VISITING SCHOLARS - Interview with Brendan Hokowhitu

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In the interest of Bidwewidam (sounding out ideas and gathering voices), this section profiles Indigenous masculinities researchers and thought leaders through dialogue. 


FALL 2012

In Conversation: Brendan Hokowhitu and Kim Anderson

Brendan Hokowhituis an Indigenous person from Aotearoa/New Zealand of
Ngāti Pukenga descent. Brendan grew up in the small rural community of
Opotiki, on the east coast of Aotearoa where both his parents were
teachers. He has just begun a term as Professor and Dean of the
Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Hokowhitu has
written on indigenous masculinities, indigenous critical theory,
indigenous media, and Māori sport and physical education.


Kim Anderson is a Cree/Metis writer, scholar and educator and the Co-Lead on Bidwewidam Indigenous Masculinities (see site bio).

ANDERSON: To start off, can you tell me a little about who you are and where you’re from? I’m also curious about how you got interested in masculinities. I think it’s interesting for those of us just beginning to explore this subject to hear from somebody who has been doing it for some time.

HOKOWHITU: Well, I grew up in a small, rural community that was predominantly Māori, about 70 percent I think, something like that. It’s called Opotiki. But I’m not from that area. Where I am from is very close, about an hour’s drive away – that’s where my marae, my traditional place is. So I’m Ngāti Pūkenga from Welcome Bay and Maketu. The small town I grew up in was a farming community, a rural community.

ANDERSON: So what led into you thinking about masculinities?

HOKOWHITU: I started off doing a Ph.D. in physical education and sport, but I changed focus after my first year and decided to look at historical and sociological understandings of Māori in sport. The predominant sport in New Zealand is rugby. So I was looking at Māori mainly playing rugby, and that led me down the line of masculinities.

In relation to my upbringing - where I grew up was very sports-oriented. All of New Zealand is I guess, but it’s especially popular in rural communities. The rugby clubs I was part of were like a community. Different sub-tribes would align with different rugby clubs. So there was a different kind of community aspect to playing sport. That’s kind of how I got into thinking about masculinities, was through my interest in sport.

ANDERSON: Can you say anything about how your thinking and writing about masculinities has evolved over time?  How have your interests changed in terms of the subject?

HOKOWHITU: I think the main way that things have changed for me is around looking at power. When I was first exploring masculinities, I was very much interested in how colonization had subjugated Māori men, or Indigenous men. The move in the last couple of years has been toward looking at how Indigenous men are more involved in the colonial system than we might think. That would be the major shift in my work.

ANDERSON: Can you give some examples about how that works? Also, what has the uptake been at the community level -- or any level, for that matter.

HOKOWHITU: Well I think my work has always been kind of a challenge. You know, challenging in the idea of naturalness of Māori men playing rugby or Māori men being physical, which is a predominant undertone.  Challenging the idea of physicality within Māori men and understanding how that runs through and limits what Māori men do.

Academics who have picked up my work have used it a lot; reaching to the communities is probably limited, but I don’t know. You don’t really know what’s being taken back into the communities, what kind of ideas are being generated. Hopefully, different ideas are.  I know it’s really influenced the way I think about my father and how these notions of masculinity ring true for me, and how I can see him differently now.

ANDERSON: The reason I ask is because most of the work that I do is applied - related to the Aboriginal healing movement. Our research project on masculinities (Bidwewidam Indigenous Masculinities) is in partnership with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (specifically their Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin/I am a Kind Man Program). And I’ve found a lot of interest in exploring what you might call decolonizing Indigenous masculinities. So I like to see how this critical work gets taken up at the community level, or how it gets resisted.

HOKOWHITU: Yeah… I guess for my part, it’s about theorizing things, and trying to break ideas down, and trying to understand where they come from. Hopefully that kind of knowledge will disseminate.  It can be problematic because of academic language and so on, but in New Zealand, I have seen it being disseminated. What I was writing about ten years ago is being taken up - talked about and written about.

