Lego, cultural appropriation, Maori

There was an incident that happened about 13 years ago, that forever is included in University classes on the topic of cultural appropriation. It seems so very long ago and I am happy that people have become much more aware, but I’m a little bit sick of the reinvention of what happened at that time. That I’m reposting an old article I wrote to reference it when I come across the discussion again.

The incident was; a Mäori hacker took down a major Lego forum that encouraged the reinvention of Mäori culture and language for the sake of their Bionicle product range. There seemed to be a bit of an upset as a result of this, it was in the newspapers,(e.g. http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0211/S00055.htm) radio and various academics wrote various articles dissecting the conversation. etc. Even today the incident seems to part of ongoing conversations around cultural appropriation. I wrote an article in 2002 for our Maori website, to discuss that Lego’s actions were just a little example of an ongoing larger story that is replayed.

——————————————————————————————————(2002)
On the Te Taura Whiri te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission) website is stated the following:
“Mäori is the foundation language of New Zealand, the ancestral language of the Tangata Whenua and one of the taonga guaranteed protection under the Treaty of Waitangi. It also provides this country with a unique language identity in the rest of the world, as this is the only place where Mäori is spoken widely. In more tangible terms, the Mäori language is a powerful social force for the reconstruction of a damaged and deteriorated self-image among Mäori youth, a vehicle of contribution to society, and therefore a means of regaining dignity. Finally, human freedom is dependent at all levels of choice and diversity; linguistic pluralism can be nothing other than a guardian of individual freedom and identity against the forces of conformism.”

The core issue at the heart of this discussion is that of identity.
Who defines who the Māori people are?
Who has the right of representation of Māori cultures?
Who defines our identity to the larger world?
Is it the people themselves: the Māori?

Or is it as the American based BZPower forum insists; that it is the equal right of Americans to reinvent the Māori and other Polynesian and indigenous cultures “as they see fit”?(1)
This small story of LEGO plus the spin-off American online communities’ appropriation of Māori and Polynesian identity and resources to brand their new product line; Bionicle, is a chapter of a much larger story that replays in many places all over the world past and present. It is the ongoing story of western domination; that process of invasion of another’s territory; theft and destruction of lives, resources, the reinvention of history and indigenous identity for the sake of power, profit and the inflated image that the Dominator would present to the world.

The larger story goes like this; the Colonizer (5) has history start with his arrival. All that was before his arrival he determines is wrong, ugly, “primitive” or of no account. All that there is to remind one, of who you really are, what really was ‘so’ before the Colonizer’s arrival has been sought out, destroyed, trivialized or reinvented. The evils and injustices that the Colonizer committed and still commits are hidden minimized or erased. Mythologies, religious stories, foreign ideologies or philosophies are indoctrinated into our indigenous populations to account for this new state of affairs as being ordained or decreed by God, Science or Nature. So that the Colonizer’s way is the only standard and reference to what is ‘real’, the norm, of value, of worth or of beauty. It is a ‘one true way’ mindset that categorizes superiority or inferiority according to adherence to its norms and values only. This mentality permeates and underscores every facet of Western society, so it is predominantly an unquestioned ‘given’ from one generation to the next down to this present day.

Many contemporary Māori are alienated from their roots, they’re adrift, neither fully participant in the western cultures that engulf them, nor firmly anchored to even a memory of the ways of life that once sustained our ancestors. For those who are lost to their Māoritanga the whole of who they are is valued of little worth as accounted for by the larger society.
The first vehicle to the recovery of esteem as Māori, Polynesian, or Aboriginal people or for that matter any other human person is to recover the truth of your past. To know from who you were descended the truth of your people’s culture and teachings to really understand for yourself who you are. For Māori, it is to discover in fact a great heritage and diverse history that frees you from the inferiority mentality derived from the indoctrination of false identity. The heart and center of identity as a people and a person are family, land, and truth told both past and present. The guardians of Māori cultures, histories, and identity are in fact the Māori themselves; we alone are the authors of our cultures’ past and present. It is our birthright and our current responsibility. We reject the reinvention of who we are as a people as defined by any both past and present who so claim whether they be from America or any other country. Historically and to this day the images and identities you project onto us are false and profit you alone to our detriment.

Let’s look then at a smaller chapter of that larger story
When in 1997 the Lego Company for the first time experienced a loss, they realized that today’s kids wanted something “cool” to play with. Something that would encompass more than building blocks they wanted a story and to go with that story “they wanted neat pieces that they could use to create their own play fantasies” (2). This observation was confirmed when they introduced the Star Wars line, which took them out of the red for 1999. Lego now knew for a fact, that ‘bricks with a story’ was a great money-spinner. However they had to pay out a large number of royalties to Lucasfilm cutting into their profit margin, hence they got the idea of avoiding that expense by creating their “own” story.

In much the same way that George Lucas turned to the indigenous cultures of Asia (3) to appropriate it’s mythology and spiritual teachings as the background stories and culture of his own ‘invention’. The LEGO Company followed that pattern looking instead to Polynesia for something ‘new’ and ‘creative’ to offer the international market interweaving a story as did Lucas with elements of other cultures reinterpreted through a western perspective.

Again, in much the same way that the early dominator cultures mined the natural resources of land, sea, and air for industry and economy. In more recent times the Western world at large has discovered there is just as much profit to be had in mining the spiritual and cultural resources of indigenous cultures for its new products. LEGO is nothing if not a product of it’s own larger past.

