August 27, 2011

On Funkwerks, Māori Symbols, and Cultural Appropriation in Branding

So, a couple weeks ago, Fort Collins, CO's Funkwerks submitted a label for approval to bottle an imperial saison they call Maori King. The label looks like this:

The Māori people are an indigenous group, numbering almost 700,000, of New Zealand. I believe the best term for the design you see is a kirituhi, an image derived from the Tā moko tattooing from the Māori traditions. And if I have that wrong, it is because I, like Funkwerks co-owners Gordon Schuck and Brad Lincoln, basically didn't know anything about the Māori until 24 hours ago. Having had several friends who have been to NZ, I knew the correct pronunciation and that the indigenous group existed, but not much more.

One thing I did not know, for example, was that they have a king, named Tuheitia. Or that a label like this would spark an enormous amount of outrage. And, as with all such kerfuffles, it is tough to make out exactly how this went wrong.

Several things do seem clear, though.

First, the brewery did not intend to offend anyone. Of course they didn't. No brewery, let alone one with a good reputation, makes a practice of intentional offense. The name was conceived by brewery spokesperson Jean Parker-Renga, who told the New Zealand Herald it was in honor of the Rakau hops (a not-uncommon varietal with NZ roots) used in the beer. So, when Lincoln offered to send a case of beer to King Tuheitia and suggested he would probably like the beer, he probably didn't mean that to come off as glibly as it sounds. Schuck's statement asking for a dialogue seems incredibly sincere, to the point where his mention of his own concern with indigenous people's issues here does not seem in the slightest bit "some of my best friends are..."

Second, from the predictably ridiculous Facebook "debate," it is clear that the biggest divide here is not between jerks on either side, but between deeply seated cultural ideas, and that neither side is getting the other. I can not comment on Māori customs, but I can say that having a beer named after oneself here is pretty much an honor (unless you're a member of the Marin Institute or MADD or something). It's a good thing. I'd be honored, and so would most people I know. Being associated with alcohol is not a source of shame; heck, the current governor of Colorado started Wynkoop brewery. Clearly, though, that is not the case to many Māori, who see it as degrading. Even more, though, one gets the sense that even using the term and imagery for an outsider is deeply offensive to some Māori. The closest I can get to my own experience is if a group of non-Jews launched a beer using Judaic names and images, but that doesn't seem to get it quite right, either. Clearly, cultural appropriation of the symbology and likeness is itself anathema to some.

Third, people need to stop analogizing this to the Witch's Wit controversy of Lost Abbey. While there is a case to be made that witches were a persecuted group whose burning we should not in any way promote, even centuries later, they are not an indigenous group of a totally foreign culture, and this beer wasn't bottled for years before anyone raised a complaint about it. The Witch's Wit debate was all within one culture; we were speaking from different viewpoints, but of relatively common experience.This is very different, and the venom being put forth from the offended party makes me think that some type of interpretative common ground (which I advocated for Lost Abbey) seems very unlikely.

The only people defending Funkwerks are non-Māori. The very fact that every comment from Māori commenters amounts to "screw you, American jerks" means that either every person commenting is just an anti-American racist, or (more likely) that this is such an obvious affront to them that they literally can not conceive of how we wouldn't get that. The fact that we are totally mystified at the unanimous ferocity of their response (there is nothing overtly negative about this label!), shows that, yeah, they don't get it from our side, either. Some interpretative text and a donation to a NGO seems unlikely to fix this one.

I reached out to a friend who's a teacher in New Zealand for her thoughts, and I think it's worth sharing a few of them with you:
...One of the things about the Maori people is that they feel that any and all things to do with their culture is "tapu" (or sacred and untouchable) to all other cultures. They hate anyone appropriating Maori images or words in any context, and they make huge deals about it when that happens. However, they are such a small group of people in a tiny country on the other side of the planet that it seems unreasonable to expect people to know that... Yet the Maori seem to take it as a given that everyone knows that anything to do with Maori is sacred and cannot be used except by Maori.
The friend went on to note that plenty of Māori-themed things, from images to jade, are available for sale in various tourist outlets in NZ, so one could be forgiven for not immediately understanding what is and isn't untouchable to an outsider. Also, due perhaps the understandably insular culture, it's apparently not even clear to people in NZ what the Māori expect and want from other cultures. The whole thing, again, indicates to me that there is a vast divide of cultures here, and that one needn't understand it fully to acknowledge that it is real.