ANDERSON: Well from what I have seen with men involved with Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin, I think that there is a readiness and an interest in looking at men’s roles and identities outside of a patriarchal framework. The men involved in Kizhaay men are working in a very specific context around ending violence against women and so they talk about power and control and so on. But I think there is so much potential for cracking it wider than that.

HOKOWHITU: I think there is a readiness and a willingness in Māori communities, and from many Māori men. But violence is still a huge issue. And I guess that’s one of the reasons I got into thinking about masculinities - was because of that very issue of violence and colonization, and the interrelatedness.

Starting out, what I was particularly interested in was the idea of physicality. I think many Māori men have lost their voice, their ability to kind of speak, to communicate. So what happens from my perspective is that some use their fists when they can’t communicate, whether that would be with other people or whether that be with spouses, or their children. So yeah, I think communication and colonial violence are closely tied to Māori masculinities.

ANDERSON: And at the same time, you have written about how Māori men have been unfairly characterized as violent – in film, for example.

…But when you talk about voice, it makes me think about how the name of our project is Bidwewidam which is an Ojibway word that one of our Elders, Rene Meshake gave us. It means he/she comes speaking, or he/she is sounding is out. So that’s what we’re trying to do. You know, not to be prescriptive, but rather open up space for sounding out of those various healthy masculine identities, however they are expressed.

HOKOWHITU: That’s cool, because in my work I try to deconstruct ideas or limits that colonization has put onto men. I think that’s one of the reasons that physicality is important to explore, because our men are very much limited to these physical roles in New Zealand - at least of being a sports person, or a manual labourer, or whatever. We’re always seemingly in the physical realm. I think that’s one way that colonization has enacted itself, through of being limited to these physical roles.

ANDERSON: Yeah. -- You know, reading your work made me think about the physicality of Native men in Canada. I don’t think our men are stereotyped as sports figures in the same way you write about Māorimen, and I’m not really sure why. If you think about the stereotypical Indigenous male in North America, it’s not the sports hero. We have the noble savage and the bloodthirsty warrior, but that translates today into the wise elder and the criminal or the “warrior” or gang member. Have you looked at our stereotypes and thought about why Indigenous masculinities are expressed in a different way in Canada or North America?

HOKOWHITU: I think New Zealand’s probably quite a rare case because of the population. Māori are aboutfifteen percent so it’s quite high. But the policy from 1920s on was assimilation, and sport was seen as one way to assimilate Māori into a community. So I think that might be one difference.

ANDERSON: Well when it comes to assimilation and training boys I think about residential schools - but I don’t think they used sport in the same way. There was certainly the physical element. As one of my Elders said, “They weren’t training us to be CEOs in those schools” -  they were training our men to be labourers or the servant class for the settler population. If you think about the underlying project, it’s the same thing, right?

HOKOWHITU: Yes. Some of my earlier work definitely touches on that, the manual labourer idea. But the criminal is also definitely a stereotype in New Zealand.

ANDERSON: As well, eh?

HOKOWHITU: Yeah. There are these high profile cases of Māori kids that have been killed by their fathers, so child abuse has become “a Māori issue” in New Zealand. Now, being the fifteen percent of the population means that Māori are, they are always in the news for various crimes, even though statistics show that the child abuse cases are not particularly different between whites and Māori. But it’s always the Māori kid that gets the front headline news.

ANDERSON: It’s really worthwhile to start thinking about Indigenous masculinities in other contexts, and try to figure out and try to understand what’s going on in our own locations by comparison.

HOKOWHITU: Yeah, it is really interesting. I look at the Hawaiian example. You know we’re both Polynesians cultures. Very similar pre-contact cultures, I think. But the way they were colonized, and because they became such a tourist spot, their men are constructed very differently to Māori men. Their men are constructed as much more easygoing. You know: Come over here and just colonize us. Don’t worry. We welcome you. Whereas, Māori men were definitely constructed as violent, as a challenge, as something that needs to be overcome, a kind of burden to colonization. So yeah, the different settings are important. The different colonial discourses that go on in the different settings are important to understand.

