commentary from the readership is self-congratulatory and amounting to the same thing: that human nature, not Tongan culture, is what allowed Siola’a, Fataua, Veikoso, Latu, Fekitoa and Totau to survive. From a Māori perspective, what can we learn from their experience? What cultural values, capacities and resources did they draw on, that might be relevant to Māori as we move into a post-Covid environment?

As Gesa-Fatafehi notes, the youths’ survival was attributed by Warner to simple hard work and determination, ignoring the cultural values and expertise they shared. They were able to draw on their knowledge of the environment to derive sustenance from it. And when Latu broke his leg, his ‘duties’ were, with some gentle teasing, picked up by his companions without complaint. In a more individualistic culture, he may have been left to die. If you find this comparison unlikely or extreme, consider how many people die in New Zealand each year from completely preventable causes.

Many have rightfully called for transformational change in the wake of Covid, but in order to be transformational, change cannot remain at the level of policy. Any such change must reflect the fundamental shift in values that New Zealand is experiencing; away from the violence that mainstream neoliberal politico-economic ideologies inflict on our people and our environment, and towards radically different ways of being. Māori values are not just important to Māori, but to all New Zealanders, and are needed now more desperately than ever as we seek to reinscribe our national values.

The young men at the heart of this story relied on their own capacities, and were able to draw on them in a time of need. No doubt their capacities were developed and extended further as they responded to their environment. When Latu’s leg broke, the others were able to set it in such a way that it healed completely, using the resources available to them, and the body’s natural healing capacities. Similarly, Māori communities possess within them the capacities to determine and respond to their own aspirations and priorities. These capacities must be respected and developed further, whether they align with Crown priorities or not. Kendall Flutey questions the wisdom of investing in an industry already feeling the impact of technological disruption, and asks whether some of that money would have been better spent elsewhere; “the $1.6bn trades and apprenticeship training package hits snooze on today’s problem only to wake up to over-supply and lack of job security tomorrow. Had we placed this kind of investment into digital technologies education we could have seen Aotearoa transform a 10% unemployment rate into a digitally empowered global provider come 2024.” Instead of seeking to impose solutions on Māori, the government must let Māori communities lead our own responses to Covid.

A key contributing factor to the excellent health of the boys was their discovery of the remains of a previous settlement on the island, decimated by ‘blackbirding’, or Pacific slave-trading, in which New Zealand played a ‘shameful role’. The gardens there retained banana and taro, with a naturalized chicken population to boot. In short, the resources and systems set in place by their ancestors remain functional, even in the absence of those ancestors. This speaks deeply to our own taonga tuku iho, both physical and metaphysical. Our tūpuna developed concepts and practices that remain available to us now, and which may well prove necessary to our flourishing. Balance and reciprocity in the human and natural domains are required to transformationally respond to inequalities, injustices, and climate change.

A solutions-focussed approach to the experience of Siola’a, Fataua, Veikoso, Latu, Fekitoa and Totau suggests that Māori values, capacities, and taonga tuku iho hold the key to unlock transformational change in New Zealand, not just for Māori, but for all New Zealanders. As we emerge into the post-Covid era, what will guide us as a nation? By what stars will we set our course? As we seek to redefine ourselves in an age beset with so many difficulties, it is clear the answer cannot come from government alone; we all must have a voice in telling this story.

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