Fishing with New Nets: Maori Internet Information Resources and Implications of the Internet for Indigenous Peoples

Alastair G. Smith <>
Victoria University of Wellington
New Zealand


This paper surveys Internet information resources relating to the Maori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and examines issues that arise when indigenous peoples' culture is placed in a digital networked environment.

Keywords: digital libraries and museums, cultural property, indigenous peoples, intellectual property, Internet, Maori, networked information resources, New Zealand, virtual museums.



The indigenous people of New Zealand are the Maori, descended from the great Polynesian voyagers who swept across the Pacific, arriving in New Zealand about 1,000 years ago, calling the land "Aotearoa," the land of the long white cloud, reflecting the view of the landmass topped with cloud that the early voyagers must have seen as they came south. About 200 years ago, the Maori started to have contact with Europeans and their technology, with results similar to those experienced by other indigenous peoples: population decline through disease, loss of land and sovereignty, and cultural alienation.

On the other hand, the Maori were noted for their uptake of European technology. Muskets, of course, were adopted quickly, to the cost of the settler forces. Maori adopted European agriculture and shipping methods quickly [SIN59], and there was significant print output by Maori in the early days of colonization [DEL87]. This rapid uptake of technology is being echoed today in the way the Internet is being used by Maori. The title of this paper is taken from the Maori saying "Ka pu te ruha ka hao te rangatahi"; "The old net lies in a heap while the new net goes fishing." Maori are today, if not abandoning older methods of communication, at least exploring the possibilities of the electronic "Net": the Internet and the Web.

This paper surveys the range of use that Maori are making of the Net and discusses issues that arise. These issues are relevant to a wider audience than purely New Zealanders, since they reflect the concerns that information professionals will need to address as they create digital libraries and museums of information about many different cultures.

The range of information relating to Maori on the Internet includes databases, for instance of land and language information; virtual museums that display Maori cultural objects; Web sites that promote Maori commercial initiatives; and sites for organizations researching and teaching in the area of Maori culture. The Internet is also used as a communication medium by Maori activists and others interested in Maori issues.

The presence of Maori information on the Internet has benefits for Maori, for instance by creating a Maori presence on the information superhighway and offering a way of preserving and promulgating information. However, many Maori see risks to their culture in making information too freely available on the Internet.

Some issues that arise, and which have implications for other indigenous peoples, include

What Maori information resources are on the Web?

Information on the Web relating to Maori can be by Maori for use by Maori, by Maori for non-Maori, or by non-Maori. An initial survey of Maori electronic resources [SMI96] showed a wide range of types of resources, including online databases, electronic journals, and organizational Web pages. Since this survey, the relative ease of access to Web servers by Maori have given rise to a large increase in sites. There are too many to list here, although there are Web sites that provide links to most significant sites ([ARA], [NGMR], [MAOO]).

Several Maori iwi (tribes) have established an Internet presence. The Muriwhenua, for instance, maintain a site arguing their case in their claim for lands in the far north of NZ [MURI], and Te Arawa [TEAR] provide information about their fishing interests and radio station.

The structure of the New Zealand branch of the Internet reflects Maori culture with the establishment of a second level domain. However, as of 1 February 1997 this only had one entry,, the Ngati Awa Trust Board

Types of Web pages can be divided [ALEX] into

Maori are creating all these kinds of sites. The Muriwhenua site mentioned above is clearly an advocacy site, while there are a number of business marketing sites that promote Maori arts and crafts, for instance. He Wahi Whakairo [HEWA] promotes bone carving, and Te Pou Whakairo Enterprises [TEPO] promotes its performance group. News sites are represented by several sites, including Maori Law Review [MAOLW], which aims to be a formal law reporter, Nga Korero o te Wa [NGKO], which concentrates on current affairs, and Te Putatara [TEPU], which offers a more individual and idiosyncratic style of commentary. Obviously many Maori have personal pages; notable is Ross Himona's [HIMF]; he has also contributed a number of informational sites such as a guide to Maori genealogy (whakapapa) [HIMG] and a directory of e-mail addresses of Maori [HIME].

A recent political development in New Zealand has been the addressing of Maori land grievances. The Waitangi Tribunal has been charged by the government with the task of recommending compensation and is hearing evidence and reporting on claims. This activity has given rise to both a body of data and a strong interest on the part of Maori in researching their heritage. The reports of the Waitangi Tribunal are available on the Web [WAI], and provide a valuable resource for researchers into family histories (whakapapa), both as background to claims and for personal knowledge. This is in contrast to older evidence, such as the minute books from the Maori Land Court of the last century. Here the evidence is available in microfilm rather than in digital form, but the University of Auckland Library is creating a database that indexes these and hopes to make it available on the Web [MAOL]. Interest in land claims research supports the Maori law reporter mentioned earlier, Maori Law Review [MAOLW] .

