In Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors, the history of the Maori functions as a source of both future salvation and present degradation. The Maoris are depicted as a people whose history, past, and traditions have been taken from them by colonialism, which forcibly separated them from their past. The white New Zealanders, in contrast, are "They Who Have History," and their history of success and accomplishment allows them to succeed in contemporary society whereas the Maoris have only the history of a conquered and oppressed people.
In the courtroom Grace recognizes this history of dominance and social advancement and notes the power that the judge has in
this precious damn room with all his mates up around the walls supporting him, giving him not only the law on his side but them, the ones up on the walls in their big fancy frames, the education they must have had, the head starts. History. (He's got history, Grace and Boogie Heke, and you ain't.) (Duff 29).
In this context, simply remembering traditional Maori society becomes important as a means of resisting colonial domination, for it restores a history and tradition erased by colonial ideology. As Beth notes at end of the novel when the chief evokes the chivalry and strength of Maori warriors, "No one taught us this at school. They taught us their history: English history" (173). The chief then proceeds to outline the history of the conquest of the Maori people, the treachery of the British colonials, and the strength and dignity of the Maoris who fought valiantly in defense of their civilization. This history emphasizes the strength and greatness of Maori society rather than the negative attributes associated with the Maoris in the present. Likewise, it is important in that it emphasizes the history of colonialism as a causal factor in the present degradation of the Maori people.
The emphasis throughout Duff's novel on the fact that the Maori are a people who once were warriors has both positive and negative implications for present and future Maori life. It provides the Maoris with a sense of strength which can be drawn on to overcome present difficulties, but at the same time it also valorizes a tradition of violence and a hierarchical society in which slavery and domination were central. Drawing upon this aspect of Maori tradition contributes to the continued present degradation of the Maori. Although important to revalorize traditional Maori society, it is equally important not to overly romanticize it. Although parts of Maori tradition serve as a source of strength and pride, colonialism has made it impossible for it to survive unscathed. In fact, as Beth points out, the contradictions that face contemporary Maori culture arise precisely because traditional Maori warriorhood no longer has the same function in contemporary society as it did before colonization. As she says,
And we used to war all the time, us Maoris. Against each other. . . . Savages. We were savages. But warriors, eh. It's very important to remember that. Warriors. Because, you see, it was what we lost when you, the white audience out there, defeated us. Conquered us. Took our land, our mana , left us with nothing. But the warriors thing got handed down, see. Well, sort of handed down; in a mixed-up sense it did. It was more toughness that got handed down from generation to generation. . . . But this toughness, Pakeha audience of mine, it started to mean less and less as the world got older, learned more, and new technology all this fandangled computer stuff, oh but even before computers, it all made toughness redundant. (Duff 41-42).
Although the warrior tradition emphasizes strength and honour, in its present corrupted form it perpetuates violence and degradation. To Jake, for instance, the tradition of warriorhood functions only to justify his violence, a violence directed primarily at those weaker than himself such as Beth and his children. Beth clearly points out that this violence has nothing to do with Maori warriorhood, for "the Maori of old had a culture, and he had pride, and he had warriorhood, not this bullying, man-hitting-woman shet, you call that manhood? It's not manhood and it sure as hell ain't Maori warriorhood. So ask yourself what you are" (Duff 22). Like Jake, the Brown-fists gang, which explicitly draws on traditional Maori culture, including its facial tattoos, represents a corruption of the old ways. The Brown Fists promote violence without the notions of honour or glory once inextricably linked with warriorhood in traditional Maori society.
Duff makes it clear throughout the novel that although Maori traditions can provide strength for some in the present, traditional Maori culture was hierarchical, and for many the Maori heritage is one of domination, exclusion, and oppression. The glory of traditional Maori society, it seems, was the domain of only a few whereas for characters such as Jake, the legacy of Maori society was one of slavery. As he says, "Hey kids. Know what I inherited as a Maori?. . . Slaves. . . . My branch of the Heke line was descended from a slave. . . . So that's your family history on your father's side, kids" (Duff 96-97). It is this tradition of domination that Jake retains from his traditional culture. Likewise, Beth points to the hierarchical nature of Maori society, remembering it as
a males-only domain. And only certain males at that. From certain families. From chiefly lines. And to hell with the rest, you're here to serve us. That's how a girl'd felt. And growing up to the knowledge that as a woman she was never going to have the right to speak publicly, as this man now was. Not ever" (Duff 114).
Despite Beth's sense of exclusion from traditional Maori society, it is she who in the end promotes the idea of drawing on its traditions to empower her people. She does not romanticize the past or advocate a return to traditional Maori society but rather draws on the positive aspects of their past to imbue contemporary Maoris with pride in their own strength and heritage. As she says, "Gonna do my best to give you kids your rightful warrior inheritance. Pride in yourself, your poor selves. Not attacking violent pride but heart pride" (Duff 161). This revalorization of their heritage thus functions as a means of inspiring Maoris with a sense of their own power, past and present, and thus resisting colonial ideology, rejecting the negative associations of Maori culture and instead taking pride in their culture:
In joy, pure joy at being Maori. Oh aren't (they) we a together race when (they) we're like this? History, thas what they are. They are history and therefore so are we, and who needs anything else when you got the strength of history supporting ya?" (Duff 120-21).
Duff offers such revalorization of traditional Maori culture and history as a means of liberating the Maoris from their current degradation, but this solution does not seem convincing. Although selectively remembering their history may certainly provide Maoris with pride and strength to survive, it nonetheless does very little to address their current socio-economic situation or to change the material reality of the people in contemporary New Zealand. Throughout the novel, Duff clearly demonstrates that the difficulties Maoris face in contemporary society are not just a question of tradition and history but also of systematic racism and discrimination in the present. Thus, although a revalorization of certain aspects of Maori tradition may be beneficial, it alone will hardly solve the difficulties faced by Maoris in contemporary New Zealand nor guarantee a better future. As Nig says early in the novel, given the racism and material conditions for Maoris in this society, "what future? No future for a Maori" (10).