Thoughts from an Airport Cafe: International Indigenous Governance, and Home

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A parade of humanity streams by, each passenger more harried than the last. There’s no rhyme or reason to the fracas here in Terminal 4 of the Los Angeles International Airport. Gate 48B to be precise.

No less than four American flags at the arrival gates remind folks that this is #Murcia. But no one seems to pay them any mind. Wrangling young kids who would rather run off, and finding the proper gate capture the attention of most passengers who are either deplaning, making a connection, or hoping to board. 

I’m traveling solo, seated at a table for two. I’ve given up two chairs that surrounded my table to an Australian group consisting of two families and more kids than should ever be brought on an international trip.

Naturally, they were a lovely bunch.

My travels this week take me to New Zealand and the World Indigenous Business Forum. I plan to share the work we are doing at the University of Arizona to develop an International Indigenous Governance Consortium that will deliver access to education on Indigenous governance to Indigenous peoples around the world. It’s a tall order in a world that is constant motion – not unlike Terminal 4 here at LAX. 

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It’s a cliché (but a useful cliché) to say that what makes these jaunts worthwhile is the opportunity to share information with communities, and folks who haven’t been exposed to the ideas of Native Nation Building. It’s true that the foundation of our research began with the Harvard Project on Native American Economic Development some twenty years ago. But for most Indigenous peoples, twenty years is a drop in the bucket of time. And as recent developments across global jurisdictions demonstrate, the lessons are timely, relevant, and important. 

Whenever I take these trips, I set my phone to an image of home, 300-odd acres of Oklahoma plains, and the home place where my Parents, Grandparents, and Great-Grandparents built, lived, and made a life in a world devoid of traditional values. 

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Thinking about Grandpa back in Cotton County helps me keep in context the work that I do. It reminds me that our target audience isn’t really the academics and Indigenous business elite who are attending the conference, but the folks at home who live on the land, and deal with life in all of its complexity. 

And, of course, I think about my son, Clark, and the world that my generation will leave behind for him. Given the political quagmire surrounding our President’s Supreme Court nominee, it makes me question the future as he becomes a man. But I still have hope. For him. For the folks at home. And for the many people who will be attending the World Indigenous Business Forum. 

But such questions are far from the mind here in Terminal 4 at LAX. The irritated faces of travelers, and the frenetic announcements of the PA system all take top billing over such introspections.

Soon, I will join them and contribute to the broad stream of people who pass through LAX everyday. But my true north will always be far from the locales that I visit.

It remains as it always has – on 360 dusty acres in Cotton County, Oklahoma. Where Papa sits in his recliner watching Football, and the crickets chirp outside.

Homeward Bound

Earlier this afternoon,some of our class was keen to ride the cable cars to the top of a local mountain here in Wellington. Hungry, and dreading the 12+ hour trek home, I opted for the only place in New Zealand where a man can eat for less than $10. McDonalds isn’t the healthiest option, but the burger was fine, and the view of the city below was not unwelcome.

Strange to think that the trip is winding down already. In fact, just this morning two members of our group left for an extension of their travel abroad, off to destinations in Australia. One other member of the class left for Laramie yesterday.

Soon, the rest of us will board a plane here in Wellington for a brief jaunt to Auckland, where we’ll connect to LAX and eventually to Denver, and to home.

I suppose with every trip there’s a bit of wistfulness for the memories made. Over a year ago, when my family and I left New Zealand for Oklahoma, I wasn’t sure that I would ever return. And yet, just over a year later, here I am with a fresh set of experiences that were only enhanced by the students and my colleague on the trip.

It’s a bit cliché, but like to think that farewell isn’t good bye. If the relationships developed here are any indication, a visit to New Zealand or hosting visitors from New Zealand in the near future isn’t only possible but perhaps quite likely. International travel, something that was once quite alien to my life experience, now seems to be a part of the natural order of things. Sometimes it’s a lot for this kid from Cotton County, OK to absorb.

At any rate, I’m quite pleased to be leaving for home. I have a wife and son that I’ve missed very much, and plenty of Call of Duty left to play now that classes are over – not to mention the academic research and writing that I need to do as well.

But in the meantime, I’ll keep a special place in my heart for Aotearoa – the land where my son learned to walk, and the first place our newly minted family called home.

Until next time, farewell, Friends.

A Visit to the Museum

Te Papa Tongarewa Museum here in Wellington, New Zealand is every bit the epitome of a modern state museum. But what makes this one especially interesting is that its cavernous halls are home to some of the most exquisite collections of Māori artifacts in the world. Our group from the University of Wyoming traipsed through this morning for a quick 90 minute tour of the museum’s Māori highlights. 

Our tour guide was a surly woman. Short. Somewhat portly. The tenor of her voice bespoke an annoyance with the very premise of answering questions. Naturally, this effect was amplified on those rare occasions when one of us dared to ask one.

This seems to be a thing with tour guides on this trip. In a separate incident while touring Parliament yesterday, a different guide actually yelled at a poor girl from our class when she paused to use the restroom before the tour even started. Later, the same guide badgered my colleague, a staunch feminist, over Wyoming’s decision to grant women the right to vote.

To be clear and fair, this guide was very much in favor of women’s suffrage, but his point seemed to be that New Zealand had led the world on this score by becoming the first country to grant women the right to vote as opposed to being merely a state. My colleagues position was that Wyoming’s decision on women’s suffrage was actually done under “false pretenses.” Now that I think about it, I suspect they were talking past one another.

