Thursday, June 9, 2011
The supernatural meets zoning
This Shane Evans work depicts the twin aspects of the taniwha Haumapuhia, from Waikaremoana.
As I have said before, the Maori culture is held in great esteem in New Zealand. Most official services are either bilingual or are kicked off in Maori. (The national anthem has verses in both languages.) The Maori traditions are interwoven inseperably into the fabric of New Zealand. I often have to pause my reading of the newspaper to look up a word in Maori or ask a colleague what something means, what it symbolizes or what the significance is. It's been a wonderful education for me.
I find the mythology particularly intriguing. Recently I've been hearing a lot about taniwha (the wh is pronounced like an f in Maori). These are beings that live in water, particularly dangerous waters. Taniwha, depending on traditions, can either be guardian angels or dangerous and evil predators.
"Taniwha are supernatural creatures whose forms and characteristics vary according to different tribal traditions," according to Te Ara Encyclopedia. "Though supernatural, in the Māori world view they were seen as part of the natural environment. Taniwha have been described as fabulous monsters that live in deep water. Others refer to them as dragons – many taniwha looked like reptiles, had wings and ate people. They could also take the shape of animals such as sharks, whales, octopuses, or even logs. Some taniwha could change their shape, moving between different forms."
Mythical or not, taniwha continue to have present-day impact on New Zealand. Plans for an Auckland city rail link tunnel could be spiked by a taniwha, for example.
According to The New Zealand Herald, the Auckland Council's Maori Statutory Board has warned transport planners of the taniwha, who lived in an ancient creek running past the Town Hall and down Queen St. Board member Glen Wilcox has asked Auckland's transport committee to give consideration to the taniwha - which the Ngati Whatua iwi call Horotiu - as it plans the $2.6 billion tunnel project. "What's being done about the taniwha Horotiu who lives just outside here, and that tunnel will be going through his rohe [area]?" asked Mr Wilcox.
In 2002, the presence of a one-eyed taniwha called Karu Tahi stopped work on the Waikato Expressway, and part of the new road was rerouted. There are many such examples of work being replanned or delayed.
Wilcox has been accused of dropping a "T-bomb" for raising the subject.
I don't know where all this is going to end up. Personally, I have tremendous respect for the way the different cultures interact here. Too much deference could end up in farcical inaction or overreaction, to be sure. Still, I've been impressed by the willingness in New Zealand to do what pleases most people - if it is feasible, safe and practical.
It's a difficult juggling act, and one that does seem to be teetering on the verge of absurdity from time to time. But such matters should not be tossed aside too easily. The difficult balance should be sought. The ancient can be a useful guide and guardian in the future. The United States left behind a lot of the Native American spiritual mythology and beliefs. When we lived in South Dakota and got to know a lot of the Sioux, we were intrigued and enchanted by a lot of their guiding philosophies. The Sun Dance or the Legend of the White Buffalo show that most cultures, at heart, are in search of harmony and peace with the natural world around them.
In 2002, the Environment Court - in a ruling on Taukere, the Northland taniwha - said it respected the rights of people to believe in spiritual, metaphysical taniwha, according to The Herald, but the court was part of a secular state. The Resource Management Act required it to consider the well-being of physical people. Of course it must come down to that in the end, but that should not be the starting point. Accomodations can and have been made and I believe a lot of cultures can learn from how New Zealand deals with such matters.