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III. Revendications identitaires et stratégies territoriales autochtones : quelles identités pour quels territoires ?

Indigenous Urban Geographies of Empowerment: Māori Urban Geographies of Whakamanatanga

Géographies urbaines autochtones de l’empowerment : les géographies urbaines maories du Whakamanatanga
Serge A. Marek


Cet article porte sur la relation entre les urbanismes autochtones et les géographies urbaines autochtones de l’empowerment. La littérature disponible démontre que les potentialités et les possibilités des géographies urbaines autochtones vont au-delà de la marginalisation et de la résistance. Dans cet essai pour développer une approche théorique, nous proposons une définition des géographies urbaines autochtones de l’empowerment. La manière dont les Māori d’Aotearoa en Nouvelle-Zémande expriment cette géographie est explorée à titre d’exemple sur la base d’une recherche qualitative et de données collectées lors d’interviews et d’observations de terrain. Cette étude de cas montre le potentiel de ces géographies émergentes partout où l’indigénéité et le monde urbain s’interpénètrent. L’argument clé est que la matérialité de la ville (terre, territoire, lieux, environnements construits) est au coeur des luttes autochtones pour la décolonisation.

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1. Introduction

1A consistent theme in the Indigenous experience over the last seventy years has been engagement with, and migration to, urban areas. In many cases, this has led to Indigenous populations that are majority urban [Peters & Andersen, 2013]. As a result, the Indigenus urban experience has increasingly become a topic of focus for academics and policy makers. Given the extent of the Indigenous urban footprint, it seems reasonable to suggest that any discussion of Indigenous futures must take seriously the role Indigenous urban life will play in the quality of this future. No social movement, Lefebvre [1991: 166-167] argues, will ever be fully successful if it is not—along with what Lefebvre refers to as the “reappropriation of the body”—simultaneously a movement grounded in the occupation and control of physical spaces; thus, following Lefebvre, it is argued in this paper that it is through a combination of embodiment and materiality that the most effective Indigenous occupations of cities occur. Indigenous peoples must continue to engage in urban space occupation and urban place-making as part of any project to create sustainable, resilient, and decolonized Indigenous urbanisms. In doing so, Indigenous peoples can appropriate urban geographies as part of an ongoing project to move past marginalization and into an urban phase of empowerment. This paper focuses on this “moving beyond” process through an investigation of the relationship between Indigenous urbanisms and Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment.

2Examples of Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment offer strategies for moving beyond reacting defensively to the legacy of urban colonialism. Building from Hokowhitu [2013: 363; emphasis in original], this "moving beyond" is represented by the concept indigenous existentialism:

Indigenous existentialism underscores the importance of the lived experience of Indigenous peoples; it moves beyond ressentiment and the focus on ‘decolonizing the mind’ to one of choice and responsibility lost when Indigenous peoples became ‘victims’ of colonization. Indigenous existentialism implores Indigenous peoples to move beyond victimhood to reclaim choice and responsibility within their lived experience.

3On the one hand, this definition suggests the possibility of shedding the yoke of colonial consciousness; on the other, the contemporary literature demonstrates quite clearly that, even in “moving beyond victimhood,” the struggle to disrupt colonialial legacy is ongoing and still central to Indigenous urban experiences. However, while acknowledging and admiring the famous title of a book by Ranganui Walker [1990], Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou/Struggle Without End, I argue here that an overemphasis on unending struggle runs the risk of marginalizing the stories of urban success. How can overcoming oppression and inequality ever hope to be successful if the struggle is conceived as never ending? While some researchers have begun to acknowledge examples of empowered Indigenous urbanisms [e.g., Newhouse & Peters, 2003; Peters & Andersen, 2013; Walker, 2017; Horn, 2017; Dion & Salamanca, 2018; Nejad & Walker, 2018], research is still needed that more fully explores the positive ways Indigenous peoples are engaging the urban context.

