Brendan Hokowhitu has reflected quite a bit on what it means to be indigenous. “It seems like an easy question, but it’s quite complex,” says Dr. Hokowhitu, who was recently appointed dean of the faculty of Native studies at the University of Alberta.
Dr. Hokowhitu is a member of an indigenous people, but not from Canada – he is a native Maori of New Zealand. There are some commonalities between the Aboriginal Peoples of the two countries, he observes, but “as I get to understand the cultures here [in Canada], I see how diverse they are and how different we are.” Nevertheless, “the land is the common denominator in terms of how we define indigeneity – the connection to and spirituality with the land.” In the political context, “that notion has transformed into being first of these lands, and that kind of holds political weight.”
Global interactions among indigenous peoples have created a political force that is based on similar challenges all coming out of colonization, he adds, such as the reclamation of land, language and culture. “When we get to conferences, we are all saying similar things and trying to understand similar methods of improving things for our peoples.”
Dr. Hokowhitu comes to Alberta from New Zealand’s University of Otago, where he built a strong research reputation in areas such as indigenous culture and theory, indigenous sport and ideas of masculinity. He is also known for his educational outreach, having developed an online indigenous studies program leading to a master’s degree.
He sees his appointment at the faculty of Native studies as a great opportunity; he already has connections with several U of A colleagues with whom he co-edited a book. “It’s going to be challenging for me – I’ve only been here for a few months. But by the same token it’s going to be good, too. There is this kind of instant recognition of what both our peoples are trying to achieve, and a lot of people are excited that I’m here.”