March is always a very busy time at the museum as the change of seasons sweeps in Cherry Blossom visitors as well as new and exciting programming at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). On March 19th the DC Environmental Film Festival (March 15-26, 2016) in conjunction with NMNH and the Embassy of New Zealand presented the film Ever The Land (2015, 93 mins Directed by Sarah Grohnert) in NMNH’s Baird Auditorium. The film, about the Māori Ngāi Tūhoe Iwi of the North Island of New Zealand depicts their project of building a “living building” for their new iwi (tribe) headquarters, community space, and emergency resource center as an expression of their relationship with the land and the environment.* The first of its kind in New Zealand, the building becomes a way for the iwi to reconcile some aspects of the destructive legacy of colonialism, and for them to signal their resilience and commitment to sustainability. As the closing credits of the film reminds us:
KO TE WHENUA TE TOTO O TE TANGATA
The land is the blood of the people.
KO TE TANGATA TE KANOHI O TE WHENUA
The people are the face of the land.
The screening of this film built on the success of the embassy’s collaboration with Recovering Voices around showing The Dead Lands for the Mother Tongue Film Festival. Ambassador Tim Grosser introduced Ever the Land explaining for visitors the unique biodiversity of New Zealand and the ongoing work to recognize and preserve this unique heritage. The embassy brought the Kapa Haka performance group, Te Tini A Maui of Vancouver, British Columbia to perform as part of the screening. Barbara Stauffer, Colleen Popson, and Naimah Muhammed in NMNH’s education and outreach departments worked to tie the film screening into an event at the museum celebrating and sharing Māori culture with museum visitors, adding in interactive cultural experience for filmgoers as well as visitors unaware of the larger film festival around DC. While NMNH has a long history of engagement with Maori communities dating back to 1840 (the US Exploring Expedition 1838-1842, which was a founding collection of the Smithsonian, visited New Zealand in February 1840 and members of the Expedition were present at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi), Te Tini A Maui is the first Māori group to perform at the museum.
Dr, Joshua A. Bell, the Curator of Globalization in Anthropology and a founding member of the Recovering Voices, and I had the honor of welcoming the Te Tini A Maui group to the museum the morning of the film screening, and escorting them through the day’s program. The group, named for “Many Descendants of Maui” was formed in Vancouver in 2008. Of the eleven current members nine live in Canada and two in New Zealand. They have represented Maori heritage and traditions in events and competitions around the world. The group is composed of six women: Mara Andrews, Careene Andrews, Mania Maniapoto, Jo Leah Ross, Ruby Rawlins, and Renay Chateris, and five men: Cain Kerehoma, Wayne Te Kanawa, Patrick Hape, Wesley Paul, and Manu Cummings. Upon their arrival they stretched out in the RV office and transformed the space into a lively and friendly backstage prep area, warming up their voices and applying body paint to create matching moko tattoo patterns on the men’s thighs and faces and on the women’s chins.
Te Tini A Maui made a phenomenal impact on visitors in NMNH’s rotunda as they performed several traditional songs as well as a haka in front of the elephant. Barefoot stomps on the granite slabs, the rustling of reed skirts, the singing, and Wayne TeKanawa on guitar, their performance drew visitors out of the galleries to gather in the rotunda and peer from the railings of the second floor. Each song was accompanied with a brief explanation of the meaning and context of the piece by Cain Kerehoma. After each performance the group posed with museum visitors for photos and answering questions.
Te Tini A Maui performed four times. After their initial performance in NMNH’s rotunda, they went to the Baird auditorium for the film screening for Ever the Land, meeting the Ambassador of New Zealand’s remarks with a welcoming waiata action song, a Waitata-a-ringa “Pipiwharauroa,” and a mau rakau performance to introduce the film. Following the film paid their respects with a waita ringa “Ko te whakaaro nui” followed by the famous “Ka Mate” haka acknowledging its relationship to the Tuhoe iwi. During the film screening, they also performed in the Q?rius education zone of the museum, flooding the visitor numbers from 500 up to 700 in the space to see their performance.
Walking back to the Recovering Voices office at the end of a long day, Wesley Paul informed me that some of the floors in the museum had been heated. I was surprised, and a few other members chimed in, relating the spaces that had been particularly warm or cool, noting the changes in temperature even as we rounded the corners in the staff halls. The building is too old for electrically heated floors, but talking with someone who knows more about the building, we pieced together the spaces they noted to the old architecture. The granite rotunda, bustling with gusts of incoming visitors was counter-intuitively quite warm; the domed ceiling of Baird Auditorium right below it transferring heat from the equipment and warm bodies of the film festival. At risk of finding too much symmetry, the cultural group helping the museum present a film about a people building a better relationship to the environment into their structure, had relayed a new way of relating to our own building back to me.
Recovering Voices was thrilled to help welcome Te Tini A Maui to the museum, and through helping to select Ever the Land for the NMNH to screen bring a cultural perspective to the festival. We are grateful to the New Zealand Embassy for funding the group’s visit and for their being such dynamic and generous cultural ambassadors. We look forward to organizing more cultural performances that share the language and arts of source communities from around the world with visitors to the museum.
*The original posting incorrectly called the new building a Marae, which is a traditional community hall, but Sarah Grohnert the film's director was kind enough to offer the correct designation of the building as a distinct space from the Tūhoe marae.
By: Tierney Brown with Joshua A. Bell