4There are, of course, good reasons to be cautious when applying an empowered Indigenous urbanisms approach. Overstated positive narratives can too often be used to undermine more problematic realities. Yet, I argue, that as long as this caution is acknowledged, a balancing can be achieved that allows for a focus on positive achievements in a manner that is open to learning from them, but also maintains an awareness of the areas of need and socio-economic unjustice that continue to make the urban experience a challenging one for many Indigenous urban peoples. The examples featured in this paper suggest ways that Māori are actively living their Indigenous existentialisms and, importantly, doing so through re-claiming urban space and place, and recognizing that this re-claiming is fundamental to the Indigenization of urban modernity [Andersen & Peters, 2013].

5Indigenous peoples have been practicing this reclaiming since colonially-derived cities first came to their shores. Cities constructed in Indigenous territories were part and parcel of the colonial project [King, 1990; Jacob, 1996]. Colonialism has always brought with it unique political, economic, and cultural systems, and these systems were imposed on colonized peoples throughout the world. This was a multidimensional process, i.e., it was pervasive across the full range of social and material categories [McMichael, 2017]. If indeed, as Lefebvre [1991] argued, societies produce their own unique material forms, then it follows that colonial cities were at least partly and importantly a manifestation of European ideology [King, 1990; Jacobs, 1996]. Cities were, in other words, a critical component of an advanced military, economic, and psychological strategy designed to aid and facilitate the colonial process. For all rural-to-urban migrants (historically and presently) cities were places filled with many adjustment challenges, but for Indigenous peoples an added layer of adjustment was demanded because the colonial narrative constructed Indigeneity as contrary to urban life [James, 1988; Levine, 1997].

6Despite this narrative, Indigenous peoples often remained in place as colonial cities formed around them [Stokes, 1980], but also eventually chose to move in large numbers to cities. Generally beginning in the middle of the 20th century, Indigenous peoples underwent a dramatic shift from predominantly rural presence to a predominantly urban presence [Hill, 2012; Howard & Lobo, 2013; Taylor, 2013]. Yet, contrary to settler colonial policy and belief, this process did not result in wholesale Indigenous assimilation but, rather, in the emergence of Indigenous urbanisms that involved unique forms of indigeneity. It is through this process that Indigenous urbanisms begin to take shape. Following Gottdeiner [1994], the study of urbanism is about understanding the relationship between cities and both individuals and groups, the impact that this relationship has on these individuals/groups and, most importantly, the socio-cultural and socio-economic ways of life and associated urban geographies that emerge out of engagements with cities.

7Building from Gottdeiner’s definition, the term Indigenous urbanisms refers to the formation of uniquely Indigenous urban ways of life. The plural form, urbanisms, is used to recognize a multiplicity of ways Indigenous peoples can express their urbaness. Ryan Walker [2017: 2] argues that “Indigenous urbanism is about the adjustment of the city to Indigenous people.” I would take this further and argue that Indigenous urbanisms are simultaneously about Indigenous peoples adjusting the city to meet their needs. This shift puts more agency into the hands of Indigenous peoples in terms of shaping the city to their needs, and moves away from suggesting the city has agency. Put another way, one could argue that the city did not just happen to Māori. Rather, Māori simultaneously happened to the city.

8Thus, to speak of Indigenous urbanisms is to understand more clearly how Indigenous urbanization fostered a context within which Indigenous peoples were able to develop new cultural forms, new symbols and material expressions, and new patterns of everyday life. Indeed, the urban environment inspired adjustments that led to conflict, and crisis, but also opportunities and possibilities of progress. The city created, in other words, a context within which Indigenous people began to develop new ways of being Indigenous.

2. Towards a Definition of Empowered Indigenous Urbanisms

9Historically, indigenous urban research has focused on marginalization and socio-spatial struggles for urban sovereignty. However, Indigenous urban research has expanded tremendously over the last two decades, along with an increasing recognition of positive Indigenous urban experiences. Focusing on Canada, Peters [2011] notes that early characterizations of Indigenous rural-to-urban migration suggested urban life as incompatible with Indigenous cultures and identities, as dominated by processes of assimilation, and by assumptions that return to rural communities was the result of failure to adapt to urban life. But many Indigenous peoples did not return to rural communities and, in response, the settler colonial narrative shifted to one of “poverty and dysfunction” [Peters, 2011: 79]. In the mid 1990s, particularly in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, research began to challenge these narratives by taking a more nuanced approach to the complexity of the Indigenous urban experience [e.g., Anderson, 1993; Fielder, 1994; Maaka, 1994; Barcham, 1998].

