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Maori scholar: Indigenous women were forgotten in the colonizer's history

CODY, Wyo. - To the Maori, Horoirangi is the mother of all women, but she was forgotten in the history of the Maori after the colonization of New Zealand when the Maori were made to learn history from the Christian colonizers.

Horoirangi was so important to the Maori that a stone image of her was carved. However, she was eventually removed from the stone wall on which she had rested for centuries and placed on a shelf in a museum in New Zealand.

Aroha Yates-Smith, dean of the school for Maori and Pacific development at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, saw Horoirangi on the shelf and she knew the goddess wanted to go home, she said. She and other women convinced the museum to let them take Horoirangi where she belonged. The statue is now located near where it originated and is housed in a special case to protect the centuries-old image of the Maori goddess.

When Horoirangi was brought home in the 1980s, an earthquake occurred. Yates-Smith said it was the goddess showing her happiness at her return.

''We did have female gods, but I was told when a child that we had only male gods,'' Yates-Smith said.

Since that time, the role of women has changed within the culture to nearly the level it was before the Christians colonized the islands.

Yates-Smith said women were equal to men and that each had their own stories and purpose, but the colonizers reduced the role of women and the males took the power. The principal focus was placed on Maori men.

''It nullified the female in Maori cosmology and assured that Maori women held the same position as European Christian women,'' she said.

The story of the North Americas parallels that of the Maori. Marilyn Hudson, Three Affiliated Tribes and member of the American Indian advisory board of the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, said that there were thousands of American Indian women who lived and were buried in this continent, ''but we know of only two. Pocahontas and Sacagawea are the two most commonly mentioned Indian women.''

More women are rising to the level of power within the many cultures across the globe, slowly erasing the effects of colonization and misunderstanding of the oral histories that are still alive, the women said.

Yates-Smith is one scholar who spreads the message and is teaching young women, there are many authors and lecturers through North America who do the same and the results are that more American Indian women are now entering professions with high level degrees than ever before. The same is occurring in New Zealand.

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''Both men and women [of the Maori] have complimentary roles and both have a knowledge base,'' Yates-Smith said.

''The erosion of the knowledge about women has left a dearth of resources, but the information has stayed in oral traditions,'' she said.

The traditions of childbirth and after the birth for both the Maori and the Plains tribes changed with European influences, but now some of those traditions are returning.

Yates-Smith said that women were told to go to hospital to give birth to a child ''because the European way was superior,'' she said.

The traditions of the mother and child keeping the placenta and the umbilical cord were discouraged, and hospitals burned those items. In the 1980s, she said, the practice began to change and now both the placenta and umbilical cord are returned to the mother upon request.

''We are now re-creating the culture. Women are strategists, teachers, artists and composers,'' Yates-Smith said.

''Some women feel unsuccessful, but learning about the goddesses and ancestors is empowering,'' she said.

Women of the Maori are sensitive and strong, they are the protectors of the family. A popular painting of Hina, a superhero, depicts her with a baby in one hand and a weapon in the other, which shows both sides of the woman.

''Now some females are named after ancestors. They are hungering for anything of meaning of who they are,'' Yates-Smith said.

Part of the problem is that men have also lost their way.

''The impact of colonization brought on the lack of identity. Urbanization and not being able to take care of a family was hard on the men,'' Yates-Smith said. ''Now more are learning the language and finding out who they are, but it takes time to heal the souls and teach how to nurture and live well.''