Society for Biblical Literature International: Powhiri
SBL International has begun. The first papers are not due for another half hour, but the conference began yesterday with a powhiri (Māori welcome ceremony) and a reception. For the SBL International in Auckland, the challenge was "Kamate Kamate" somewhat oddly since this haka was judged too bloodthirsty for international rugby matches (ka mate means death!) - apparently International Rugby is wimpy compared to International Biblical Scholars ;-)
It was great to begin this first ever SBL in New Zealand in a culturally appropriate way with the visitors being welcomed to the University Marae, to the University and to the country. As so often though my delight in powwhiri was tinged with saddness, of only Māori custom could unbend enough to produce a geniuinely bicultural powhiri one for example in which the speeches were tailored to the presence of 90% of the participants who are not fluent in Te Reo (the Māori language) so shorter and accompanied by brief summary statements in English (like subtitles) so that the 90% could understand and appreciate the ceremony. Such a powhiri if regularly adopted for bicultural occasions, would I suspect take NZ by storm and become the only appropriate way to formally welcome visitors. Instead too often what we have is a mere cultural show - which ends up turning Māori into museum exhibits, rather than partners in a bicultural society.
Yes, Tim. I was right up the front of the crowd waiting to go through the arch onto the marae, so I heard the two Maori explaining to the SBL president what was going to happen and what his role was in it all, so I had some idea what was happening. There are also some similarities between the function of the powhiri and the function of an Aboriginal Australian message stick, which is carried by visitors into the country of other peoples, so I had some 'hooks' to hang the experience on, but it was still a bit odd not hearing what had happened until after it had happened. I do hope our hosts were right about the ability of the powhiri to improve the standard of our conference presentations!! :-)