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The Sky is Weeping

New Zealand Maori funeral rites, between 1800 and 1899
Welcome Collection. Reference: 533800i. Public Domain
New Zealand Maori funeral rites, between 1800 and 1899

The Sky is Weeping

by Jessica Sadler

I’m Kathleen Holt, coordinator of the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club. We’ve received the following Radio Readers BookByte from Jessica Sadler. Jessica writes:

Thank you for joining us for the High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club. I’m Jessica Sadler, a Science Teacher and STEAM facilitator in Olathe, Kansas. I am here with the other book leaders to discuss Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff. This novel is the author’s telling of New Zealand’s Indigenous people 200 years after English conquest in the area. This novel has been selected to explore the 2023 Spring Read theme– In Touch with the World.

This fictionalized novel gives the reader a glimpse into Maori culture through a struggling family that is living in a ghettoized community and situations they face. Throughout the story many sad, unfortunate events take place with some glimpses of hope and betterment for the community. While this is a fictionalized tale, the author himself is Maori and provides a perspective important for many cultures to experience and learn from through his pages.

This novel took a bit for me to get into and not due to the serious topics it covers like: pride, culture, violence, rape, and love. It is written in a stream of consciousness style and the lack of quotations took time to get used to. While this can turn readers off, once I figured it out, I was able to give more attention back to the story itself. Also, if you are someone who has only seen the movie, I would definitely recommend experiencing the book too, as they are very different.

With the conquest of any culture throughout history there is a strong shift in the way people lived before and after the induction of “new practices and culture.” Many of the roles change so dramatically they no longer even exist.

“Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana, pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything.”

The quote reminds me of indigenous communities in the United States. When western colonization swept through the lands many Native people, especially children, were stripped of their pride, customs, and culture to become westernized. For example, children sent to Carlisle Boarding School promptly had their hair cut and traditional clothing changed under the slogan “Kill the Indian to save the man.”

Hair is a strong part of pride and holds the wisdom and spirit of the person. Eliminating such cultural traditions creates someone else. I think this connects so seamlessly to the Maori people changing from Warrriors in the traditional way to people fighting new battles in unfamiliar territory over generations. This change creates a loss of identity.

I also felt very moved when Duff was discussing Grace’s Tangi, a Maori funeral rite.

“Ah, the sky weeping. A sure sign from the heavens of exceptional grief.”

Through the use of this personification, Duff is highlighting how gut-wrenching and unnatural it is for a mother to bury her own child. This grief is something shared across any culture. However, the practices for sending those loved ones home can look very different. Many Indigenous cultures bury their loved ones themselves, even in today’s time.

Many westernized funerals leave the cemetery to have someone else bury their loved ones. The first time I experienced that I was caught off guard when people walked away and the dozer came in to fill the hole. Small acts in something like this show how culture isn’t ever truly eradicated from groups. There are still traditions, practices, and ceremonies that deserve to be honored even if the details aren’t shared with people outside of that culture.

I feel like this and other factors highlight why the Maori people may not appreciate their portrayal in this novel. They seemed reduced to a people that are no longer warriors or

connected to a culture that has not been tainted by western influence. These people and other minority groups are very much still warriors but the way they fight and the battles they fight don’t look the same as they once may have.

I’m Jessica Sadler, and you are listening to the High Plains Public Radio Reader’s Book Club.

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Kathleen Holt has served High Plains Public Radio—in one way or another—since its inception in 1979. She coordinates the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.