The thrill of discovery, Christine Tremewan

Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori, by James Herries Beattie
Atholl Anderson (ed)
University of Otago Press in association with Otago Museum, $59.95


The South Island has not been as fortunate as the North with tribal histories. The slim volumes of traditions published by writers such as Stack, Cowan and Elvy do not pretend to cover more than a limited area. Stack’s South Island Maoris (1898) admits to being only a “Sketch of their History and Legendary Lore” (and his information came from the north Canterbury people among whom he worked). W A Taylor’s Lore and history of the South Island Maoris (1950), while ostensibly broader in its scope, turns out to be little more than a series of disjointed jottings on any matter, ardent or modern, concerning the Maori race in the South Island.

Beattie’s Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori has already been dismissed by one reviewer as “a compilation of random ethnological ephemera” and at first may disappoint the reader in search of a comprehensive account of the life and history of the South island Maori. The work is in the form of a series of field notes rather than a connected account and its many repetitions may annoy any reader wishing for quick answers to questions about the southern Maori.

The book has its origins in a research project for the Otago Museum in 1920. The assistant curator, Henry Skinner, wished to obtain information about the southern Maori to further his own researches. There was also a sense of urgency, the feeling that such knowledge was rapidly disappearing as elders who were alive at the time of the arrival of the pakeha were ageing and dying. Skinner and others realised that someone should collect this knowledge quickly before it disappeared altogether.

James Herries Beattie, or Herries Beattie as he is usually called, presented himself for the task. Although not a trained ethnographer, he was an enthusiast who from an early age had been fascinated by stories about the past, first those told by members of his own family and later stories related to him by pioneer European settlers and by Maori elders. He recorded these stories in notebooks, the earliest of which was written when he was 10. In spite of his undistinguished academic record, Beattie had proved his worth as a researcher on Maori life by publishing a series of articles on “Traditions and Legends Collected from the Natives of Murihiku” in the Journal of the Polynesian Society. He obviously had the knack of establishing a rapport with his Maori informants, and his dedication was shown in the way in which he spent almost all his spare time on his researches: his holidays travelling to small towns where he could interview Maori elders and his evenings and weekends writing up his material for publication.

The disjointed nature of the book arises from the research method employed by Beattie. Skinner supplied him with an initial set of questions which he wished to have answered and Beattie added to these as his researches proceeded. He started with 65 questions at Temuka in April 1920 and by the end of his research period was asking over 1000. Sometimes he would use the information given to him at one place as the basis for questions at the next; sometimes his reading of authors such as Tregear would suggest a line of enquiry.

The method has its drawbacks. It makes for repetition, as the same questions are asked over and over again, in different places, of different informants, or even of the same informant on a different occasion. Sometimes there are headings such as “add to eels”, “add to houses” and so on, as the next batch of material comes to hand. This does not make for easy reading.

However, on the positive side, the reader gets a sense of working alongside the researcher and can enjoy the relaxed conversational pace and the thrill of discovery. There is a sense of authenticity in the way the material is presented. Even though one knows that Beattie must have done a certain amount of organising and rewriting of his material, one can still appreciate his painstaking effort to record exactly what he was told. Informants correct each other, confess to ignorance or explain that what they relate is only hearsay, that they cannot speak from personal experience. Beattie lets them have their say. If he feels he must comment, he inserts a word of caution or additional information in parentheses. But even these comments show respect for the informant and are free of the sneering tone so often found in Elsdon Best’s writings.

Another advantage of the method of presentation of this work is that it allows Beattie to avoid the pitfalls of many of his later works. As Sir Stephen O’Regan suggests in his foreword, Beattie sometimes allowed himself to be overawed by his mentors, Percy Smith and Elsdon Best of the Journal of the Polynesian Society. Their narrow historical reading of Maori traditions and their elevation of one tribal version (the traditions preserved in the Ngati Kahungunu whare wananga) to the status of “the most correct story” led them to question and belittle the traditions of other tribes. Editorial remarks contradict or even ridicule statements made by Beattie in his articles in the Journal of the Polynesian Society. In later works such as The Morioris of the South Island (1941), Beattie fitted the information he received from his Maori informants into the now-outdated theoretical framework provided by Smith and Best.

How new, original, and useful is the material which Beattie collected from the Maori of the South?

Settlement by Europeans occurred early in the South Island and intermarriage with the sparse Maori population was common. Because of this, much traditional Maori knowledge was lost. What remains tends to be fragmentary and scattered. There is no large body of tradition against which the information gathered by Beattie can be measured. It is only by piecing together the fragments of knowledge from Beattie and other sources that some sort of overall picture can be built up.

Some of the information collected by Beattie may lead to a reassessment of commonly held theories. In a recent article in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, for example, Atholl Anderson uses the information about the prevalence of round houses in the South to challenge the view that they were merely “makeshift structures of little importance”. This raises interesting questions about the origins of these people, as such dwellings are found in certain areas of Polynesia and not in others. Sometimes Beattie’s informants confirm what is known from other sources, for instance, that double canoes were used in the rough waters of the South Island long after they had disappeared in the North Island. The obscure references to the practice of “tahutahu” in southern traditions can be clarified by the information given by Beattie’s informants: it means putting hot oil in a wound (p261). Practices such as cremation of the dead seem to have been fairly common in the South Island.

The language of the south is a subject about which very little is known. However, the many words recorded by Beattie add greatly to the sum of knowledge. On his evidence, there are or were many words used in the South Island which are unknown or used in a different sense in the North Island. A comparison of words from Murihiku, Canterbury and Nelson for parts of the body (pp454‑8) shows that a significant number differ in the far south. This is particularly true of names for plants and fish. Other words which differ may reflect distinctive southern practices: the word “waitau” refers to the making of cabbage tree or kauru into a porridge‑like substance; “rara” is a raised bed; “whena” a method of cooking in which the food is rolled in flax and put near the fire.

Beattie was instructed not to collect information on traditional history, but such was his interest in the topic that he often devotes a special section to “folk tales” or “mythology”. The southern versions of the stories of Maui, Tane, Tinirau and other major figures are often distinctively different from northern versions and may provide clues as to the specific island origins of the tribes of the South Island.

Other incidental information about the more recent past is also of interest for example, the assertion that Maori were not allowed to travel by train during the influenza epidemic, and had to carry a certificate of vaccination (p464).

Atholl Anderson has contributed a masterly introduction to this work. He gives a brief biography of Beattie, the unassuming researcher who has done more than anyone else to preserve South Island Maori lore. As far as possible he provides information on Beattie’s Maori informants. He also provides useful background on the sorts of questions which exercised researchers in the 1920s. The many photographs in the book are of particular interest, as many of them portray the very items he describes in the text, and which he purchased on behalf of the Otago Museum.

Christine Tremewan lectures in Maori at the University of Canterbury.

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Posted in History, Maori, Non-fiction and Review
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