The renaissance of Maori culture that New Zealand has seen has given rise to a renewed interest in the Maori language, at one time regarded as dead. The New Zealand Council for Educational Research has developed a database of Maori terminology that is searchable through a Web interface [KIM]. This database is particularly interesting as a source of vocabulary for new technological concepts, enabling us to discover, for instance, that the Maori term for "Internet" is "Ipurangi."

A number of organizations involved in research into Maori have a presence on the Internet, including the Centre for Maori Studies and Research (based at the University of Waikato) [CEN] , and Te Wahanga Kaupapa Maori , a Maori research unit at the NZ Council for Educational Research [TEWA].

Government agencies concerned with Maori are also present on the Web; most significantly Te Puni Kokiri, the Ministry of Maori Development [TEPK]; but also Te Kete Hauora, a Maori Health Policy Group working within the Ministry of Health [MAOH]. These Web sites, like those of the research organizations, are being used as a way of disseminating policy documents as well as providing information about the organizational structure.

"Virtual museums" of Maori culture have appeared, for instance at the Auckland WebMuseum [AUCK]. The new Museum of New Zealand/ Te Papa Tongarewa has ambitious plans for multimedia exhibits, including a Web presence [TEPA].

Generally, the presence of Maori information on the Web has positive benefits for Maori culture, but there are issues that need to be addressed and are of concern to other indigenous peoples placing information on the Web, and to those creating digital libraries and museums that make indigenous culture available. The following sections examine these issues.

Threats to cultural values

Every culture has its own cultural values. These often have no rational basis, but can be deeply felt by members of the culture. An area of concern for many Maori is the way that images of cultural treasures (Taonga) such as carvings, manuscripts, and images of ancestors are treated on the Web. Westerners who fail to appreciate indigenous peoples' concerns with the treatment of cultural objects should consider, for instance, the reverence paid by U.S. citizens to the U.S. flag, and consider the reaction of a VFW or DAR member to the Stars and Stripes being allowed to appear on the rear of a pair of trousers.

In March 1996 participants in the NekeNeke electronic mail list [NEKE] were asked to e-mail protests to the owner of a U.S. tattooing site [TATT] which, to illustrate an article on Maori Moko, or face tattoos, displayed an image of preserved tattooed Maori heads hung on meathooks. The association of a very sacred object, the human head, with objects associated with food, was felt by Maori to be culturally offensive. Representations to the site owner produced a response from a European perspective; that freedom of speech gave the site owner the right to display any images he felt appropriate. Eventually the author of the Moko article was informed of the cultural issues involved, and the author persuaded the site owner to remove the images.

Loss of control of information

Maori concerns about the treatment of cultural objects in the electronic environment arise to some extent from the loss of control of information when it is digitized. Indigenous peoples may place a document or other cultural object in a library or museum for safekeeping on the understanding that access is controlled. If the object is digitized and placed on the Net, there are few controls on how it is used.

For example, many Maori have strong feelings about eating in the presence of cultural objects [WAL86]. In a museum or library environment, it is unlikely that anyone would be permitted to eat in the presence of a cultural object. However, once that object has been represented as a digital image and placed on a network like the Web, that image may be viewed in situations where food may well be consumed, and indeed prints may be taken at remote sites and used in ways that would offend the cultural owners. This is of significance for institutions creating digital libraries and museums. Because a cultural group has put an object (a carving, painting, manuscript, or image) into the custody of an institution, an institution cannot assume that it has the rights to digitize images of the objects and make them available on the Web.

In the Moko incident described above the image had in fact been taken from a published book which in itself had not caused offense; however Maori who protested its display on the Web felt that by being placed in the electronic environment, its offensiveness was magnified by the increase in its availability.

In 1996 portraits of Maori chiefs painted last century by a European artist, Lindauer, held at the Auckland City Art Gallery, were scanned and placed on the Web. This concerned many Maori, who felt that consultation with the descendants of the chiefs should have taken place.

In a better model of consultation over the digitization of cultural objects, the American anthropologist who created the Auckland WebMuseum [AUCK], mentioned earlier, took steps to consult with the tribes responsible for the creation of the objects shown.

Another issue related to issues of control is that indigenous peoples' information may end up being held offshore. Several significant Maori information resources on the Web are actually located outside NZ. For instance, the research information made available by the Centre for Maori Studies and Research [CEN] is actually located at the Fourth World Documentation Project in Washington state in the U.S. Although the hosting of indigenous peoples' research information is desirable, and no slight is intended on bodies such as the FWDP, the Web creates a situation where the only copies of indigenous peoples' knowledge may be held in political jurisdictions dominated by other cultures.

Intellectual and cultural property ownership issues

The information industry is governed by a range of intellectual property laws such as copyright and patents, which govern how knowledge and information can be controlled by individuals and protect the rights of individuals to the fruits of their creativity. This framework of intellectual property law grew up in the print environment and is being slowly adapted to the electronic environment.

