Emil' Keme addresses the group at Kaitiaki Village.

Maya meet Māori: the indigenous people learning from each other in Aotearoa

As part of the University of Otago’s Maya-Māori cultural economy exchange last month, four Mayan academics visited New Zealand to share their experiences of colonisation. Alice Webb-Liddall spoke to the group about what indigenous people can learn from their shared experiences. 

“It’s easy to get stuck in a bubble of your own survival,” says Maria Aguilar Velásquez. “But when we travel we realise we share a lot with other indigenous cultures around the world.” Standing under the corrugated iron roof of the converted cowshed of Kaitiaki Village at Ihumātao, the South Auckland settlement where local iwi have occupied the land in a peaceful protest against a proposed housing development, she was clearly inspired by Māori fighting the legacy of colonial power. 

Aguilar Velásquez is one of four Guatemalan activist filmmakers who came to the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference (NAISA) to share the struggles of the indigenous Maya people. With her three colleagues – Mayan social anthropologists Dr Gio B’atz’ and Dr. Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj and Professor of Indigenous studies Emil’ Keme – they’d gathered to introduce themselves to the locals.

The group were here as part of a Maya-Māori cultural exchange coordinated by the University of Otago. The project was born last year at the Los Angeles edition of the NAISA conference when Katharina Ruckstuhl, associate dean of Māori at the University of Otago Business School, realised 2019 was both the 500th anniversary of the landing of Hernán Cortés in Mexico and the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand. It felt like an essential moment to ensure indigenous perspectives were prioritised. 

“The purpose of the exchange is to share learnings and look for opportunities to deepen our understanding of each others’ cultures and economies,” says Ruckstuhl. 

This year was the first time the NAISA conference has been held outside of America, bringing dozens of the world’s leading indigenous rights academics to learn what New Zealand can contribute to the conversation. At Ihumātao, students, kaitiaki, activists and writers welcomed the four visitors and, in a mix of reo Māori and English, explained where they came from and what brought them to the gathering. 

A painted protest sign is attached to a fence outside Kaitiaki Village. Photo: Alice Webb-Liddall

Quickly the many similarities between Maya and Māori in their experience of colonisation became clear. 

The contexts of Aotearoa and Guatemala are quite different: Guatemala’s population is almost 80% indigenous compared to Aotearoa’s 16%. However, colonisation has had a profound impact on and continues to affect both Māori and Maya people today. Both groups have experienced drastic loss of land, language and economic independence. The exchange provides an opportunity for the two cultures to learn from each other’s experiences and show solidarity with each other. 

“Both cultures are looking to reclaim and recover their independence and dignity – through culture, protest, legal avenues and business,” says Ruckstuhl.

Colonised by the Spanish in the 16th century, almost 250 years before Europeans set foot in New Zealand, Guatemala has a long history of conflict between the colonisers and the indigenous people, who’ve had to continue to fight for recognition of their own existence. The viral myth that claimed the Maya people died out long ago has dehumanised the Mayan population, of which there are still around 6 million. 

For Emil’ Keme, visiting New Zealand was an opportunity to learn about how the Treaty of Waitangi has affected indigenous life in New Zealand. He was also motivated by seeing the way the Māori language has been rescued, rejuvenated and invested in. “It’s so inspirational coming here and hearing the Māori language so much,” he says. 

After asking a group of students whether the reo is taught here in schools, one of them replies, “it’s not compulsory, but we’re trying.” In Guatemala there are 22 Mayan languages, Aguilar Velásquez explains, some on the verge of extinction. Their preservation is largely considered unimportant by the Spanish-speaking population.

The protest against the Ihumātao housing development started five years ago with Pania Newton and her cousins around a kitchen table. They are refusing to relinquish land that was ‘confiscated’ in 1863 after mana whenua refused to pledge allegiance to the Crown in the war against Waikato iwi. As she guides the guests around the Ihumātao lands, Newton explains that it’s not just a fight for the land itself, but a fight for justice, history, recognition and feminism. 

“It was a group of women who started this and it’s a group of women who are still leading this fight,” she says. 

Pania Newton presents the case for protecting Ihumātao at the UNPFII 2017, on behalf of the Indigenous peoples Organization. Photo supplied.

Aguilar Velásquez and Velásquez Nimatui are familiar with this kaupapa. In their experience, the role of indigenous women is leading from the front. “The men were the ones who might have started the struggle, but then they were the ones who got killed or arrested, so the women have continued that struggle. To this day it’s still mostly women,” says Aguilar Velásquez.

While the role of men has traditionally been in physical battles, it’s the women who have fought with their heads and their hearts, says Velásquez Nimatuj. “The role of the indigenous Maya women in Guatemala is very strong. It is a very long struggle, generation by generation, and indigenous women are still struggling for justice, for a better condition of life.”

B‘atz’ says part of their visit to New Zealand to attend the NAISA conference is to be a voice of truth for his people, to tell their story to the world. “I think it’s our responsibility as indigenous academics to present our version, because historically people have written about us in very ‘exotic’ ways, that we’re ‘savages’. They don’t highlight things like the creation of zero, that we’ve existed for thousands of years and had our own writing system and calendar.”

The similarities between Mayan and Māori struggles are an important shared story. Aguilar Velásquez was acutely aware of the way Newton spoke of the land not just as an inanimate object, but as a lifeforce. In Guatemala, the relationship with the land is the same, and the fight for its return is also ongoing. 

“Our struggles are so similar at the basic level. We want the land back, we want recognition of a long legacy and the contributions that indigenous people have made to the land. We haven’t been here [in Aotearoa] that long but there has been a connection in terms of the way we speak about the land, about the territory, that is also present in Mayan communities.”

Keme is aware of the controversy around the planned celebrations of Captain Cook’s arrival in New Zealand, 250 years ago this October, and the way it appears to ignore the indigenous side of history. 

“In the Americas, that’s Hernán Cortés, and that’s another commonality in terms of the way Māori and Indigenous people in Mesoamerica were conquered. This idea that it was a divine mandate of European’s rights to these lands and to conquer the people, to save the people from savagery.”

The opportunity for indigenous people to tell their own stories and position their own histories as a counter-narrative to the dominant views is essential to their survival, says Ruckstuhl. Sharing these stories builds value in their culture and way of life. It also builds a powerful sense of self.

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“We need to understand that we were all – and still remain today – proud people with incredible histories that stretch well before colonial times and undoubtedly will carry on into the future,” she says. “These narratives are ones of self-determining people whose arts, cultures, languages and sciences flourished. They did not fade away but have transformed and will continue to do so.”

The stories of their struggles will leave a lasting impact on the people at Ihumātao. Despite the distance between the two groups, there is a shared history and a devotion from both to reclaim their stories and the power of the indigenous perspective in the world. “It’s a humbling thought,” says Newton,” to know you’re not fighting alone, and from the other side of the world – the fight for Ihumātao now has four more supporters.”

This content was created in paid partnership with the University of Otago. Learn more about our partnerships here.

The Maya-Māori cultural economy exchange was supported by funding from the Centre of Asia Pacific Excellence


This content is brought to you by the University of Otago – a vibrant contributor to Māori development and the realisation of Māori aspirations, through our Māori Strategic Framework and world-class researchers and teachers.

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