Maori Chief on Facial Tattoos and Tribal Pride

Ryan Mitchell
National Geographic News
October 14, 2003

George Tamihana Nuku is a striking and enthusiastic spokesman of re-emerging pride among many indigenous cultures around the world. His elaborate facial tattoo, or moko, distinctively identifies him as a Maori tribesman—a man, that is, whose very identity is inextricably tied to his ancestors and their centuries-old traditions.

So it may seem ironic that Nuku is touring with ResFest, a film festival on the cutting edge of modern digital technology. Yet, as he describes it, it is very appropriate to use modern technologies to adapt, perpetuate, and explain traditional practices.

Nuku is a carver and sculptor as well as a rangatira—a chief. He is third in line in the leadership of his sub-tribe of the Ngate Kahungunu, a Maori tribe in the Heretaunga region of New Zealand's North Island.

Moko—Art of Nature features Nuku and the application of his moko. It is one of nine short films that together make up Off the Map. Assembled in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, this set of decidedly non-traditional films seeks to combat increasing geographic illiteracy.

Nuku spoke with National Geographic News during a recent stop with the film tour in Washington D.C.

Why are you here? What would you like to tell people about yourself and about the Maori and the moko?

The film is about something really significant that occurred in my life, and that's receiving the facial moko. I'm very interested in talking about moko and explaining about why we have the art of moko and what it means to us now in this time. I'm interested also in the relationship with moko from the past and how it has formed the basis of our culture and, like I said, how it applies in today's context. I think you can almost use it as a watermark for other issues involving native peoples. How they can have a living, breathing culture as opposed to a display cabinet view of culture.

Is it appropriate for people to ask you about the moko and your culture? How does that make you feel?

I'm glad people stare because it's something that's meant to be looked at…I'm sure people are curious about moko. I would be. If I didn't know anything about it and I saw someone who looked like me, I'd want to ask something and I'd want to stare. I find that the children are the ones who don't have a problem with that. They come straight up to me and "What's that on your face." And they stare. That can be unnerving and it's sort of just as educational for me as well as for them.

What kind of reaction have you had from folks here in the States?

Well, you'd be surprised really because some people are just quite, "Oh, there's another guy from San Francisco or somewhere like that." Other people just about crash their car into the guy in front of them, you know. There's the whole spectrum of reactions. Some people are, I guess, quite blasé about it, like maybe they have seen it before. Some people, they haven't seen it before.

Can you talk a little more about how moko represents connections between the past and the future, and connections between generations?

Continued on Next Page >>


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