10In the first two decades of the 21st century the volume of Indigenous urban research has grown tremendously, and an increasing number of studies include recognition of positive Indigenous urbanisms. For example, Newhouse and Peters [2003: 251] argued that the dominant discourse of Indigenous urbanisms contructed negative portrayals of Indigenous urban peoples as a strategic narrative intended to hide or ignore positive Indigenous urban phenomenon:

This invisibility is not surprising as it indicates the presence of urban Aboriginal peoples who are interested in creating and participating in healthy vibrant communities and who see the city as an opportunity and renewal rather than a place of cultural erosion.

11Peters and Andersen [2013: 2] note that “...some research is beginning to position urban areas as spaces of Indigenous resilience and cultural innovation” and argue that, “Indigenous peoples in cities [are producing] ways of living that move beyond marginalization and the everyday realities produced by the legacy of colonial dispossession” (9). They conclude that Indigenous urban identities should be positioned “not as incomplete or diminished vestiges of more authentic Indigenous locales (like those of rural areas) but, rather, as complex, highly vernacular engines of Indigenous cultural power” (11).

12These authors reflect a growing recognition of Indigenous urban engagements that demand words other than marginalization and resistance to describe their totality. Words and phrases like “healthy,” “vibrant,” “opportunity,” “renewal,” “resilience,” “cultural innovation,” and “moving beyond marginalization” all recognize that a focus on negative portrayals of Indigenous urbanisms does not adequately capture the totality of Indigenous urban experiences. This shift in perspective is expressed eloquently by Nejad and Walker [2018: 223]:

[T]he majority of Indigenous peoples in Canada live in urban areas, and Indigenous political and cultural resurgence...comes with the promise of casting new dimensions of urbanism where Indigenous peoples reclaim the creation and appropriation of urban space. Urban design, therefore, not only imposes power over Indigenous communities but also provides a platform from which to assert the trasnformative power to create an Indigenous urbanism. Indigenous urbanism is important for turning negative symbolic capital tagged to ‘deficit’ a positive symbolic capital of situated attachment, prominent presence and general ‘unsettling’ of the city in its Indigenous territory...In this way, the future of urban Indigenous placemaking in Canada is a hopeful one, in the midst of its becoming.

13Acts of reclaiming, appropriation, imposition of power, “positive symbolic capital,” “prominent presence,” and hope amidst becoming, are a further example of a movement towards Indigenous urban empowerment. But Nejad and Walker insert another element, urban space and design, that are also critical to Indigenous urban empowerment, and a key argument in this paper. Asserting that control over urban space is key to the decolonizing process is not unique to these authors, but the shift to concluding that this is being done in the service of empowerment is refreshing. Many researchers have focused on the role of space, place-production, and the built environment in Indigenous urban struggles [e.g., Coombes, 2013; Tomiak, 2011 & 2017; Njoh, 2017; Horn, 2017; Quicke & Green, 2017], but the dominant perspective in these contributions is Indigenous urban acts of resistance to forces of capitalism and settler colonialism and counter assertions of rights to the city. These contributions reveal both ways that the settler colonial state has utilized space and place to disempower Indigenous urban peoples and how Indigenous urban space occupation and place production are playing a key role in building resilience against these forces.

14I end this section with a working definition of Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment. This is an original definition that involves unpacking this phrase into smaller parts. To define Indigenous I rely mostly on Linda Tuhiwai Smith [1999: 6-7] who, while noting that this concept is complex and not without definitional variegation, argues that indigenous peoples “is a term that internationalizes the experiences, the issues and the struggles of some of the world’s colonized peoples. The ‘s’ is added to “peoples”, Smith notes, as a way to recognize that there are “real differences between different indigenous peoples.” For the purposes of this research, this term is further narrowed to include only those peoples “who, unlike the citizens of third world countries, have become minorities in their own land…Their resources have been acquired by settler governments and they are overrepresented in measures of social distress” [Levine, 1997: 120]. Including minority status is, I argue, important because it recognizes the impact of demographics on power relations. It can be posited, for example, that the power differential between Māori and settlers in Aotearoa New Zealand would be radically shifted today if there were four million Māori and seven hundred thousand non-Māori rather than the reverse.

