Ardern wearing a korowai in London

Jacinda Ardern got the full royal treatment by the Queen, Prince Charles, various leaders and the media covering her trip to the United Kingdom last week to attend a Commonwealth Heads of Government summit. At one event she wore a korowai (Māori cloak), which prompted mostly praise but also some criticism.

It’s hard to know what all that was supposed to mean.

BBC: Why Ardern’s Maori cloak, worn to meet the Queen, delighted New Zealand

When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wore a traditional Maori cloak to meet the Queen, it had quite a few people scratching their heads – and most New Zealanders glowing with pride.

It’s a korowai, a garment woven with feathers and steeped in history, tradition and cultural significance.

The photos of Ms Ardern wearing the korowai have generated a wave of pride, enthusiasm and support online, with people praising it as “stunning” and “beautiful”, while New Zealanders have been filled with pride and respect.

“It makes me really emotional,” Ranui Ngarimu, a senior weaver with the Nga Tahu Maori tribe, told the BBC. “It’s a real acknowledgment of the prestige and power of a woman.”

“To wear something that is so intrinsically of this place here, and for her to wear it at that event knowing that she would be photographed from every angle, that’s a real acknowledgment of her relationship with the Maori people and with New Zealand.

“Korowai are a very special form of cloak,” explains Vini Olsen-Reeder, himself a Maori and a lecturer at Victoria University. “There are lots of different kinds of cloaks, but the korowai is the one with the highest prestige.”

Traditionally, it would be awarded only to people from the upper echelons of Maori society, or given as a gift to people from outside the community if they were thought to be of equally high standing.

In this case the korowai was given to Ms Ardern by a Maori group in London, for her to wear at the Commonwealth Summit.

“The significance of the garment is the prestige that comes with it,” agrees Donna Campbell, lecturer in Maori studies at Waikato University in Hamilton.

“What it represents is the mana of a person, that’s the prestige and power of the person wearing it. So for Jacinda to be wearing it at this event is completely fits with the weight of the occasion; from a Maori point of view, this garment is entirely appropriate.”

It is not unprecedented for non Māori women to wear korowai:

Queen Elizabeth II wearing a korowai, 1954

Queen Elizabeth II wearing a korowai, 1954

Queen Elizabeth II was gifted a korowai (woven cloak) during her first tour of New Zealand in 1953–54. New Zealand does not have a specific national dress, but Māori cloaks are often worn by dignitaries as a symbol of the country.

There has been some criticism, like Cultural Appropriation Much? Jacinda Ardern’s Maori Cloak

Cultural appropriation is where the members of a dominant grouping in society use and – well, appropriate – take the signifiers of the culture of an oppressed or dispossessed part of society.

We do, after all, have to insist that the Maori are oppressed in New Zealand society. Absolutely nothing at all about politics there makes sense without agreeing with that point. Ardern is one of the oppressing class, descended as she is from Northern Europeans doing all that oppressing. And her wearing a Maori cloak is obviously appropriation from that non-dominant culture.

This also got an airing at Reddit:

Something I don’t see addressed here is the origin of the cloak, I work in an organisation with a strong Maori presence and culture, in many cases people outside of Maori culture in the organisation have been gifted similar items by the Maori people for their service, this is where it stops being appropriation and becomes appreciation.

If she bestowed it on herself or other white people bestowed it on her though then that’s a whole shit show.

While Ardern was given the korowai to wear on the occasion it is quite common seeing them worn at graduations, and you can ‘bestow a korowai on yourself’ – Academic Dress Hire: Korowai

We are now selling Korowai, which are stunning cloaks that look great on graduation day, and make a fantastic family heirloom. The cloaks come with an export certificate should you wish to take them overseas. The cloaks come in various colours and there is a significant amount of work that goes into each Korowai.

It is worn as a mantle of prestige and honor. Everyone has different reasons for wearing Korowai on their graduation day whether it be a sense of identity, a graduation acknowledgement, a congratulatory gift, a connection to our NZ heritage or family tradition.

We are pleased to offer them to you at $700.00 incl.

The Māori dictionary suggests that usage has changed over time.

1. (noun) cloak ornamented with black twisted tags or thrums – the illustration is of the korowai, Te Whiringa Rongomaiwhiti, woven by Gloria Taituha of Ngāti Maniapoto. The feathers of the korowai are of pūkeko (dark blue) and kererū (white).

2. (noun) cloak – in modern Māori this is sometimes used as a general term for cloaks made of muka (New Zealand flax fibre).

He whero ngā huruhuru o te taha whakararo o ngā parirau o te kākā. Ka rangaa he korowai mō te tāngata whakahirahira i ēnei huruhuru (Te Ara 2014). / The feathers under the wings of kākā are red. These feathers were woven into cloaks for important people.

Korowai became popular in the 1800s, and were made out of things like dog skins and the feathers of birds like kiwi, kererū , kākāpō, tūī, kākāriki and kākā. I presume they use other things now.

I guess the koro in korowai comes from ‘term of address to an older man’ and not ‘bay, cove, inlet’ or ‘noose’.

‘Wai’ can mean ‘water’, ‘stream, creek, river’, or ‘tears’.

What may stand out on this occasion is that the Prime Minister wore one at an overseas political summit. I can’t recall or find anything about John Key being given a korowai to wear. Neither Helen Clark, nor any other Prime Minister.

But Ardern seems to have quickly become the queen of symbolism. Time will tell whether she and her Government become known for substance on Māori and other issues – and that will need to be earned by Ardern, not gifted.