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Indigenous cultures from opposite sides of the globe show similarities

CODY, Wyo. - When indigenous peoples come together to speak of their accomplishments and efforts in a wide variety of areas, the conversations prove that indigenous people across the globe have a commonality that bonds them together as friends.

Such was the case at a symposium held by the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Maori from New Zealand were invited to share the podium with tribal experts from the Plains area and discuss issues from language retention to environmental issues and culture.

The three-day interaction between the cultures was enhanced by music, words in a variety of languages and the passing on of knowledge and ideas that work to strengthen the cultures.

The similarities between the Maori and most of the northern Plains tribes are uncanny. Events that change the course of history for the various indigenous peoples almost appear to have been part of a worldwide plan. Gold was discovered in the 1860s in Montana and at the same time in New Zealand. That discovery opened up vast areas that were considered homelands to a variety of tribes.

Treaties were signed with governments on both continents in the mid-19th century; and after the treaties, wars ensued. Attempts to destroy the languages by forcing all Maori and Plains tribal people to speak English drove the languages and cultural practices underground. Christianity was forced upon both peoples, to the detriment of their culture and languages.

Much of the environment shared by the two groups is similar, from plains to mountains, and even geothermal areas. The Plains tribes have Yellowstone, one of the most active geothermal areas on the planet; New Zealand has a similar area. Mountains are prevalent in both regions, but while the Maori have the ocean as a border, the vast territory of the Plains tribes is comparatively limitless.

Stories of the creation of not just the world, but of specific areas such as the geothermal and volcanic areas of both regions, are different. The Maori believe geothermal activity was created when the people asked the goddesses for heat. Each Plains tribe has a different story about the Yellowstone and Teton areas.

Preservation of the natural resources that provide for the life of the indigenous peoples takes on a special importance, with the existence programs on both continents that were organized to protect the water.

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Similarly shared are movements to teach the language; and according to the Maori, more people under the age of 25 speak the Maori language than do older Maori. The Maori have been at the business of teaching the language and lobbying their government to include the language in school curriculum for longer than North American tribes, and they have succeeded to they point where they can dictate school curricula and how it is taught.

A difference between the cultures is the music. The Maori have a musical instrument for nearly every occasion or event that range from tiny flutes made out of stone, wood or bone and seashells. They have instruments that are twirled in the air to make a fluttering or a whistling sound. The only percussion instrument the Maori have is two pieces of a hard wood that are struck together, or striking a stone held on a string with a wooden stick.

In contrast the Plains tribes are almost dependent on percussion to support their songs, with drums, rattles or sticks that are struck against each other. The musical instruments mainly consist of bone whistles and the flute, according to Joe Medicine Crow, elder from the Crow Nation.

Potoka Taite is the Maori nautical studies leader for Te Wananga O Aotearona, a New Zealand tertiary education institution. Along with his wife, Tira, and his daughter, Rereao, he constructs plays and educates young people and others about the use of the musical instruments.

Potoka said when he introduces an instrument to a young person, he tells the story of its creation and use according to Maori tradition.

At each stage of life the children have special instruments played for them to keep them healthy, peaceful and safe.

The Maori musical instruments and their use was almost lost, but over the past 30 years or more the culture is undergoing a re-creation, said Aroha Yates-Smith, dean of the school of Maori and Pacific development at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Women's positions in the culture was almost lost as well, as it was in the Great Plains, because, Yates-Smith said, the Christian attitude that women were subordinate prevailed and the knowledge that women played an equal role in the Maori culture had been lost until recently.

The symposium, organized by the museum staff in cooperation with the University of Wyoming department of Native American studies, brought together a large number of people from different tribes and each spoke their own language.