15The concept urban is one that has a long history of debate and disagreement. Following Hubbard [2006], I approach this concept as equivalent to city, and I accept the notion that cities represent a unique form of human geography. Throughout processes of Indigenous urbanization Indigenous societies have been profoundly altered; but it is argued here that the “urban-ness” of all of this is of critical importance [Weber, 1922; Simmel, 1950; Lyon & Driskell, 2012; Gottdeiner, 1994; Hubbard, 2006]. Recognizing this importance, Hubbard [2006: 3] argues that urban research must take “the city seriously as an object of study.” While cautioning against environmental determinism, he asserts that it is only through this perspective that “suggest ways in which the trajectory of urban life might be changed through new ways of living, occupying or imagining cities.” The city has never made Indigenous people do anything, but it has offered many choices for those who have urbanized. If we accept that within the context of choices there is a “trajectory of urban life” that plays a critical role in how these choices manifest, we can incorporate a framework that recognizes different sets of socio-cultural and socio-economic relationships that are engaged when people settle in urban places.

16The final part of constructing this working definition is the phrase geographies of empowerment. The concept geographies as used here broadly connotes geographically-based aspects and expressions of human phenomenon; these can include material phenomenon such as space, place, built environments, landscapes, territories, regions, and boundaries; it can also connote abstract experiences in the form of space/place perception, or in the way we interact psychologically/spiritually with environments. Empowerment, according to Ciulla [1998: 63], involves “giving people the confidence, competence, freedom, and resources to act on their own judgments”. She further notes that to gain empowerment is to fundamentally re-balance the relationship “to each other and to other holders of power”. However, as I have argued elsewhere, this concept must be approached through an Indigenous lens if it is to be applied theoretically or conceptually to Indigenous peoples [Marek, 2010: 10-16]. Western notions of empowerment, in other words, do not always work well with, or serve the purposes of, Indigenous peoples [Collins, 2004]. A greater emphasis on spiritual and communal aspects of empowerment as opposed to more individualistic Western interpretations, for example, might be expected in an Indigenous context (see Marek, 2010 for a discussion of this difference from a Māori perspective). The phrase geographies of empowerment, then, refers to both material and abstract geographies that reinforce and reproduce a sense of empowerment within individuals and communities.

17Based on the above discussion, I now propose a basic working definition of Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment: These geographies come into being when historically colonized, disempowered, and marginalized peoples, who have become minorities in their own territories, are now utilizing urban space, urban place-making, and urban built environments as a key to reassert and/or produce healthy, vibrant, and resilient Indigenous urban communities; these communities create opportunities for cultural innovation, the production of positive symbolic and material capital, and an environment of hope in an ongoing process of becoming.

3. Māori Urban Geographies of Whakamanatanga: Indigenous Urban Geographies of Empowerment

18In this final section two examples of Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment are presented, but here I refer to this phenomenon using a more appropriately vernacular form: Māori urban geographies of whakamanatanga. Whakamanatanga, while not found in Māori dictionaries, was developed in consultation with Dr. Rapata Wiri, Māori language expert, in order to suggest empowerment from a Māori perspective. Whakamanatanga is made up of three root words: Whaka is a causative prefix meaning “to make” or “to cause to;” tanga, is a suffix that makes the word whakamana (empower) into a derived noun (empowerment); mana, a pan-Polynesian concept, is the word that delivers the core meaning. There is no easy way to define mana in English, but words such as, prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, and charisma are typically used.1

19Excellent research exists on Māori rural-to-urban migration and its impact on Māori [e.g., Metge, 1964; Pool, 1966; Johnston, et al., 2003; Kukutai, 2013; Ryks, et al., 2016]. The oft quoted statistic is that Māori are now 85% urbanized, although this population is spread across towns with as little as 1,000 inhabitants to cities like Auckland with 1.5 million. Still, a majority of Māori, 55%, live in cities of over 50,000. While, on the one hand, these numbers are seemingly less dramatic than the 85%, on the other, they still suggest that Māori are a significantly urbanized people [Kukutai, 2013; Ryks, et al.., 2016]. Regardless of the urban place one is looking at in Aotearoa New Zealand, the fact is that every square centimeter is recognized as being within iwi (“tribe”) and hapū (“clan”) bounded territories. Iwi/hapū associated with a particular territory are referred to as tangata whenua (defined broadly as an acknowledged right to claim the territory based on genealogy); the Māori connected to a particular iwi/hapū assert and exercise their mana whenua (right to claim a territory) over their territory. However, the degree to which this translates into actual power in the context of a settler colonial state—i.e., control over a territory’s use, laws, political decisions, etc.—varies significantly. The goal here is to link the participant’s stories and ideas to the working definition of Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment stated earlier, but do so in a manner that represents the unique Māori context.