ANDERSON: I read that special issue journal that you had an article in – and I remember there were articles about Hawaiian men. [The Contemporary Pacific, 20(1), Spring 2008, Special Issue: Re-membering Oceanic Masculinities.”] When I was reading it I was thinking that our stereotypes in Canada usually include some elements of the physical, but not the same elements. I think in the Hawaiian context there was also the feminization of men –I guess that serves the tourist industry.

HOKOWHITU: Yeah. The only thing I can really think of that would probably be ubiquitous would be stereotypes of the unintelligent, which I think would relate to the physical as well. You know, anything that was kind of “anti-civilization.” Whatever being “civilized” was at the time – which was whatever the white man was in those various contexts. We were the “other” person -- the opposite of. I think that is one of those constants.

ANDERSON: Before we finish up, I was wondering if we could talk briefly about engaging with culture based understandings of “the masculine” and “the feminine?” Do you see the role for those notions in terms of decolonizing and in particular towards reclaiming and constructing Indigenous identities (in the way I have done with Native women in my previous work)?

I ask because you have been critical in your writing about essentialist notions of identity. And I always joke when I find myself in academic circles, saying “We like our essentialist identities.” They are part of our healing. We find comfort in going back to discover men and women’s “roles and responsibilities,” and often there is a spiritual grounding to these understandings of the masculine and feminine. But how do we work with those notions to move forward without being essentialist? Or can we?

HOKOWHITU: Well I think we would agree that what masculinity and what femininity mean morph constantly and are different in different cultures. So you know they’re just constructs to me; the idea of masculinity and femininity. And I would think of myself as non-essentialist. But at the same time I do think there is a place for essentialisms in terms of using examples of how men can be productive and can communicate and can be good role models, and healthy people. I don’t know if that answers your question…

ANDERSON: Yes, well, if you think about land-based communities, there are non-patriarchal models of exercising masculinity and men’s roles and responsibilities. So that’s why I think there is something valuable there.

When our Bidwewidam research team did oral history with some of our Elders, for example, they talked about men’s responsibilities of “protecting” and “providing.” But what does that mean? That didn’t mean you were the master of the household. That didn’t mean you were at the top of the pyramid. It meant that you had responsibility to community. So our research is about trying to rethink those roles and work with that.

In the case of Kizhaay, it means engaging in campaigns to end violence against women. It’s not that you are somehow or other stronger or more powerful than women. It means that you have certain responsibilities. And this might include protecting the environment and Mother Earth, which is conceived of in the feminine.

I was impressed by what one of our Algonquin Elders [Dominique Rankin] said to me about masculinities. He said “It is man’s job is to protect the medicine. And women and the earth are the medicine.” And I’m good with that, because when I think about it, that’s not a dominant relation. It’s not something that presumes powerlessness in women. It’s something that speaks to gendered responsibilities coming out of a land-based culture. And our people will always say that gendered roles were also flexible.

HOKOWHITU: What you’ve just said is really important, that we need to not throw the baby out with the bath water for sure. Use concepts that people might be able relate to, and that might change behaviour. Absolutely.

ANDERSON: Yeah, and then there are notions of what is “masculine” and what is “feminine” – what is the spirit of those things - and it doesn’t always have to do with your sex. Some will talk about how gender is framed by a continuum between the masculine and the feminine, and we fall in different places along that continuum. And two-spirit carry those things in a different way.

Anyhow, moving forward. I think about this for our boys. Where are they headed? How can they find masculine identities that are healthy, that are culture-based and help our communities become strong? What do those things mean? How does the work that we do help them unpack those things?

HOKOWHITU: I totally agree. I mean most of the work I have done has been breaking down colonial stereotypes and understanding where they come from. But that would lead to the same kind of questioning. Well, what does this all mean then? But I completely agree with you, that just because we’re challenging these notions and breaking them down doesn’t mean there aren’t notions there that we can use within our communities.