Of interest to indigenous peoples is the concept of cultural property: the rights of cultural and ethnic groups to control of the knowledge and information that has been created over generations by the group, and which can't be invested in an individual and protected by conventional intellectual property mechanisms. While the concepts of cultural property are not enshrined in law, the First International Conference on the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples held in New Zealand in 1993 recommended to the United Nations that account be taken in international law of the cultural and intellectual property rights of indigenous groups [MATA].

The incident relating to the Lindauer portraits described above illustrates the dilemma. Conventional intellectual property law applies only in respect to Lindauer's work (and since 50 years have elapsed since Lindauer's death, the portraits can be regarded as being in the public domain according to NZ copyright law). However, many Maori would claim that cultural property rights belong to the descendants of the chiefs depicted (particularly as a significant value in the portraits lies in the traditional designs of the facial tattoos portrayed), and that they should be consulted about the digitization of these works.

Sensitivity about the cultural issues involved is such that the Department of Maori Studies at the University of Otago [DEP] commissioned a specific pattern for the background to its Web pages, rather than use a traditional design, so that the Department could "own" the cultural property and allow it to be distributed on the Web.

Accuracy and authority

Accuracy and authority of information is of concern to anyone who has been frustrated by the lack of reliable information on the Web. This is also of concern in the context of indigenous people's information.

One of the founding documents of New Zealand is the Treaty of Waitangi. Agreed to by the British Government and Maori chiefs in 1840, it allowed Europeans to settle and establish a Western-style government in return for guarantees of protection for Maori interests. With the resurgence of Maori nationalism, interpretation of the treaty has assumed importance in NZ political life. The interpretation is complicated by the existence of English and Maori versions of the treaty that are not completely consistent. This interest in the treaty has been reflected by the number of copies available on the Internet. The most authoritative is on the New Zealand government Web server[TREA] and is a faithful reproduction of the texts of the original. However, examination of other versions shows significant errors. For instance, the Maori version at the Akiko Web server in the U.S.[TETI] contained many spelling errors as of February 1997.

If we are to regard the Web as a "virtual library," we need to be concerned about issues of accuracy and authority. In the case of the Treaty of Waitangi, there is a danger that arguments about the interpretation of a document that defines the relationship between Maori and New Zealanders of European descent may be based on inaccurate Web-based versions.

Commercialization of information

Earlier, reference was made to the availability of Waitangi Tribunal Reports [WAI] on the Web. Although these were produced by a public body, a general policy of privatization in New Zealand government information led to a situation where the reports were made available electronically through a commercial information provider and electronic access was only available to those prepared to pay commercial rates. Maori, particularly librarians and others involved in information work, were concerned that the reports had become a commercial commodity. The reports, as well as being government documents, contain cultural information such as genealogies. As a result of representations from the information community, in 1996 the Waitangi Tribunal Reports became available free of charge.

While this particular issue has been resolved, it highlights the fact that putting information into the digital environment increases the pressures to commercialize access, and this is of particular concern in the area of indigenous people's cultural property.

Access issues

It is of great concern that Maori and other indigenous peoples tend to belong to socioeconomic groups that are least likely to have access to the Internet. While a significant amount of Maori information is available on the Web, the indications are that it is largely accessed by middle-class academics and researchers, who are predominantly non-Maori.

While making Maori and other indigenous people's information available on the Web is valuable, attention needs to be paid to providing indigenous peoples with access to the Web. This is an area where libraries have a role to play in ensuring that at least basic access to the Web is available to all members of a community, in the same way as libraries ensure that access to books is available to all.

Another access issue is a technological one. The Web currently represents major European languages well; however, cultures that use nonstandard scripts face problems in faithfully reproducing their language on the Web. While Maori do not have the problems faced by Chinese or Japanese, correct Maori recognizes a difference between a long vowel and a short vowel sound, and this is normally shown by a macron over the letter, i.e., a horizontal line over the vowel. The standard ASCII character set, or the HTML special characters, do not include macronized vowels. Maori words containing macronized vowels cannot be correctly represented on the Web without the installation of special fonts. While on a strict communication level these issues may not loom large, many Maori feel that the Web does not represent their culture because the language is not represented correctly.


The Web, providing as it does the ability for material to be published to a worldwide audience with generally available computing equipment, software, and network connections, provides an attractive method for communication by indigenous peoples. The Maori of New Zealand/ Aotearoa are making increasing use of this capability.

However, examination of Maori information on the Web shows that there are issues to be addressed by the Web community. There needs to be a recognition that cultural values of indigenous peoples may not be those of the largely Western Internet community. In redefining intellectual property law for the electronic environment, we need to take account of the concept of cultural property. Digitization of cultural objects must be done in consultation with the cultural owners. Accuracy and authority issues need to be resolved if the "virtual library" is to become a reliable repository of human knowledge, and steps need to be taken to give all people, including those from indigenous cultures, access to the Web.