  • 2 Tohunga roughly translates to “expert” or “skilled person.” Master carvers are referred to as tohun (...)
  • 3 The two interviews used here are part of a larger set of interviews collected for this research.

20The empirical examples used here include a master carver and an architect. These examples are extracted from a broader research project that included eighteen semi-structured interviews with Māori from a wide range of backgrounds [Marek, 2010]. The two examples selected for this paper are singular in the way they demonstrate the critical nexus of materiality and sociality central to the theory of Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment. Moreover, both are considered tohunga within their various communities and, as such, represent profound levels of expertise and mana.2 Through their thoughts and interactions with urban environments, they uniquely exemplify ways of engaging Māoriness in an urban context that suggest aspects of living and conceiving Māori urban geographies of whakamanatanga.3 In the case of the architect, primary data was collected in Aotearoa between 2007 and 2019 based on transcribed semi-structured interviews, along with several unstructured meetings and email correspondence. In the case of the carver, an unstructured interview was engaged in 2007 combined with follow-up email correspondence.

3.1 Carving urbanisms into the sacred: Master carver Lyonel Grant and Te Noho Kotahitanga marae

21The Māori urban marae, I would argue, is one of the single most profound representations of Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment. Recognition of the critical role urban marae have played, and continue to play, in Māori society is well recognized in the literature [Tapsell, 2002; Rosenblatt, 2011; Hoskins, 2019]. Today, marae are found in cities throughout Aotearoa New Zealand and, according to Hoskins [2019: 17], can be categorized into eight types: mana whenua, mataawaka/taurahere, Ngā hau e Whā, church, community, defense, education, and health. Despite these various categories, marae have core elements that are found in all these types. A lengthy discussion of the design and use of marae is not possible here. However, what they all share is a clearly defined sacred space with key structures, often elaborately carved and designed, that manifest marae as fundamentally community-based socio-cultural, socio-spatial, and socio-spiritual geographies. They are profoundly material and symbolic expressions of Māori ontology and epistemology.

  • 4 Whare nui refers to the carved meetinghouse that is generally the most prominent visual feature of (...)

22I was introduced to master carver Lyonel Grant in 2007 when I went to see the whare nui (Ngakau Mahaki) he was building at the Unitec Institute of Technology (one of many education marae; see Figures 1 through 3).4 Lyonel’s unique master carver perspectives of the relationship between Māori and cities, and the way this marae exemplifies some of the most basic aspects of Māori urban geographies of whakamanatanga, are discussed here. Both in the conception of this marae and in the carvings that both structurally support and adorn its interior, Lyonel was able to demonstrate materially and spiritually the relationship between cities and Māori worldviews and values.

  • 5 Subsequently, I was given a tour of the whare nui in 2015, and then welcomed on the marae as part o (...)

23One of the most striking visual elements of marae is their elaborately carved whare nui (main or big house). The carvings make up parts of the exterior façade and cover much of the interior, and they are deeply symbolic and tell a story about ancestry and important relationships to the site where the marae is situated, and to the people and groups involved with the marae. My time at Te Noho Kotahitanga marae consisted of walking around and photographing the still unfinished exterior of the whare nui and then meeting with Lyonel in his carving workshop where he showed me several of the main carvings being prepared for the interior.5 We spoke about his carvings both in terms of their intended meaning and the inspirations from which he drew in order to produce them. We also spoke about how he first envisioned the site and situation of the marae in terms of how it would sit on the piece of land put aside by Unitec for its construction.

Figure 1: Ngakau Mahaki whare nui under construction in July, 2007; even at this point the power of this structure is evident (photograph taken by author).