ANDERSON: If we think about men’s responsibilities for “protecting” and “providing” - for sure, those can be seen as problematic and essentialized notions. But perhaps only if looking at it through a western lens. In other words, is there something there that speaks to a distinct sacredness and power that men might have, and that we can draw on to inspire, to encourage our young boys and young men to do things in a good way?

HOKOWHITU: Yeah, for sure. I can give one example. In Māori culture, tikanga is important. It basically means the right way of doing things. But to my mind, a lot of the so-called tikangathat we see nowadays has been essentialized.  Much of what we think of today as 'traditional' cultural formations are in reality post-colonial formations. This doesn't mean they are lesser, but nonetheless Indigenous people need to be aware of their own desire to put pre-colonial culture on a pedestal. Which gets me back to the idea of tikanga

- which may mean the correct way to do things, but that doesn't mean that the correct way to do things is set in stone.

But for an example  - I talked to this guy about men and masculinities and that kind of thing. He said, “Well back in the day, the God of War, Tūmatauenga was [for war]-- when you were violent, that was when that kind of thing was called up within men. That was the place for it. You know, the home environment was not appropriate for it.


HOKOWHITU: I think that kind of stuck with me; how we can possibly use these ideas to explain to men the appropriateness of activity or the appropriateness of behaviour. The appropriateness of behaviour at certain times.

ANDERSON: Yes, and over h

ere there are discussions about what it means to be a “warrior,” which is a masculine identity but can be applied in many different ways and contexts.

Okay, well I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. Is there anything you’re interested in asking me, or talking about further?

HOKOWHITU: Well I’m really interested in your [Bidwewidam] project. My work has focused on Māori men, so I’m really interested in just hearing what you find. I very much want to look at various contexts that are in Ca

nada and North America.

ANDERSON: Okay. THANKS! I really appreciate you taking the time. We will talk again soon!


Bibliography of Hokowhitu’s work on Indigenous Masculinities

Hokowhitu, Brendan. (2012). 'Producing elite indigenous masculinities'. Settler Colonial Studies.   Special Issue: Gender, Sexuality, and Settler Colonialism, 2, 2, pp. 23-48.

--- (2012). Educating Jake: A genealogy of Māori masculinity’. In Bowl, M. et al (eds.). Gender, Masculinities and Lifelong Learning. London: Routledge Education.

--- (2008). 'The Death of Koro Paka: “Traditional” Maori Patriarchy,” Special Issue, Pacific Masculinities, The Contemporary Pacific 20,1, pp.115-141.

--- (2008). “Authenticating Maori Physicality: Translations of ‘Games’ and ‘Pastimes’ by early  Travellers and Missionaries to New Zealand,” International Journal of the History of Sport 25,10 pp. 1355-1373.

--- (2008). “Understanding the Maori and Pacific body: Towards a Critical Physical Education Pedagogy,” Journal of Physical Education New Zealand 41,3, pp. 81-91.

--- (2007). “Maori Masculinity: Overcoming Discourses of Savagery in Working with Maori Men,” New Zealand Journal of Counselling, Special Issue: Working with Male Clients, 27, 2, pp. 63-76.

--- (2007). “Indigenous and First Nations Masculinities.” In International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities, 1 vol. Edited by Michael Flood, Judith Kegan Gardiner, Bob Pease, and Keith Pringle. London: Routledge

--- (2005). “Rugby and Tino Rangatiratanga: Early Maori Rugby and the Formation of  Maori Masculinity,” Sporting Traditions: Journal of the Australian Society for Sports History 21,2 pp. 75-95.

--- (2004). “Tackling Maori Masculinity: A Colonial Genealogy of Savagery and Sport,” The Contemporary Pacific 15, 2, pp. 259-284.

--- (2003). “Maori Masculinity, Post-structuralism, and the Emerging Self,” New Zealand Sociology, 18, 2 pp. 179-201.

--- (2003). “Maori Physicality: Stereotypes, Sport and the ‘Physical Education’ of New Zealand Maori,” Culture, Sport, Society 6,2 pp. 19


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Biidwewidam will serve as the theoretical lens in which to understand how programs are assisting Aboriginal men to re/gain positive lifestyles.