Maori were not happy in 2001 when Lego started using traditional words in its Bionicle series. At the time, protests over cultural appropriation eventually led the Danish toy giant to stop producing the toys – but that doesn’t mean the community’s pursuit to protect its identity is over.
The offending game, in which six plastic heroes fight to protect the fictional island of Mata Nui, came under fire after it borrowed names and terms which carried special spiritual meaning.
Maori intellectual property lawyer Maui Solomon complained about the use of 10 different terms which appeared in the product range. These included Tohunga (the Maori word for priest), a stone warrior named Pohatu (stone) and a character named Whenua (earth – an important element in Maori mythology).
Solomon argued that the company’s trivial treatment of Maori culture was offensive to the wider community. He also alleged that Bionicle’s storyline was remarkably similar to the traditional Polynesian tales from Easter Island.
While Lego originally denied the link between the toys and Maori culture, it later backtracked and admitted to using indigenous words in its series. The company didn’t pull the existing product range off the shelves, but it did cease all subsequent marketing and production. It also expressed interest in working with local experts to produce a range of ‘authorised’ toys based on Maori knowledge and designs, and even went as far as changing its policies so that no other cultural names are used in future Bionicle launches.
The Maori community may have won the Bionicle battle, but its fight against cultural appropriation is ongoing.
In May 2018, New Zealand Lego fans noticed that one of the figurines in the company’s newest roller coaster set sported a Maori pikorua necklace – a figure-eight ornament made from greenstone jade (pounamu) meant to symbolise the loving bond between two people. No legal qualms came from this one, but it did spark some debate over cultural appropriation on New Zealand Reddit threads and local media.
And Lego is by no means the only company to have offended the Maori community.
Among the several instances where the haka became a point of contention you will find an advert for car maker Fiat, where Italian women perform a rendition of the famous Ka Mate war dance popularised by the national All Blacks rugby team. Closer to home, there was also the outrage over a New Zealand baking competition presenting a mock performance of Ka Mate with gingerbread men. Maori leaders actually won the fight over this one: in 2009 the government reassigned the intellectual property rights of the Ka Mate haka to the North Island iwi (tribe) where it came from, the Ngati Toa.
Maori tattoos (known as ta moko) are another controversial domain. While it is generally accepted that non-Maori can get kirituhi, which typically use ta moko-inspired motifs in a culturally relevant context, that hasn’t shielded celebrities like Rihanna, Mike Tyson and Robbie Williams from public scrutiny.