Figure 1: Ngakau Mahaki whare nui under construction in July, 2007; even at this point the power of this structure is evident (photograph taken by author).
  • 6 Te Noho Kotahitanga marae was officially blessed and opened on March 13, 2009.

Figure 2: Ngakau Mahaki (front view) as activated Māori urban geography of whakamanatanaga in July, 20196 (photograph taken by author).

Figure 2: Ngakau Mahaki (front view) as activated Māori urban geography of whakamanatanaga in July, 20196 (photograph taken by author).

Figure 3: Ngakau Mahaki (side view) July, 2019 (photograph taken by author).

Figure 3: Ngakau Mahaki (side view) July, 2019 (photograph taken by author).
  • 7 See Barlow (1991: 83) for a more complex explanation of this concept as it applies to marae.

24The genesis of a marae begins through a cultural/spiritual process whereby the master builder “taps into” the mauri (innate spiritual essence/life force) of a particular site where a marae is to be constructed, and through this is able to establish a mauri for the marae.7 From this perspective marae are not socio-culturally constructed—or at least not entirely. Instead they are a product of the interweaving between the socio-cultural production of the marae and the spiritual aspects of the space/place where the construction is situated. Lyonel explained that one of the first things he did when envisioning the marae was to walk around the land to get a “feel” for it, and then he looked at it from aerial images. As he did this he began to “see” images of Māori spirits and symbolic forms that inhabited and infused the site, and it was from these images that he began to understand the design of the marae.

25Originally from a small town, Lyonel noted that coming to Auckland was always a challenging experience for him because he was not used to the overwhelming intensity of buildings, people, traffic, etc. He reflected on the challenge to imagine a marae within this type of urban context. Yet, as he allowed himself to experience the site’s geography, and as he adjusted to his life in Auckland, he began to understand that no matter how much concrete and steel overlay the land, there were still Māori spirits and landscapes present. This awareness of Māori spiritual landscapes persevering within the context of the urban was inspired by time spent in Hawaiʻi. He said that once, while looking at Honolulu from a highpoint, he had a vision of being able to reach down and peel back the urban “fabric” and, in so doing, reveal the Hawaiian spiritual landscapes emerging from underneath all the concrete and steel—buried perhaps, but not gone. From this vision, one of the main carvings he was working on emerged, and it is one that became an inspiration for how I began to understand my research. This carving depicted a stylized map of Auckland, complete with roads organized on a grid and little cul de sacs. But dramatically bursting out of various parts of the map were Māori spirits and images.8 These images represented, according to Lyonel, the power and resilience of Māori landscapes and spirits regardless of the weight of a Western built environment that had been imposed since the coming of Europeans.

26The power of this building as a geography of empowerment is captured well by Lyonel (email correspondence, January, 2010):

The new whare Ngakau Mahaki has served a multitude of functions as you can well imagine—Ae, as Grace notes a gallery, a repository of knowledge, whakapapa, history, symbolism, cosmology etc. etc., but there are subtle forces that rekindle the latent forces within urban Maori who have suppressed their culture almost to the point of being intimidated by it. So not only does Ngakau Mahaki whakamana all that is Maori, it genitally insights those who thought it was uncool to be Maori, or chose to ignore their culture in pursuit of success on a material European scale; 'to arms' as it were. In addition, our multicultural "tauiwi" society are now being "informed" as to the power of the culture that they had been blissfully unaware, or ignorant of till the moment they entered the embrace of the house.

27The strength and resilience of a people to, despite the seemingly impenetrable material and social forces brought on by urbanization, assert their human geographies speaks to the essence of what is meant by Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment. While simultaneously struggling with marginalization and resistance, Māori produced these whakamanatanga-based geographies through their physical presence, through their re-interpretation of the urban built environments, and through their active sociality within the urban context.

28A second carving shown to me by Lyonel was conceived while he was walking down a railroad track in Auckland. He came upon a graffiti burn that struck him as both beautiful and meaningful. He decided to incorporate this image into one of his carvings and, in so doing, managed to demonstrate the ability of even the most traditional forms of Māori cultural production—marae carvings—to appropriate images and symbols from the urban context and turn them into powerful components of a Māori cultural landscape. This process, as Lyonel notes, represents a new phase in how Māori are able to approach the urban context:

Now, should we make an analogy to the Modern Marae and their subsequent manufacture, for some perhaps the upper and lower jaws are now in sync? Perhaps now we are comfortable enough with who we are, in our own skins, to articulate our culture irrespective of place, in respect of place.

