An Air New Zealand plane. (Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

We are not your brand: Why Air New Zealand’s tā moko ban must end

How dare our national airline continue to brand itself with Indigenous symbols while rejecting employees who wear those same symbols on their bodies, writes Leonie Pihama.

As I sit at a conference on the island of Maui, I see tā moko and kākau (a Hawaiian form of moko) proudly worn by Indigenous Peoples. The power of the revitalisation and regeneration of our ancestral art forms is carried as a part of our wider cultural renaissance movements across Te Moana nui a Kiwa, the great Pacific Ocean. Within each cultural image I see the embodiment of our ancestral memories, stories and knowledge. To reclaim and to wear these taonga on our bodies is a right of all Indigenous Peoples.

That Air New Zealand has again rejected a Māori person for employment because they carry moko is yet another act of insult on the part of the airline to our people. It’s just policy, says Air New Zealand, which told Sydney Heremaia “the body art you have declared does not comply with our Uniform Standards for roles wearing the Koru Uniform”.

As an aside, Heremaia’s moko is on his left shoulder and he wears a Samoan tātau on his forearm. Both tattoos would have been covered by a long sleeved shirt.

But the visibility of the moko and tatau in this particular case is not the point. Air NZ believes it has the right to use the koru as its branding, to promote itself, to describe its uniform – but it will not employ someone who wears on their skin the symbols of our tupuna and our ancestral connection. This is not acceptable. The denial of employment based on the wearing of cultural imagery is not only a breach of fundamental right as articulated by the Human Rights Commission, it is a contradiction of the airline’s own marketing. For example, this is how a current Air NZ job ad reads:

Delivering our unique brand of Kiwi hospitality, you’ll take great pride and passion in representing New Zealand whether it’s on a domestic flight or a long haul journey. While everything else we do in our operation can be replicated by our competitors, it is our people that truly set us apart. We nurture an environment that is holistically inclusive, diverse and collaborative.

We are firm believers in celebrating differences and encouraging a workplace and culture where you can be yourself and thrive.

Whāia te pae tawhiti kia tata. Ko te pae tata whakamaua, kia tina. “Seek to bring distant horizons closer. Once near, seize them and make them your reality.”

The airline encourages the use of te reo Māori throughout the organisation, a initiative that has won acknowledgment and congratulations from Māori and wider Aotearoa. Yet the company’s policy that denies tā moko and tātau continues to stand. This week’s controversy is a rerun of one in 2013, when jobseeker Claire Nathan’s interview with Air NZ was stopped because the interviewer realised she wore moko. At the time Air NZ said it was “reviewing the policy which was about making customers feel comfortable. Many passengers came from cultures where tattoos were considered to be frightening or intimidating.”

The assumption that passengers will be frightened or intimidated by tā moko and tātau is simply not a good enough reason for this policy. It’s also an abdication of responsibility. Our national airline should be helping overseas travellers to understand our Indigenous cultural practices and beliefs, and the place of Māori as tangata whenua.

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As I write, I look around to see our people gathering. I see tā moko, I see tātau, I see kākau. I see our ancestors. I see our stories. I see our being Māori carved in our skins. I remember we are on the island of Maui, and that all of the Māori who are walking in this space came here by air. And we flew on Air New Zealand.

The corporatisation of our taonga reproduces the colonial agenda: it selectively uses knowledge and culture to reinforce a value system based on assimilation. It neither affirms nor acknowledges our people. Placing tā moko and tātau into some generic policy labelled “no tattoos” is an expression of colonialism. And we are over that. We are over the imposition of colonising Pākehā views upon our knowledge, our reo, our cultural symbols, our art forms, our ways of living. We are over the continued ‘use’ of our taonga by organisations that then reject our people for being Māori.

It is time for Air NZ to reverse any policy that denies cultural expression for both Māori and other ethnic groups within Aotearoa. It is not acceptable for the airline to continue to use Māori cultural symbolism and te reo Māori while simultaneously denying a place to people who embody our ancestral knowledge through tā moko. Our national airline must reject its current commodification of our taonga and instead embrace a new approach: one that emphasises meaningful and enduring processes of inclusion.

The Māori message to Air NZ is this: We are not your brand. We are not your uniforms. You do not get to continue to use our taonga while also denying employment to people who wear those taonga to express their identity. If you do not accept our people being Māori then you have no right to continue to use our symbols, our reo, our taonga.


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