There are now two times in my life I’ve sung “We Are the World” for an audience. The first time, I was six years old and sang it with my swim coach, Greg Robinson at our annual banquet. Despite being a loud, sometimes obnoxious child, I got nervous, choked, and Greg had to pick up the slack. The second time was last Friday morning during the Fulbright orientation.
Like the orientation in DC, it was exciting and humbling to be around so many curious, adventurous, and interesting people. We attended workshops on the history of New Zealand, took a crash course in Maori language and customs, learned about the Treaty of Waitangi, toured Parliament, and spent the night in a Marae, a Maori meeting house.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit how naive I was about New Zealand culture, particularly where the Treaty of Waitangi and the Maori are concerned. From reading about it back home in Chicago, it seemed like the government of New Zealand had always treated the Maori with respect and that everyone got along fine. I thought that the Treaty of Waitangi formed the basis for this rosy relationship. It turns out that the treaty was not honored. It turns out that the government here was guilty of many of the same crooked land deals and political bamboozling that affect indigenous people around the world. Maori population took a sharp decline, their land was stolen, and schoolchildren were punished for using traditional Maori language. Not until the protest movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, did the Maori start to really gain political ground. Today Maori issues are represented in New Zealand politics and culture, but Maori people still face significant economic and social barriers. I talked to Geoff about my naivety on this subject. He reminded me of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
The night in the Marae opened my eyes to these issues and let me experience a bit of Maori language and culture. We participated in an official welcoming ceremony called a Powhiri, sang a Maori song, received a lesson in paddling a waka (canoe), and admired the artwork in the Pataka (treasure house). Before we left, the Fulbrighters “treated” our hosts to the first verse and chorus of “We Are the World.” I didn’t choke, but I wasn’t really on key either. Some part of me feels like I should return with an apology and a better version of the song.