29This demonstrates one of the most important functions of Māori urban geographies of whakamanatanga: the ability to incorporate non-Māori socio-cultural and socio-spatial elements and transform them into profoundly Māori ones. In doing so, these geographies demonstrate the power of Māori to not only withstand the impact of outside forces, but to absorb them and re-interpret them in ways that acknowledge and further Māori worldviews and values, while simultaneously allowing for progressive growth and change in these views and values. In the second case that follows, the marae remains part of the discussion, but this time through the eyes of a master Māori architect.

3.2 “So we can better see our faces in our places”: Designing Māori urban geographies of whakamanatanga

  • 9 A pseudonym is used here to insure confidentiality.

30I interviewed Arapeta,9 an Auckland based architect, in 2008 and 2019. In both conversations, we spoke at length about the role of Māori architecture in creating Māori-infused built environments. Indigenous architects (and other urban designers), I argue, will be principle leaders in the Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment movement [e.g., Grant, et al., 2018]. When speaking to architects, the overwhelmingly positive tone they take is palpable. Although keenly aware of the legacy of colonialism, they insist on reframing the discussion through a Māori worldview, even when using non-Māori concepts:

We tend to use the word cultural landscapes instead of urban design. So, if you use the term cultural landscape it keeps the people in the frame, people in the land. But you use the term urban design, you picture a hard cityscape where there may or may not be people in the picture.

31Arapeta pointed out that Māori architecture and design are about envisioning new material forms that can foster healthier and, indeed, empowering environments for Indigenous peoples.

  • 10 Tikanga is defined as the customary system of values and practices that have developed over time a (...)

...while Māori architecture can be construed as being any piece of architecture which exhibits Māoriness to the beholder; it can also be more ideally construed as having the integrity of a design process which is acknowledging of tikanga, and if you want to acknowledge tikanga at [our architecture firm] we say that land is never neutral, land is always connected to people, we cannot truly have a design process with integrity until we have engaged with the people.10

32In the time that I have known Arapeta, his architecture firm has become increasingly active in projects that are explicitly intended to forward Māori, particularly in urban context, towards healthier and secure communities. His major focus is designing residential communities, centered on marae, that reproduce in a modern urban context a Māori kāenga (village) model. These designs foster and facilitate the Māori whānau (extended family) structure that remains a dominant aspect of Māori well-being. These designs incorporate the needs of the extended family structure, with spaces for kupuna (elders) and tamariki (children), areas to gather groups and house them temporarily, and an emphasis on communal spaces and resources for multiple family groups. Remarkable for many reasons, what is key here is to recognize these designs as no longer focused solely, or even primarily, on geographies of resistance or marginalization. Marae, for example, are now being viewed as community resources for chronic homelessness, disaster management, and health resources [Lee-Morgan & Hoskins, 2017; Puketapu, et al., 2017; Manchester, 2018].

33A project currently under construction at Waikato University, described to me by Arapeta, may be the best example of a future where Māori design moves from combating marginality to asserting centrality (see Figure 4). State owned Waikato University, sits on land recently returned to the Tainui people (the University now leases the land from this iwi). This new facility, called The Pā, is a combination main entrance, student hub, new University marae, and Office of the Vice Chancellor. The marae in this design, according to Arapeta, becomes the nexus point of the University:

What we’ve been really mindful of was if you got to embed this whare into these other functions, and you got to have a whare with two porches, two maru, a front maru and a back maru; the front maru acknowledges the visitors, the back maru acknowledges the students, and so you got several back maru linking it all together. And you got the dining room here and you got the Office of Vice Chancellor over here, you got faculty Māori indigenous studies in the back, tying it all together.

  • 11 I received permission, via Arapeta, from Waikato University to use the images on The Pā website.

