Making iwi, Jeffrey Sissons

Iwi: The Dynamics of Maori Tribal Organisation from c.1769 to c.1945
Angela Ballara
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 86473 328 3

What a dynamic, marvellously complex world Maori kinship is! Little wonder that there were those in the past who, lacking the intellectual fortitude that comes with age and status, were driven to madness in their illegitimate desire for genealogical knowledge. Little wonder, too, that Pakeha men like Percy Smith, Elsdon Best and their fellow members of The Polynesian Society became so fascinated by the subject at the turn of this century that they happily devoted years of their lives to its study. To an outsider, Maori kinship history often appears as a gigantic, mind-boggling puzzle defying the observer to discover a pattern of genealogical connection and disconnection beneath the constantly changing surface of alliances and schisms, appearances and disappearances, which characterise Maori political life. From the inside, this history is more likely to present itself as a storehouse of possibilities and threats – a hundred reasons for future enmity and amity.

One of the great merits of this book is that it shows us this world from up in the air and down on the ground, allowing us to appreciate, as rarely before, its human dynamism and contingency. Ballara paints, at times, with a very broad brush, summarising large-scale trends in kin-group formation over a century or more. This is history from a great height – like the view when flying from Wellington to Auckland – and the breadth of knowledge and experience that informs it is indeed impressive. But at other times she draws on Land Court evidence to describe in great detail the highly localised struggles of a handful of families. These local stories are engaging in themselves, quite apart from the wider point that they are intended to illustrate, and so if we are sometimes provided with more detail than the argument needs, they nevertheless hold our attention.

Ballara’s central historical argument is mostly original and generally convincing. Maori society was, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, a mosaic, or, better, a kaleidoscope of hundreds of hapu, politically autonomous descent groups, which were forming, disappearing, dividing and forging numerous alliances with each other as population pressures increased. Iwi (now often translated as “tribes”) were, at this time, idealised categories of related hapu that almost never acted as corporate groups. Ballara likens these iwi to ethnic groups in that their members recognised some common origins and shared a set of beliefs and values.

These sentimental and cultural ties did not, however, translate into political relationships in any direct sense. Indeed, Maori society was, and to a large extent still is, primarily a hapu-divided society. Iwi might have remained as ideal kin-categories, had it not been for British colonialism and Maori responses to it, although Ballara also speculates that the rapid growth in population, and the associated increase in inter-hapu warfare and migrations in the late 18th century may have encouraged greater identification with iwi even without the intervention of Europeans. As it happens, British colonialism coincided with transformations that were already underway, thus hastening and re-directing a pre-existing tribalisation process.

Understandably, Ballara directs most of her critical attention towards the influences of British colonialism and its associated practices of according official recognition to Maori leaders and kin-groups, land purchase (including, most importantly, the activities of the Native Land Court) and land confiscation. The overall effect of these legislative impositions and violent incursions was to give greater recognition to iwi as the fundamental political units of Maori society and to simultaneously disempower hapu by failing to officially recognise their political independence. Elevating “friendly” hapu leaders to the status of “tribal chiefs” automatically denigrated and insulted the mana of other leaders who often had claims to land and authority that were equal to or greater than those officially recognised.

Ballara’s account of the emergence of a simplified, idealised official picture of Maori tribal society is particularly enlightening. Taking as her evidence government lists of “tribes” produced between 1870 and 1881, she points out that they become progressively shorter, especially from 1874 onwards. In Kaipara, for example, the eight “tribes” listed in 1870 are reduced to two – Nga Puhi and Ngati Whatua – by 1881. Six tribes were officially made to disappear.

Many other “tribes” were to suffer the same fate as officials came to reject the more dynamic view of Maori society expressed by missionaries and explorers in favour of the idealised, simpler model put forward by such early experts as Dieffenbach and Wakefield. It was, of course, no accident that the simpler, iwi classification hastened the acquisition of land and facilitated the development of a bureaucratic framework for social control. Ironically, however, Ballara also observes that from 1840 on, Maori society was beginning to resemble, at least superficially, the idealised tribal paradigm. Certainly, the formation of tribal runanga as a response to Government aggression, and the strategic acceptance of the tribal model in the Land Court, could be seen as Maori moves towards tribalism.

By the late 19th century, then, Maori society was widely characterised as having always been divided into a relatively small number of iwi which, in turn, were divided into a fixed number of hapu. This appears to be part of a larger process through which Maori society was becoming more generally traditionalised. Meeting houses, for example, had been built throughout the North Island in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s as powerful contemporary symbols of resistance to British colonialism (those of the King Movement and Te Kooti’s followers are the most well-known examples). But by the turn of the century they had come to be regarded as “traditional” objects of primarily aesthetic significance.

Later, and especially under the influence of Apirana Ngata, a traditionalised view of Maori culture became widely accepted – centred on tribes, hierarchically divided into a fixed number of sub-tribes, marae, fixed marae kawa (protocol), limited artistic styles and seven canoes. Meeting houses became linked more closely with hapu, marae kawa became tribal and carving styles became standardised. Neich provides an excellent discussion of this process, as it related to the standardisation of meeting houses, in his recent book Painted Histories.

The point is that iwi and hapu do not exist in a cultural vacuum and their shifting forms and significance have been closely associated with the wider cultural changes. Unfortunately, Ballara’s otherwise admirable attention to detail and her restricted focus on kinship history did not allow her to explore these broader developments in any depth. Had she done so, her account would have accorded a greater significance to Maori cultural agency over and above that which was purely political, and in the process we might have gained a deeper appreciation of the meanings that iwi have had for Maori.

However, Ballara’s discussion of the scholarly context in which the idealised “grand-design” of Maori tribal society was produced and authenticated, is excellent. Building on the work of writers such as David Simmonds, Keith Sorrenson and others, her critiques of the writings of Smith, Best, and perhaps most pointedly, of Ngata – who had “an exaggerated respect for European scholarship” – are sharp and succinct and set the stage well for her counter-history and counter-argument. But almost as importantly, Iwi also raises serious questions about the value of most of the subsequent tribal histories that uncritically accept and perpetuate the ethnological and official tribal paradigm. It is a measure of the weighty significance of this book that it can take on such respected tribal histories as Tainui, Te Arawa, Tuwharetoa, Takitimu, Te Whakatohea and Rangitane and force us to re-think them as ill-founded legitimations of a recent, partially successful hegemonic order.

Ballara is clearly most at home in the 18th and 19th centuries. While this book is ostensibly about transformations of iwi up to about 1945, the treatment of changes in the first half of the 20th century is sketchy. The formation of Trust Boards to serve as officially recognised “tribal” representatives, so facilitating negotiations with Government with respect to compensation claims, was absolutely critical for cementing in the tribal paradigm, legally and bureaucratically. Ballara’s discussion of this process, while too brief and selective, is, however, valuable in that it emphasises the partial nature of officially sanctioned tribal hegemony – even as late as 1945 “the powerhouse of Maori society still remained with the hapu”. A legacy of this period of tribal bureaucratisation is the many contemporary disputes over the legitimacy and composition of Trust Boards.

It is probably unfair to criticise Ballara for stopping at 1945, but her implicit critique of contemporary state practices in the recognition of traditional groups and their leaders is so telling that I felt a little cheated by the brief conclusion, in which the contemporary significance of the book is hardly discussed. Ballara hints somewhere that these are matters for a future book. I hope she does have such a work in the pipeline, for if it is half as good as this one, it will be well worth waiting for.

Jeffrey Sissons is Professor of Social Anthropology at Massey University. 

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Posted in History, Maori, Non-fiction and Review
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