Exploring Indigenous Māori Veganism
Despite its rich ethical framework, veganism suffers from a problem of representation — namely, how non-White and Indigenous peoples and practices are left out of the movement. The result of this is a public image that is at once less welcoming to non-White individuals than it should be, and as such, suffers from a lack of diversity in a variety of aspects. While a unifying goal of vegans the world over is to reduce the drastic harm to and exploitation of non-human animals, certainly, there is more than one way to achieve this. A recent article explores a distinctly Māori approach to veganism; in so doing, it shows how non-Western heritage and culture can contribute in a substantive and important way to better-developed veganism for everyone. Specifically, the article explores how online pieces from Māori writers utilize the traditional values of kaitiakitanga (guardianship, stewardship, and caretaking), hauora (holistic health and wellbeing), and rangatiratanga (self-determination, sovereignty, and leadership) to support their lifestyles and ethos of harm-reduction.
For context, the article first illustrates the centrality of food (kai) in the Māori culture. In particular, the sharing of food makes other values possible, such as manaakitanga and kōrero. In turn, these refer to reciprocal hospitality and discussion. This type of hospitality emphasizes “care, support, and regard for the wellbeing of others” in such a way that promises nurture and sustenance of one’s body, mind, and spirit. Likewise, kōrero, more than mere conversation, is best understood as a dialogue that prioritizes learning through sharing. The link both of these values have to food is that a feast is typically the medium by which these values are practiced. In this way, “the careful and thoughtful provision of food is an important and significant aspect of [the Māori world].” Notably, this discourse is both similar to but absent from common threads of vegan thought.
While many vegans cite care, ethics, and harm reduction in a way that manifests in their meals, amongst other places, the Māori ideals are different with respect to the meal in two major ways. First, the Māori practice emphasizes the sharing of the meal to create and maintain the above-mentioned dialogue and care. Although veganism greatly values care, the cultivation of this ethos is often highly individualistic and atomized. In contrast, the Indigenous approach begins, ends, and is constantly expressed through shared sustenance. Second, and relatedly, the Māori meal is expressed through and not with the meal. This is a subtle but important distinction: while Western veganism typically uses dietary ethics as an expression of one’s values, this article argues that Māori veganism reverses this process—instead, the Indigenous variation derives its values from the communion of a shared meal. Again, though this appears to be a small difference, it illustrates an important point in terms of how the Western world frames its relationship with food.
Like many Western practices, Māori feasts often revolve around the consumption of one or another animal species. As is also the case with many Westerners following plant-based diets, this creates a problematic dynamic for Indigenous individuals who simultaneously pursue veganism. Due to the historical connection between whiteness and veganism, non-White individuals who choose a vegan lifestyle are often branded as inauthentic or even traitors. Unintentionally or not, the article argues that the conflation of whiteness and veganism creates an additional place of oppression for non-Whites who are vegan. In this vein, the perceived incompatibility between traditional Māori foods and veganism, as well as the notion that veganism imposes a homogenous, culture-less plate, has made it extremely difficult for many Indigenous people and communities to accept this lifestyle.
To navigate the tension between a rich history of a Māori care ethic and the desire to follow veganism, many draw from three broad principles: kaitiakitanga (guardianship, stewardship, and caretaking), hauora (holistic health and wellbeing), and rangatiratanga (self-determination. sovereignty, and leadership). The article describes the first as having roots in a desire or calling to reduce or eliminate the exploitation of animals, and the detrimental effects of industrialized agriculture on the environment. While these pursuits are not uniquely Māori, the versions of them expressed in Māori culture are crucial to many Māori vegans’ sense of self and morality.
The second anchor value, hauora, is likewise recognized as an important influence in inspiring dietary and lifestyle changes. The article discusses how many Indigenous cultures have an holistic approach to health which emphasizes the role of food as extending far beyond being “merely a fuel for physical sustenance.” In particular, food as fuel for the mind and spirit in addition to the body is a crucial element for many Māori vegans. This is more so a departure from the Western vision of veganism, which tends to emphasize the physical or ethical benefits of veganism without acknowledging the less visible growth these incur. This is a potentially important lesson Western veganism could learn from its indigenous counterparts.
Finally, the article describes rangatiratanga as, “encompass[ing] control over one’s individual decision-making as well as the provision of leadership.” The value of self-determination in the Māori context implies casting away much of the culinary baggage they have been handed down through European colonization. Thus, veganism is itself a decolonial act, and affords Māori greater autonomy from their colonized history. Like hauora, although self-sufficiency and independence are hardly unique to Māori values, the context in which these appear with respect to Indigenous history and veganism does construct a singular and important identity for Māori vegans to rally themselves behind. In this way, the novelty lies in using veganism as a tool for one’s own liberation, in addition to that of non-human animals.
In sum, this essay presents key elements of Māori veganism that can both inform and distinguish it from typical Western veganism. Further, the latter philosophy may benefit greatly from incorporating some of the values expressed in and by the former. It is worth asking oneself constantly why they lead the life they do. Arguably, vegans the world over do this more than the average person, yet the vegan community can learn from its own diverse constituents in fruitful ways that encourage us to challenge the modern and historical context of our beliefs and actions.