The Maori and the African American in Once Were Warriors

Irene Tung '00 English 27, 1997

Duff alludes to the black African-American experience explicitly in comparison to the Maori, thereby breaking down the so-called Dominant/Other binary -- that is, treating the dominating and dominated as diammetrical oppositions -- and explores Other/Other relations. Race and color intersect history and culture in defining the Maori in their opposition to whiteness, but they do not completely align themeselves with the black "Negro" pole. Beth seems exudes a certain pride in being a unique group very distinct from the black of the "Negro", in part because she shes the Maori as a once dominate and dominating group, for as Beth states:

Us Maoris used to practice slavery just like them poor Negroes had to endure in America. . .Yet to read the newspapers, on the TV every damn day, you'd' think we're descended from a pack angels, and its the Pakeha who's the devil. . .Just shows, we'all good, and we're all bad. (97)

By inverting the power dynamic and putting the Maori in the role of the oppressor, as well as modifying Negro, with "poor" there is a subtle "othering" -- and hence subordindinating -- of the African American, an implied assertion of non-alignment. Duff presents a complicated relationship of colored, visual solidarity and identification. Problematically, Beth defines the Maori not as "in between" whiteness and blackness--bridging but not transcending the black white dialectic.

The emphasis on African-American comparison can also be interpreted as a reflection of American media neocolonialism and hegemony. Beth's essentializing conceptions of Black Americans are based upon media representations (probably) created by white executives. "We got passion, us Maoris. Or maybe it's style. But not like that Negro style you see on the TV of being swank, hip, cool, moving with their black rhythmic groovin, not that kind, but a cross between that and the less showy whites." (37)

She mentions "soul and reggae and rap" as the music the kids enjoy listening to. (37) Nig covers his walls with posters of black Negro boxers, warriors in their own sense. Beth comments: "Now they're what you call real niggers. Not like a Maori nigger. " This essentialized description that Beth gives is predominantly focused on the physical, the body, in movement. She goes on to compare the body and appearance of the boxer with Jake's.

Historical Complexities of Assigning the Labels Oppressor and Oppressed Based upon Color

Duff refers to the legacy of Maori slavery when Jake asks his children, "Hey kids, Know what I inherited as a Maori? Jake asking out of the blue. . . Slaves.. . . My family were slaves. . . My branch of the Heke line was descended from a slave. . . Five hundred years of the slave curse bein on our heads" (97). Nonetheless, Maori history probably has more in common with Native Americans in the United States than with African-Americans, but because of color and the urban setting, they are ultimately compared with African-Americans. A loss of ownership of their culture and history relegates the Maori to definition against the visual images surrounding them. The emphasis on visuality is reinforced by media representations, whether on the television, in music or in posters and images.

Regardless of historical difference, this is a story that is reflective of, indeed, could be representative of the experiences of some urban socio-economically disadvantaged African-American experience with housing developments and gang violence and poverty and unemployment. As a literary text, it can not escape comparison with American texts. On the back cover a reviewer from the Dominion, a New Zealand publications, writes, "A starkly realistic account. . .as important, as frank, as powerful a book as [Alice Walker's The Color Purple] was for Americans." The repeated mention of African-Americans reveals its consciousness of the parallels to similar American texts. A story that, it were set in the United States, would probably be less well-received based upon the triteness of its content within the American context. The conclusion, a return to indigenous communal traditions is what sets it apart from a similar story set in the United States.

Overview New
Zealand Once Were

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002