Connecting with culture
"Ko taku reo taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria"
My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.
What is culture?
Culture is different things to different people. But in general, culture can be described as people sharing a set of traditions, beliefs, practices, expectations, and history. It changes and grows from the way people see the world, and the ways they explain it or live in it together. Culture comes from our connections and relationships with others, yet each of us has our own view and experience of the cultural worlds in which we live.
Many people see culture in terms of the shared experiences of people from a certain ethnicity, or people that live in a particular region or country. These are extremely important cultures and are the focus of what we talk about below.
But cultures also emerge in the shared values and practices of organisations, and of community groups like sports clubs and faith communities. Some are local, others are highly distributed - like the culture of online communities that bring together people from across the world with shared interests. Cultures also emerge on a global scale - like capitalism or democracy. People are part of more than one culture, either on a large or small scale.
All the cultures we are part of have powerful effects on our lives, because they form many of our beliefs, and influence both the decisions we think we should make, and the final actions we take. Some of these cultures we understand as important parts of our identity. Others like capitalism may drive feelings, beliefs, our actions and inaction, without us even being aware of most of their influence.
Culture and ethnicity
For many people, an extremely important factor in our lives is the cultural influences typically associated with ethnicity - such as what it means for us to be Māori, Tongan, Japanese, or a Pākehā New Zealander. Our experiences in life are powerfully influenced by our families and communities of origin. Often these have strong links to national and ethnic communities. Alongside this, people make assumptions about us based on what we look like, which can shape the way people interact with us.
Culture and wellbeing
Culture shapes how all of us see the world - it affects our perceptions, our judgements, and the choices we make. This applies to health and wellbeing as much as it does to every other area of life.
What is healthy?
You may think there is one agreed definition of ‘health’ and what could be considered ‘healthy’ - for example, what constitutes healthy eating, a healthy weight, or appropriate and healthy behaviour. But these definitions come from our cultures too. There’s little evidence that the views of one culture are more valid than another on these topics. Across cultures there is a wide range of beliefs on topics relevant to wellbeing - such as the value of individual autonomy versus responsibility, and accountability to family/whānau and making decisions collectively.
Racism certainly isn’t healthy
Racism is a part of our world. Racism is a bias against some cultural groups that negatively impacts those groups and ultimately the whole community. While racism is much more openly identified, and much greater efforts are being made to address its negative impacts, it has a real and ongoing impact on many New Zealanders' lives. We must recognise this reality, in order to continue making progress to address it.
Being culturally connected
Our cultural connections are not just ideas - they form parts of our relationships with the communities we live in. As a result, when we move we can potentially become disconnected from our culture. Major life events such as joining the Defence Force or being a refugee in a new country - can separate us from familiar things and places. We can lose support for maintaining healthy behaviours, and can feel separated from the things that have previously given us a sense of stability and belonging. At such times, it is easy to feel lost.
People can have an immediate loss of connection with their culture or cultures of origin, or sometimes this can be long-term. Some people haven’t been brought up to know about their connections to their origins. Or through breakdowns in relationships, they or their entire family may have removed or lost their ties to that wider heritage.
In the 19th and 20th centuries European colonisation was a driving force in the world. This led to many indigenous peoples losing ties to their traditional cultures. Māori experienced land, language, history, skills, and culture loss as part of a sustained process of colonisation. As a result, institutions and societal rules and practices have combined to pressure people to engage in a largely Pākehā-defined New Zealand. For many Māori, the consequences of colonisation are still felt today - and its effects can be seen in people's health and wellbeing. (Barnes and McCreanor, 2019, Colonisation, hauora and whenua in Aotearoa discuss this). New Zealand has started to grapple with this as a society, but we still have a long way to go.
Impacts of colonization on modern Maori culture
How do I know if I am disconnected?
- If you identify with the X culture, but you sometimes feel “I am not X enough”, that’s worth noticing. This doesn’t always mean you are disconnected from your culture. It might mean the view of what it means to be X that you’re applying to yourself is too narrow. But if this idea causes you distress, it does sound like you’re feeling a conflict between your current life and important parts of your identity. That can really hurt. If you’re feeling like that, it’s something you can get help with.
- If you feel like you don’t really know your origins, you might be disconnected from your culture. Different cultures vary in how much they value being clearly ‘connected’. Western cultures are often more accepting of an individualistic streak, where a life disconnected from your origins might be seen as still consistent with your cultural values. In contrast, in a more collectivist culture how connected others are and feel to you may be valued as much as - or more than - how connected you want to be to them.
