Prophetic Histories: The People of the Maramatanga
Bridget Williams Books, $49.95,
This remarkable book is written by an American anthropologist from Eastern Michigan University. Over a period of 30 years, she entered the world of a small Maori religious movement and gained their co-operation to recount and analyse the stories of its members’ lives and the meaning of their faith. As such, it is a remarkable and a moving testimony to an overlooked movement.
The tradition of Maori prophetic movements was listed in Bronwyn Elsemore’s book, Mana from Heaven, first published in 1989. Elsemore tended to present them as examples of a typology of indigenous religious movements based on vision and prophesy. As Karen Sinclair emphasises, however, while there are common elements, each movement has its own very distinctive and separate story. Maramatanga is a movement among the Whanganui iwi with roots in the prophetic ministry of Mere Rikiriki on the banks of the Rangitikei River. The major fruit of this movement was in Ratana (founded by Rikiriki’s nephew, T W Ratana), which became the best-known of all the prophetic groups. Sinclair explains that when in 1928 Ratana transferred his emphasis to the political domain, another religious movement emerged under Hori Enoka Mareikura, who became a healer in the 1930s, the new movement beginning with messages communicated from the dead Lena Ruka in 1935. The movement started in and was long focused on the town of Ohakune. It has been characterised as a healing movement, with pilgrimages to Lake Rotokura, and as a prophetic movement, in which a trinitarian God reveals himself to Maori people.
The movement also developed a close relationship with the Catholic Church. Although this relationship had strains over the years, it is not unlike the very early years of Ratana (and what Ratana might have stayed, had it not been for the traumatic pressures during Wiremu Ratana’s visit to London in 1924). The Catholic Church was the dominant religious movement among Maori on the upper reaches of the Whanganui River from the 1860s. Layers of ministry by Marist priests, by Mother Aubert and her sisters, and traditions of popular Catholic devotion surface with surprising intensity in Maramatanga.
The book is a model of careful anthropological research, of the kind that Ratana and other prophetic movements have never received. Diaries and written accounts have all been consulted, but the central source is “field work”, particularly challenging because it has involved numerous visits to New Zealand over a long period. The author is not seeking to write a historical narrative, and the history of the movement arises somewhat incidentally in the course of the study. It is extremely interesting to see the close organic link with the heritage of Mere Rikiriki, which places Ratana in a different perspective. But it is important to understand that the story is told very much from the perspective of Maramatanga; Ratana tells the story in a very different way. Similarly the work presents the story of Ratana’s movement from his spiritual to his political work as the reason for the appearance of Maramatanga. Ratana accounts of this change suggest a more complex relationship between the political and the religious right from its beginning.
The richness of Maori religious traditions is increasingly acknowledged by scholars. The acknowledgement has not come easily. Scholars largely work within a secular and western tradition, and so at most allow room for private faith and values. Strikingly, Maori religion hinges on communal faith and shared vision. Only a small number of New Zealand writers have entered this world and tried to interpret it, most notably Judith Binney. Much remains to be done; the story of Ratana invites much more work. It is remarkable that an American anthropologist, viewing New Zealand as a place for field work, has done one of the tasks which no-one in this part of the world has sought to attempt.
Perhaps the reason why an outsider could achieve what New Zealanders could not has to do with trust. For the people of the Maramatanga have trusted Karen Sinclair with their own stories. This is especially so in the six “narratives”, the life histories of five women and one man in the movement, which are interspersed between the analytical chapters and, somewhat curiously, printed in italics. These are not interviews as such but they effectively give a sense of listening in to the personal side of the movement. They are highly effective in drawing the reader into the community. Each is told carefully, with an indication of the narrator’s tribal identity, the history of their relationship to the movement and their personal faith in it.
The analysis in the seven chapters also has a clear personal voice. Here Sinclair seeks to explain how the movement has grown and changed. The experiences of different stages of the movement are described and its poems, prophecies, and visions interpreted. The development of festivals and of journeying to Waitangi are described and analysed. Identification with the movement has meant a delicate task for the author, and there is a sensitive attempt to understand the inner aspect of what the faith means. The work bears comparison with Peter Webster’s Rua and the Maori Millennium, rather than with Judith Binney’s work, but this is social anthropology shaped by a postmodern interest in multiple meanings and identities.
The work follows the tradition of social anthropology in exploring the leadership, values and charisma of the movement, as well as its routinisation and institutions, such as they are. It also places the movement carefully in tribal life. Most particularly the relationship with the Catholic Church is delicately explored at a number of levels, personal and communal. This aspect of the story is rather remarkable. The participants in Maramatanga were Catholics mostly by inheritance, and Catholicism in the first instance offered relatively limited tools for understanding their visions and healings. But, in the second generation of the movement, a devout lay Catholicism developed, particularly among the women adherents, even when the Catholic hierarchy felt somewhat uncomfortable about it.
The reflections throughout the book explore Maori spirituality in a postcolonial context, and respectfully accept this blend of Catholicism and traditional religion. This synthesis is portrayed not as some kind of false identity but as one, which is true to the different aspects of being for this group of Maori. Perhaps one might have wanted a stronger analysis of the different modes of religion in the contemporary era, and a clearer survey of academic analyses of patterns of indigenous religion. This is not the strength of the book. The book has clearly been conceived as something to be presented back to Maramatanga, not just to the scholarly community. So the reader becomes drawn into the narrative of meaning and gains an understanding of the energy of this movement, perhaps not quite at the level of Judith Binney’s portrayal of Te Kooti, but certainly as a tribute to a small living movement.
My abiding impression of the book is tied up with the careful narratives of its key members. The silent and the cautious find their own voice, which is gently interpreted. Thirty years of labour (although only the last five years seem to have gone into the book) represent a large act of dedication. But the result is a work of subtle interplays, of sensitivity and of depth. I was greatly enriched by reading it.
Peter Lineham teaches in the Department of History at the Albany campus of Massey University.