By David Mayeda

I love Aljazeera. It is my favourite news site, and I peruse its stories virtually every day. This is partly why I was so disappointed in its recent story on the over-representation of Māori in New Zealand’s criminal justice system produced by 101 East and titled, “Locked Up Warriors.”

The 26-minute documentary attempts to explore some of the underlying reasons as to why Māori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand who comprise 14.5% of the total population, represent over 50% of those incarcerated (and notably, a higher percentage of female inmates). Granted, the piece takes a few minutes to discuss New Zealand’s prison industrial complex, critiquing the government’s greater spending on corrections than education, but it is truly just a few minutes. What is seen throughout more of the piece are ties between Māori culture, families, poverty, crime, gangs, and prison life:

Take for example the section from approximately 7:30 to 10:00 focusing on a young Māori child. The discussions revolve almost entirely around his observations of community violence, gang conflict, and personal aggression. While this may not be an inaccurate portrayal of parts of this youth’s life, the focus is overwhelmingly negative. Likewise, in focusing on a resurrection of Māori culture, viewers only see traditional Māori culture transpiring within the confines of prison walls.

In short, largely because of the focus on disproportionate indigenous incarceration, the piece can’t help but reify racial stereotypes. This is an example of media showcasing indigineity through a deficit model. While the piece attempts to be sympathetic towards the Māori community, the focus fails to significantly showcase positive dimensions of Māori life.

Switching focus a bit, in Aotearoa/New Zealand, diverse Pacific peoples (e.g., Cook Islanders, Fijians, Samoans, Tongans) are also considered indigenous, due to their similar cultural mores and histories across the Pacific. And like Māori, diverse Pacific communities tend to show greater disparity levels.

These trends notwithstanding, Pacific (and Māori) communities demonstrate individual and group successes, as seen in the Pacific Achievers Project, which aims to get Pacific youth “to look into their own backyard for inspiration and see what’s special about the people in their own community.” Here’s a few of the videos posted there:

I see the above strategy to addressing social disparities as far more fruitful and respectful. No doubt, media and other social institutions need to address indigenous peoples’ social disparities, including disproportionately high incarceration levels, but those efforts must be more balanced than what was presented in the Aljazeera piece.

Let’s close out with something more positive, and pretty damn awesome!

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