Time to wipe the cultural sleep from our eyes

It would be wrong to call the exquisite brown media site e-Tangata a start-up.

It is indeed small, newish and paddling hard to keep itself going in a media market which can be brutal on voices beyond the mainstream.

But its start, as such, was nearly 40 years ago.  If anything, it is a 're-start' rather than a start up, of the vision held deeply through those decades by its editors and founders Gary Wilson and Tapu Misa of bringing a Māori and Pacific perspective firmly into our national media and debates.  

e-Tangata, for those who may have been living under a Pākehā or Palagi rock for the past two years, is a weekly digital magazine that publishes New Zealand stories by (mostly) Māori and Pasifika writers and thinkers.  

Each Sunday e-Tangata surfaces 'stories that feed and shape the national consciousness and voices that contribute to national conversations'.  Those words, shaped and weighted by all those years of good intent, are from the introduction to a small but perfectly formed new book - The Best of e-Tangata - just published by Bridget Williams Books.

The fact that BWB has identified e-Tangata as worthy this early in its life of a 'best-of" says much about the tone and calibre, not to mention the appeal, of the stories the site is finding and promoting.  BWB calls the site "home to some of the most incisive and profound commentary on life in New Zealand."

The 19 selected pieces - plus Misa and Wilson's finely crafted introduction - are remarkable. There's Moana Maniapoto writing beautifully on tangihanga - what she calls "our dying tradition" - Naida Glavish reminiscing on a life forever marked by her answering the Post Office toll number in the 1980s with a 'Kia Ora', and Samoan rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu on life and racial prejudice at Auckland Grammar School.

The book, and the site, are tightly edited, crisp and instantly accessible. They deal with big lives, big issues in a conversational style hard to capture in a mainstream media world.

Wilson, aged 80, has been the leading journalism educator for Maori and Pacific students and with Misa, who he calls 'Example Number One' he has strived valiantly to have more brown perspectives in the mainstream media and in specialised magazines, radio and online.  

He came to this cause via a childhood observing racism against Maori in Pukekohe in the 1940s, an 'unsettling' time in the 'very white' environment of King's College, university years with 'bugger-all' Maori around, teaching English at St Stephen's School on the Bombay Hill, and journalism at the all-white newsrooms of the Auckland Star and New Zealand Herald. Disturbed by the thought so much Maori talent was being ignored, he eventually set up journalism courses in Wellington, Waiariki and Manukau. "The conventional attitudes were whiter than the white people calling the shots realised."

Samoan-born and Wellington-raised Misa, a brilliant writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald and North and South magazine and former member of the Broadcasting Standards Authority, was on Wilson's first journalism introductory course 37 years ago.

They worked together in establishing the Manukau course for Pasifika journalists, then at a venture called Mana Maori Media from the 1990s, a potential golden age for the representation and voice of Māori and Pasifika in media, and were disappointed when it and other ventures 'slipped away' due to commercial and other pressures.

"The whole kaupapa is so important," Wilson says.  "There has never been any critical mass to bringing brown awareness to news choices or news presentation - a whole host of big brown stories still get neglected."

Misa interjects: "This is where Gary gets weepy.'

Her mentor and co-editor replies:

"I think you are allowed to get weepy. It has been 40 years. You think you made progress and seeing some of that slip away is hard."

The site has been going for two years, moving through a 'very soft launch' and operating on the smell of an oily rag through funding by the Tindall Foundation and the efforts of the founders.  

At one point one of e-Tangata's contributing writers, Dale Husband, was paid for his work in alpaca manure from Wilson's Pukekohe property.  Misa says the 80 year-old Wilson has contributed mightily in koha.

e-Tangata has only just got premises, beside the Hard to Find Bookshop in Onehunga Mall. It is, Wilson reckons, about 10 percent along the path to becoming what he and Misa hope it can be.  

Says Misa: "We are nowhere near the dream of having that integrated platform for storytelling from a Pacific and Maori voice, talking about these things from the inside.

"We don't want to be just that 'little brown boutique'. We want to reach the white audience and have a mainstream platform as well."

She believes it will happen: "I do think we can have an influence.  While we might not reach everybody we just need at the start to reach some key people.

"We need to have conversations about some things in New Zealand from a perspective that isn't middle class, white or comfortable.  For example when you see talk about 'affordable housing' in new housing developments, the figures they mention are just not affordable to anybody I know.  

"We need to challenge comfortable perceptions in things like that and do it in a conversational, non-threatening way."

When the former Auckland Star journalist Wilson began his first journalism introductory courses, helped by the Department of Māori and Pacific Island Affairs, a survey established  about 1.7 percent of journalists in the nation's newsrooms were Māori or Pasifika.

Asked what he estimates it would be now, he laments: "Probably not that much more".

Māori TV and TVNZ's Te Karere are there, but Wilson says Māori have two voices, one in Māori and one in English.  "The dialogue, conversations and debates need to be carried on in English.  Bill English is not going to be sitting down and watching Te Karere.

"Māori and Pacific news has inevitably been colonised - you are not getting many well-informed judgments shaping the news."

e-Tangata is published in English. "We want accessible, well-informed voices about the significant issues of the day"  Wilson says.

The book carries a piece by New Zealand Geographic magazine editor-at-large Kennedy Warne, a Pākehā, on writer and poet Saana Murray and his own discovery of the Māori world and worldview.  

Warne describes experiences in the north and in Te Urewera, marvelling each time at having "a little more cultural sleep rubbed out of my eyes."

Misa and Wilson, and the writers and collaborators on the Mana Trust and its advisory board who make this largely pro-bono taonga keep going, are helping the rest of us wake up. 

"We hope that by sharing our stories, our ways of thinking, our experiences, our hopes and dreams, we will not only break down the ignorance that divides us but also inspire and help others to rub the cultural sleep from their eyes."

The e-Tangata site has sections and sub-headings you seldom see in the media: 'Pathways' and 'Reflections'  as much as 'Issues' or 'Politics'.  

They are trying to take us beyond white borders: "Our stories should not only reflect us, in all our many splendoured ways, " their introduction to the book says 'They should light the way too.

"Our stories help us to make sense of who we are and who we want to be. By telling our stories we 're bringing others into our world."

The Best of e-Tangata, BWB texts, is now on sale in good book stores.

* Tim Murphy worked with Tapu Misa at the New Zealand Herald and is a career-long admirer of her thinking and writing.

* You can also give a koha towards e-Tangata's crowdfunding campaign, which is focused on enhancing their website and editorial team. Simply click the link below, which allow you to make a contribution via the PressPatron website.


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