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Meet Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand's first Indigenous woman foreign minister

Mahuta believes traditional tattoos are "positive ways to enable cultural expression and pride in being Māori."

Meet Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand's first Indigenous woman foreign minister
Image Source: Getty Images/ Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape Visits Wellington. (Photo by Mark Tantrum)

Earlier this week, New Zealand politician Nanaia Mahuta made history when she was appointed the nation's foreign minister. This makes her the first Indigenous woman to assume the role, CNN reports. However, she has been breaking barriers long before she took up the position. In 2016, she took part in a Māori tattooing design ceremony. Mahuta thus became the first woman member of parliament to wear lip and chin markings, known as moko kauae. Though traditional tattoos are still a rare sight in national politics, they are becoming more common in contemporary New Zealand society. These tattoos are steeped in tradition and are of major cultural significance.



In a tweet posted last year, MP Mahuta affirmed that traditional tattoos offered folks "positive ways to enable cultural expression and pride in being Māori." The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand. They developed their own distinctive culture through language, mythology, crafts, and performing arts. Therefore, the tattoos carry immense cultural value and "tell a visual story that connects Indigenous people to their ancestors." Each person's individual tattoo, or moko, is unique to them. The moko may be representative of their social status, occupation, or personal and family history.



The tattoos can also be related to the wearer's genealogy. Furthermore, the markings on either side of a person's face refer to the lineage of their father and mother, respectively. In the case of MP Mahuta, her moko ties her to the late Māori queen, Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu, as well as the current Māori monarch, Kingi Tuheitia. In addition to the foreign minister, there are a number of high-profile figures in New Zealand who have facial markings. Journalist Oriini Kaipara is one of them. Last year, she became the first woman with moko kauae to present the news on a mainstream TV station.



Te Kahautu Maxwell, an associate professor at the University of Waikato, is another. He is also the great-great-grandson of a moko artist. For him, getting a facial tattoo about a decade ago was a way to reclaim his heritage. He explained in an interview, "It's about my heritage and my place in society as a historian, an academic and an orator or spokesperson for my people. It brings me a sense of pride and it brings my people a sense of pride. It also tells the history of my life. It's something that's very sacred and precious to me."



While Mahuta and others like her are representing Māori culture on a national and global scale, instances of cultural appropriation are also on the rise. Mike Tyson, Rihanna, and British pop star Robbie Williams, for instance, have all been accused of co-opting the traditional tattoo as fashion statements. Maxwell believes that these occurrences are opportunities to educate people about Māori tradition. He described MP Mahuta's appointment as a "significant moment" for Indigenous communities. He affirmed, "She will take the moko to places it has never been before—to consulates, to embassies and government offices throughout the world."



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