Figure 4: The (source:​major-projects/​the-pa).11

Figure 4: The Pā (source:​major-projects/​the-pa).11

34The marae design will incorporate modern elements like LED lighting, pull out beds for kupuna, video screens for conferencing, and yet maintain the sacred elements and functions of a marae. The ability to seamlessly and unproblematically meld the most traditional of Māori sacred spaces not only with modern technology, but also as a center point supporting senior leadership offices, students, and visitors is a remarkable acknowledgement of Māori design gaining centrality within the context of a greater Aotearoa New Zealand. The use of the word “support” here goes beyond symbolic to the material. The “arms” of the marae stretch out from the center point protecting and supporting the other functions of this space for welcoming and gathering. A geography of empowerment that extends outward from the host (Waikato Tainui) to include all members of the community.

4. Conclusion

35In June of 2019 I attended the NAISA conference in Hamilton, Aotearoa. Four days of presentations and panels representing Indigenous peoples from all over the world ensued. Themes of resistance to, and marginalization due to, settler colonialism dominated the sessions. Clearly, the struggle continues and has a way to go before achieving something beyond struggle for many Indigenous peoples. In total, six panels were dedicated to an Indigenous urban theme, with another dozen urban themed presentations in various other panels and roundtable discussions. Although none of these presentations committed to the theme of Indigenous urban empowerment as discussed here, it was still clear that hints and suggestions of optimism about the Indigenous urban experience were starting to take shape, especially among Indigenous urban millenials. This was especially true in terms of the decolonizing potential of digital technologies and urban built environment design.

36In this paper, the argument is that formation of Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment are crucial to the future successes of the Indigenous urban movement. As the case studies here demonstrated, these geographies are in the process of becoming, and there is a momentum that will continue as Indigenous urban peoples use the urban context as a platform for continued decolonization. The working definition of Indigenous urban geographies of empowerment presented in this paper needs continued empirical data to refine it and determine its validity, and I encourage researchers to be willing to have these positive urban geographies be a center point of their research. The struggles against the forces of marginalization, legacies of colonialism, and neoliberalism must continue, but I argue that one way to do so is to focus on ways Indigenous peoples are effectively “pushing back” against these forces, and in some cases maybe even moving beyond them.

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1 The Māori online dictionary has an outstanding definition of this mana: =&proverb=&loan=&histLoanWords =&keywords=mana

2 Tohunga roughly translates to “expert” or “skilled person.” Master carvers are referred to as tohunga whakairo. A master architect, according to Māori language expert Dr. Rapata Wiri, is referred to as a tohunga kaihanga whare.

3 The two interviews used here are part of a larger set of interviews collected for this research.

4 Whare nui refers to the carved meetinghouse that is generally the most prominent visual feature of a marae complex. The marae itself—the open space, or atea, in front of the whare nui—is referred to as Te Noho Kotahitanga.

5 Subsequently, I was given a tour of the whare nui in 2015, and then welcomed on the marae as part of a conference in 2019.

6 Te Noho Kotahitanga marae was officially blessed and opened on March 13, 2009.

7 See Barlow (1991: 83) for a more complex explanation of this concept as it applies to marae.

8 A glimpse of this carving can be seen here:

9 A pseudonym is used here to insure confidentiality.

10 Tikanga is defined as the customary system of values and practices that have developed over time and are deeply embedded in the social context.”: n Words=&keywords=tikanga

11 I received permission, via Arapeta, from Waikato University to use the images on The Pā website.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Ngakau Mahaki whare nui under construction in July, 2007; even at this point the power of this structure is evident (photograph taken by author).
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Titre Figure 2: Ngakau Mahaki (front view) as activated Māori urban geography of whakamanatanaga in July, 20196 (photograph taken by author).
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Titre Figure 3: Ngakau Mahaki (side view) July, 2019 (photograph taken by author).
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Titre Figure 4: The (source:​major-projects/​the-pa).11
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Serge A. Marek, « Indigenous Urban Geographies of Empowerment: Māori Urban Geographies of Whakamanatanga »Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2020/1-2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2020, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Serge A. Marek

Assistant Professor of Geography. Ph.D.
Faculty Senate Chair. Program Chair, Anthropology & Geography.
Faculty Advisor, United Nations Club. Department of History & International Studies.
Hawaiʻi Pacific University.

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