- Do you feel torn? Does it feel like different aspects of your identity are against each other? Whether it’s disconnection, or the need to find some integration, that’s likely worth paying attention to.
- Perhaps you know you’re not well connected to your origins, but are unsure if it matters. Research and people’s experience suggest reconnecting with your culture or cultures of origin is often a positive experience that adds to wellbeing. For Māori, this can be an important step that's under your own control, that can begin to overcome some of the intergenerational trauma of colonisation. So, if in doubt, perhaps start a journey and see where it leads?
Urban Māori & cultural connectedness
Connecting to our national and individual culture for Pākehā
For dominant cultural groups such as Pākehā New Zealanders it can be easy to see their experiences as just the norm or to be expected. It is harder to think about their heritage and practices in terms of being a ‘cultural background’ at all. In some ways, this blindness to their own culture is a form of cultural disconnection itself. One of the ways many people disconnect themselves from their cultural background is by distancing themselves from the actions of their forebears.
For non-Māori in New Zealand, and particularly for Pākehā New Zealanders, it can be tempting to see bi-cultural and multi-cultural conflicts as being about historical events that are ‘in the past’ or that should be left there. A common thread in such arguments is that the person holding the view didn’t personally take the actions in question, and responsibility lies with the original perpetrators. There are many problems with this view.
One is that these views become part of the national culture, and can continue to create and maintain new disparities. Another is that those who are part of the dominant culture continue to reap and reinforce the benefits of historical actions that placed them in a preferential position. It’s like living life with a tailwind; a tailwind people are often unaware of.
For people wanting to understand more about our shared history in New Zealand, we recommend several books below that would be excellent starting points.
Land of the Long White Cloud | Episode 2 – Inheriting Privilege
Land of the Long White Cloud | Episode 3 – Recognising Racism
Start a journey
It is important to see reconnecting to your cultural roots as a journey to travel, not just a single task you need to complete. Like many journeys, there may be important milestones along the way, such as reconnecting with relatives or to a place of origin, taking on a role in a community, or pursuing greater knowledge or mastery of cultural practices. These can certainly all be highly valuable and fulfilling. But like any stopping points along a journey, they may initially feel far off. What is more important is setting off on the journey and, if possible, travelling alongside people you value who are looking out for you.
It doesn’t need to be a solo voyage
Perhaps you can find someone to come with you on this journey. Maybe this is a sibling, a cousin, an aunt or uncle, or a friend? Travelling together is more fun and might feel easier.
Find your whenua
If you’re Māori, Mauri Whenua Ora researchers have provided a guide to helping people find their ancestral marae, based on the Māori Maps platform they developed. This might be a great first step.
Reach out to a local Marae, or a community group for your culture
Many people have been down similar journeys of reconnection and may have stories that would help you on your journey. If you’re Māori, you could connect with your local marae or one of the NZDF marae. Marae associated with a local tertiary institution like a university, polytech, or wānanga are usually open to everyone, highly welcoming, and can connect you to great resources. For non-Maori, look online for community groups which are focused on your culture of origin - and reach out.
Connect through language
If you aren’t a speaker of the language associated with a culture of your origins, many communities have resources to help you begin this process. Many people find language learning to be empowering. It is also a natural context to connect with other people from your culture. For Māori, there are Te Reo courses throughout New Zealand. Google “Te Reo class” and the name of your town and you’ll quickly find options. Likewise, you can search for another language you want to learn. Then just give them a call and ask. In many cases, Te Reo Māori courses are offered by educational institutions like universities and polytechs, and you may not even need to pay for these courses. While in-person is a great way to learn a language, some courses are offered online, and there are also moderated online communities you can connect with e.g. Te Reo Maori.
If you’re looking for an easy place to get started immediately, there are lots of resources online. For instance, Te Whanake provides language resources, podcasts, videos, a link to the Māori dictionary and relevant apps. Frequently members of other communities will likewise have created guides to find great starting places.
Get yourself a navigator
Along the way, look for people who might be able to help you find your path forward - and ask them for help. A great starting point for NZDF personnel might be to talk to the NZDF Marae leaders (Army, Navy and Air Force), our Māori Cultural Advisors, or an NZDF chaplain.