Long Reads

Why it matters that Jacinda Ardern wore a Māori cloak to Buckingham Palace

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Janina Matthewson
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“This is the perfect example of all the optimism Jacinda brings out in us.”

There is something about the image of Jacinda Ardern standing in Buckingham Palace wearing a kahu huruhuru.

There is something about seeing that image as a woman. There is something about seeing it as a New Zealander. There is something about seeing it as a kiwi immigrant in the UK.

And there is something about seeing that image as a citizen who has reason to be proud of her Prime Minister.

After several years of serious political disillusionment, Ardern’s election to Prime Minister of New Zealand last year was a sudden and unexpected joy. It felt like this very April day, after the customary 10 years of British winter. It felt like that first glass of refreshing water after waking up exhausted and hungover.

Ardern is energetic and progressive, she’s young and passionate - she leads the first Labour government New Zealand has had in almost a decade! Her election victory felt like a panacea to Brexit, to Trump, to Theresa May.

And the photos taken of her at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting are the perfect example of all the optimism she brings out.   

Jacinda Ardern attends The Queen’s Dinner during The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

The image - which I’ve been looking at obsessively since I first saw it last night - is full of power, yes, but it’s also full of comfort. There is a grace to it that is uncommon in publicity shots of political events. She wears a simple, mustard yellow dress, her hair is piled on the back of her head, and around her shoulders is a traditional Māuri cloak - a kahu huruhuru, or “feathered cloak.”

The kahu huruhuru is one of the most prestigious garments in Māori culture - decorated with the feathers of native birds, and worn as a symbol of mana, or power.

The one Ardern wears was on loan to her from London’s Māori club, Ngāti Rānana, and has drawn attention and praise from all quarters. Mark Sykes, who oversees Māori special collections at New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa spoke to The Guardian about his pride at seeing her wear the cloak, saying: “I think it shows how she is portraying herself as a leader of Māori, of all of New Zealand, of everyone. It made me feel proud. She wore it well. She wore it so well.”

But there are depths to the pride of seeing our Prime Minister wear a kahn huruhuru that go beyond a casual soundbite.

The cloak is a way of demonstrating that Ardern represents a multi-ethnic country, that she is working for all New Zealanders. Her wearing it in the context of a meeting amongst Commonwealth heads was particularly timely, given the selective awareness many people seem to have about the Commonwealth.

The Brexit debate has brought on calls for free movement within the Commonwealth, to replace free movement within Europe. Notably, these petitions only ever seem to include those countries that are predominantly white, ignoring the 49 that are not. It makes a striking point at a meeting of Commonwealth states, to remind the world that, though we are a British colony, we are a Māori country as well.

That this happened in London feels particularly powerful to me. One of the most painful moments of culture shock I found, having moved here from New Zealand, was realising just how little people in Britain know about New Zealand and, in particular, how unaware they are of Māori and Polynesian culture.

It is far from the most egregious example of Great Britain ignoring the countries it colonised and the cultures it tried to erase, but it matters. Seeing our Prime Minister reaffirm the fact that Māori culture is a crucial part of our national identity feels personal. It feels like a chance for my adopted country to see a little better who I am - that though, as pākehā (white) women, this is not mine, nor Ardern’s culture, it is the culture of our land, and therefore it has informed who we are, both as individuals and as a people.

“Though New Zealand is a British colony, we are a Māori country as well.”

There is a casual pragmatism to Ardern that, to me, seems inherently kiwi, and inherently feminine. She has taken the last year in her stride - from suddenly assuming leadership of the Labour party mid-election, to forming a coalition government and becoming Prime Minister, to her unexpected pregnancy. She carries an air of nonchalance about her that suggests a simple but earnest desire to get things done.

And she has got things done. In her first few months as leader of New Zealand, Ardern has introduced legislation to legalise medicinal cannabis (and put in place a legal defence for terminally ill patients who access it illicitly). Her government is making moves to reform New Zealand’s abortion laws - which currently require two doctors to confirm that pregnancy is a risk to the mother’s physical or mental health. She’s announced an inquiry into mental health services, pushed through several initiatives to reduce child poverty, and several more to improve living standards among New Zealand’s most vulnerable people.

“There is a casual pragmatism to Ardern that, to me, seems inherently kiwi, and inherently feminine.”

As well as representing Aotearoa by wearing the kahu huruhuru, Ardern chose to highlight a Māori proverb in her speech at the event.

“He aha te mea nui o te ao,” she said. “What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. The people, the people, the people.”

It feels like Ardern’s approach to running the country is absolutely founded on that sentiment.

As a woman, it is inspiring to see New Zealand led by a woman for the third time. As a New Zealand immigrant, it is wonderful to see our country represented with pride in front of the world.

The images of Ardern, resplendent in her kahu huruhuru alongside her partner Clarke Gayford, are a source of immense joy and pride - they are iconic.

But the real source of pride is not in the fact that she is a woman, or in the fact that she is a kiwi. It’s in the fact that she’s a progressive and capable leader.

Jacinda Ardern is representing us well. 

Images: Getty