Nevertheless, fireworks ensued and we all enjoyed the festivities, albeit a bit awkwardly. The name “Te Papa,” according to our tour guide is derived from the Māori words for treasure and basket. As a result, the museum fancies itself as a treasure basket of sorts, or to put matters less obtusely, the home of the nation’s treasures.

At Te Papa, one of the more interesting parts of the collection was the Māori “meeting house,” or wharenui in the photo above. This particular wharenui was actually stolen (or “confiscated” to quote our guide) from one of the New Zealand tribes as a showcase piece for visitors to Parliament as luck would have it. Perhaps our guide from Parliament gave the tours.

For the indigenous scholar in me, all of this, of course, begs the question of whether the museum is actually a home to the nation’s treasures or a safe house for the country’s plunder.

Tomato, tomāto, I suppose.

In all, it was a lovely visit to the museum. It’s no Smithsonian but the coffee was nice even if the tour guide wasn’t.

A Dispatch from New Zealand


The Tukorehe Marae is an unprepossessing structure. Nestled behind a grove of lush palm trees, its paint is gradually fading, unveiling layer upon layer of cosmetic efforts past. The predominance of white paint is strong in the front. But in the back, it yields to flecks of salmon, and some of the wood has worn itself bare.

Our host at the marae is a man named Shawn, or “Papa Shawn,” as the kids call him. And while he’s hardly the garrulous sort, he clearly loves this place – a place that he simply calls home. 
Māori in New Zealand often call a particular “mare,” such as this, home. For the descendants of Tukorehe, a Māori ancestor from the distant past, this marae is theirs, carrying with it all the trappings of ownership as if they had helped Tukorehe himself hew the logs that support its roof. 
By way of explanation, the focal point of the marae grounds is the meeting house, or wharenui, which resembles a small wooden chapel that congregations in the Southern United States might have used over a century ago. However, far from practicing Christianity, Māori consider their meeting houses to be the living iteration of their ancestors. Photos of deceased relatives line the wooden walls of the wharenui, each ancestor looking after the occupants in a very literal and symbolic way. The walls themselves are ornately decorated with wood carvings and flax tapestries that tell both the exploits of the ancestor, as well as the philosophy/theology that undergirds the Māori worldview. 

The marae, then, is not so much a chapel as it is a cenotaph dedicated to the presence of the absence of ancestors who never truly left to begin with. 
If there’s a nugget of wisdom I’ve gleaned from the complexities of the Māori cosmology (one I will, admittedly, never fully understand), it’s that they do community rather differently than we do in mainstream America. 
I won’t say it’s better, because I’m not sure it is. But it is different, and special. 

The first difference is the Māori emphasis on all things communal. Sleeping in the marae, for example, is a wholly collective affair. The end result is that our group of ten from the University of Wyoming have spent the past three days sleeping in the wharenui, sharing snores, showers, and sleeping patterns alike. This is, of course, a stark contrast to America where privacy is the order of the day, no matter how much the NSA might say otherwise. 
The second difference is in the Māori emphasis on social extroversion. Back home, my normal routine involves quiet, reflection, dedicated time for writing, and the occasional game of Call of Duty
For Māori, nearly every interaction is focused on the shared, lived experience of family or whanauFamilies and extended families all come in equal turn on the marae, sharing meals, entertainment, and social activities in common. Needless to say, this American’s time for reflection has been almost non-existent, and in all honesty this has taken its toll on my frazzled nerves. It seems I crave quiet in the same way Māori crave togetherness. I suppose both the individual and the collective have their place and needs. 
Of course, I knew all of this coming in. The marae was never a mystery to me given the year/plus that Gwyn, Clark and I lived in New Zealand. But perhaps the difference on this trip is the presence of the absence of my own whanau. While the Māori ancestors look after us from behind their frames in the wharenui, my own family is ensconced miles across the mighty Pacific, visiting family back in Indiana. 
It seems this is the real lesson from Māoridom. There’s precious little that’s more important than family.  Of course, we all take this to different extremes. 

Three Grains of Sand

 
We’re seaside in Raglan, New Zealand today. The air smells of salt, and the sand is warm beneath bare feet. 
 
Our hosts today are a delightful Italian couple that we’ve become friends with through the University. It’s an adventure traveling the countryside with them. We are driving an early 2000s model sedan with a manual transmission. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride, but something about the fits and starts of the tired engine make the trek to the coast seem more appropriate. 
 
We had lunch earlier at a lovely, albeit overpriced, fusion cafe. The shops of Raglan were bustling this afternoon with locals and tourists alike. In the cafe, I had a chicken roti wrap that tasted rather like a quesadilla with bacon and potatoes than a proper wrap. The local beer on tap was a bit bitter even for me. But it was cold and wet, and that made it just good enough to satisfy my thirst before our trip to the beach. 
 
The roads to the shore from the village green weren’t obvious. They tend to wind and meander along the cliffs and neighborhoods of the town, while the shore remains hidden just out of view. But after a couple of turns, we saw the sea gleaming far below the ridge. 
 
When we finally arrived on the sand not long ago, Clark immediately made a straight line for the water. Kids seem to have a fixation with water that I no longer appreciate as an adult. Still it’s a beautiful love he has for the ocean. Perhaps if we lived here longer he would learn to surf, and fish, and swim in the sea. 
 
It’s strange to consider that we’ll be returning to America in the near future, leaving New Zealand and the black sands of Raglan far behind. It’s time to go home, I think. But for Clark’s sake, I hope we visit again sometime. We have too many friends here to never return. 
 
It strikes me that so much of life is like this. The three of us in isolation are like three grains of sand taken from a vast beach. We can exist just fine on our own, but we tend to thrive when in the company of the countless others that make life worthwhile.