Early 2001 Maui Solomon a Māori Lawyer drew up a letter of complaint to Lego. Although there were accusations that the premise of the game borrowed from the story derived from the Easter Islands people (who are closely related), the major complaint ccentered on Polynesian names that were used out of context and without permission. After meeting with Māori representatives, it was reported that in the latter part of that year that, Lego would discontinue the use of Maori words such as “Tohunga” (Maori for “priest”), “Pohatu” (“stone”), “Kanohi” (“mask”), and “Whenua” (“earth”), and in the future would refrain from using names taken directly from other cultures. (4)
Over a year later LEGO has made a cool £6m from the toys, plans a new range of remote-controlled ones plus a movie associated with Miramax, has cartoons, multi-media entertainment and has formed an alliance with Nike. It has not (with the exception of the word “Tohunga”) discontinued the use of all the words that they originally misappropriated. Furthermore, the BZPower forums and other Bionicle online communities continue to use all terminology originally employed by the LEGO Company and sources the entire Māori language for fantasy and role-play. The exploitation of Māori resources such as online translators designed to assist the recovery of heritage and identity of the sake of our Māori youth is used instead to fabricate and re-invent anew false pseudo-Polynesian identities for the entertainment of American and European consumers; young and old.

The administrators encourage this exploitation as an expression of American cultural values: “You[r] language belongs to anyone who wants to use it. You are not going to like this, but we in the United States, have as much right to your language as you do. We have just as many rights to use it as you do, and I know I will continue to do so as I see fit.” (Assistant administrator BZPower forum)

“Yes I condone “bastardizing” other cultures, as you would like to put it, as it is my right to and I will do so as I see fit.” (Assistant administrator)
We refute America’s ‘right’ to colonize our culture anew for the sake of profit and gain let alone this company’s. We recognise that they have no ethical right, that they are but asserting their ‘might’ as a larger bullying power to take without asking. We stand against demeaning Māori peoples lives and culture as a resource for fantasy role-play and product. We stand also against the false representation of the Māori people by such forums as exemplified by BZPower forums which follows the patterns of a vile tradition that has done generations of harm to First peoples the world over.
Last year the first and only comment made by a Māori on that forum, which expressed firstly my feelings on the misuse of Māori language was immediately suppressed. Discussion was re-opened after I challenged that act on the basis of free speech. Through the course of that debate I was informed that the rights of an indigenous person of another land to use free speech to define my culture and represent a Māori’s voice was denied:
“You have no rights granted by the American constitution. Only citizens of the United States have those rights, and your right to express your opinion here is only granted by the administration of this website, a website that you bash as unfair. Therefore you can be stopped from saying everything, because freedom of speech does not apply to you, however the administration (of which I am a part of) have given you the right to discuss your opinion.” Assistant Administrator.

Not too long after explaining why the misuse of Māori culture was wrong all commentary by myself or any Māori for that matter on the issues of Māori language and culture used by the BZPower forum users was forbidden by the administrators. Freedom of speech is not as many Americans think the unique invention of White American culture. Evidence of this was among my own ancestors and was more likely adopted into the American constitution based on the practices of the Iroquois people that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson studied. Freedom of speech as given by them is the right for ALL people to be heard regardless of race, nationality, sex, religion, or any other criteria.

After the BZPower forum was recently hacked into by an alleged Māori hacker Bzpower posted the following:

“BZPower would like to ask for the assistance of anyone within the Maori sphere of influence, who would be able to help convince the radical elements within the Maori people that such destructive behavior is counterproductive to improving that culture’s international acceptance. Such negative publicity is certain to impede anything the Maori are trying to achieve, and shutting down a forum about a toy will certainly do more harm than good in the long run.”

Frankly, no stereotyping of a people for the sake of fun and games serves anyone in the short or long term. The false representation of a culture does not render ‘international acceptance’ it suggests instead that an indigenous culture needs to be reinvented by the western world to be considered equal or of worth. The world would be a better place if America recognised the right of other people to be governed by their own people. It would be better again if the western world recognised that human freedom is dependent at all levels on choice and diversity; linguistic pluralism let alone unique systems of thoughts and ways as found in indigenous cultures ensure a diversity of human expression which stand as a bastion against the forces of conformism; represented by global commercial interests it offers a choice to what the market would profit from having you see yourself or others as.

This article has been written in response to the BZPower forums intimating that the hacker was associated with Aotearoalive.com (because of a debate I had with them a year ago), instigating an ongoing barrage of cyber attacks on one of New Zealand’s largest and most current Māori websites. Although personally, I don’t endorse hacking – I can fully understand that when an organization or a people for that matter forbids the freedom of speech of all people regardless of race or nationality and furthermore encroaches on that’s people’s wellbeing that you allow no other expression but retaliation. Certainly, BZPower can not expect sympathy that their ‘freedom of speech’ is removed when they do so to others.

The recovery of all Maori people’s identity and well being will continue; our response will be, tell the truth, both past and present of our culture first and foremost by the people, for the people without the re-invention practices of the West. Although our ability to get our voice heard is substantially less than the wider commercial world we clearly signpost authentic Māori sites under second-level domain names and interlink authentic websites off our main Māori portals. The contrast between authenticity and fabrication is immense; the first builds a people and provides tools to the wider world for a diverse array of needs that require a diverse array of solutions, the latter is exploitation for fun and the belittlement of others.

* Tangata Whenua means people of the land.
* Taonga means treasure.
* Māoritanga – Māori ways and traditions
1 “my right to bastardize other cultures as I see fit” Assistant Administrator of BZPower forum
2 http://www.bzpower.com/ref.php?ID=489
3 http://www.middleenglish.org/spc/23.1/wetmore.htm Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.
The Tao of Star Wars, Or, Cultural Appropriation in a Galaxy Far, Far Away
4 http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/840.html