Concerns raised over NFTs ‘degrading Māori culture’


The burgeoning market for NFTs is fueling concerns about cultural appropriation of Taonga Māori.

Non-fungible tokens or digital assets have become a global phenomenon, reaching millions internationally, and can come in the form of digital art, photographs, and music.

“I am already seeing a number of images of ancestors that come from publications that are used and manipulated,” said cultural intellectual property adviser Karaitiana Taiuru.

“There are faces on top of someone else’s body [and] moko from the face that is added to other people’s faces. They are inappropriate images and demean Maori culture.”

Some of the NFTs currently for sale promote harmful stereotypes of early Maori as violent warriors and a people who frequently murdered their children.

“People who don’t know anything different might think, this is Maori culture. That’s normal. And they might reproduce that image without knowing it’s offensive,” Taiuru said.

Maori photographer Rawhitiroa Bosch has recently turned some of his work into NFT and was surprised by what he saw in the NFT OpenSea market.

“Literally, people get Google images of a pou whakairo or a grouper or a tewhatewha, put it on OpenSea and sell it as an NFT. Somebody who ignores that would say, ‘oh this is a Maori thing, okay I’ I’ll buy that.'”

He and other Māori creators and Pasifika NFTs have been hosting wānanga online regularly to discuss how they can protect Māori taonga from further exploitation and create a safe space on the blockchain for te ao Māori to exist and thrive.

One idea they have is to create a seal of authenticity to show buyers that their work is indeed Maori and that they can be trusted.

“The idea is to be able to have some kind of way of showing, he pakihi Māori tēnei (this is a Māori business). It’s not because we want to control everything, it’s because we want to help all Māori artists, and because we want to help the public to be able to discern what is real and what is not,” he said.

The founder of the Maori NFT Titan Tiki project, Luke Ryan, backed the idea.

“There is a whole market of people who really love Māori tea, and really connect with the indigenous cultures of the world, and are just looking for authenticity,” he said.

He said it was crucial that people do their own background checks on NFT creators before buying.

“If you look at our website at Titan Tiki, we’ll actually reveal who the founders are, who the team is,” he said.

“Yes [they’re] using ta moko… [ask] What family does that belong to? Have you talked to that family?

The NFT space is completely unregulated and often susceptible to scams.

But a growing number of artists, including Maori, also recognize its benefits, such as the ability to generate income from royalties and avoid paying art galleries or record labels a large part of their profits.

“It’s very important to me that the mana remains in the hands of the person who created it,” Rawhitiroa Bosch said.

“From a Maori point of view, because the NFT is sold through different people, you can see the whakapapa of that image, of that piece of art, through the blockchain.”

Luke Ryan said it was an opportunity for Maori to share their culture with the world.

“The first word that comes to mind is legacy. It’s an opportunity to promote the legacy of te ao Māori,” he said.

“I see it as a great opportunity to share our culture and educate people about our traditions.”