So, that said, there's really only two options for Funkwerks:
  1. Pull the name and label. This doesn't have the brand status of Witch's Wit, so the only costs are a redesign. The label hasn't even been approved yet. 
  2. Keep the label and name. They probably weren't selling much in NZ, and I'd be surprised if many Americans found the name offensive. A few will know about this controversy, but even the ones sensitive to it (like myself) will mostly understand this as a cultural issue which we at best have no real standing to adjudicate, even with our own dollars. The loss of actual sales - and even the probability of lasting brand damage - is consequently minimal. 
I think they should pull the label, rename the beer, and move on. Whatever risk they might have is minimized, and it's probably closer to "the right thing to do." No one here will hold it against them, and I'd really hope that most Māori - even the very angry commenters - would realize an honest mistake when they see one, and accept the correction for what it's worth.

That said, as of now, Funkwerks has definitely been the more civil of the two sides, and if they choose not to cave to a bunch of people baselessly calling them racists and pigs, well... I can kind of understand that, too. I don't see the percentages in it, but stronger things have been done for pride, and again, the real downside to their brand is probably minimal. Still, I think when one can avoid hurting people, one should.

Now would be a great time for someone way more knowledgeable than me to chime in on the comments. Does this change your view of an otherwise progressive brewery? What would you do if you were them? At this point, should we even accept the premise that some cultural things just can't be used tastefully?


  1. I don't know if I count as "way more knowledgeable" but I am a self-confessed beer geek, a New Zealander and my wife is of Maori descent (Ngai Tahu) so I think I tick enough boxes.

    I fully believe that Funkwerks did not intend to offend anyone. Gordon Schuck has said in his statement that the "name was meant as homage to the Maori people". He made a well intentioned gesture, it has inadvertently caused offence and the usual etiquette in such circumstances is to withdraw and apologise - even if you do not fully understand the cause of the offence.

    This is all assuming he is speaking from the heart and not making an ex post facto justification for the use of the name. In a case like this actions speak louder than words, if Funkwerks adopt a "you can't make us change it" approach then it's not much of an homage is it?

  2. Anonymous, can you help us understand the offense this has caused among the Maori? It seems like if there was more of a justification than "because we said so" and name calling, the brewery would be more pressured to actually change the branding. -Anonymous2

  3. Anonymous2 I can understand you wanting to understand the offence. But based on the statements from Funkwerks I wouldn't have thought it was necessary for them to need a justification. They've said the name was supposed to show respect, and instead it has caused offence - I would have thought that would be enough for them to withdraw and apologise. Now if Funkwerks had said, you know it never occurred to us this would offend anybody, but we are not particularly concerned that it has, we think freedom of expression is equally important as your cultural beliefs, then cool that's punk rock!

    As to the source of the offence. I don't pretend to be an expert on Maori culture. I try to think of it like this. If my people had been invaded by a foreign power, my language and culture pushed to the brink of extinction by government oppression and social persecution, then I might also be highly sensitive to external parties appropriating my culture for financial gain in a way that I find offensive.

  4. Well what I know from Maori people is, they believe in gods which represented the sky, earth, forests, and forces of nature. The Maori people also believe that the spirits of their ancestors could be called upon to help them in times of need or war. The Maori culture is rich with songs, art, dance, and deep spiritual beliefs.

  5. Funkwerks did not intend to offend anyone. I think they should just change the label to respect the culture and policies of the Maori people.

  6. I've been down under, and they're quite right. They're also pretty sensitive because people have been using Maori tattoo designs, without a clue as to their meaning; haven't been happy about that for some time now. It looks like a neat logo and awesome marketing hook to the brewery, but the people of the culture it's from are rightly pointing out that their art has been appropriated disrespectfully. I'm not saying the brewer hasn't got a right to sell their beer with the current label, they probably do, but I don't think I'll be disrespectfully buying any.