Standing alone? Reina Whaitiri

Alan Duff’s Maori Heroes
Random House, $39.95,
ISBN 186941425X

Wahine Toa: Women of Maori Myth
Robyn Kahukiwa & Patricia Grace
Penguin, $31.00,
ISBN 0670839418


Alan Duff’s Maori Heroes features 58 men and women from a range of professions and occupations: sports people (the largest category), leaders and politicians, artists and entertainers, doctors, one writer, business people, and one or two teachers and academics. The book is aimed at schoolchildren and the high number of fabulous photographs makes it attractive, accessible and an interesting addition to any school library. Children – especially those in primary school – will find it a useful resource for research projects.

Duff’s choice of heroes presents something of a quandary for this female Maori reader however. I find his selection narrow, very male, and top-heavy with sports people. Of the 58 heroes, only thirteen are female, twelve are rugby players, and ten have been honoured with knighthoods and MBEs. Of course, one has to keep in mind that these are Duff’s heroes and by definition, the choice must be limited. Duff is entitled to his personal choice, but it tells us a great deal about what Duff considers important in the world.

Flicking through the pages for the first time, one cannot help but be captivated by the photographs, some in colour, most in black and white. What they reveal is that Maori are central to Aotearoa’s modern history, and the images and stories of so many talented, intelligent, and successful Maori highlight the contributions we have made to establishing and developing this country. A surprisingly high number are known beyond our shores. Heroes such as Kiri Te Kanawa, John Rowles, Witi Ihimaera, Rena Owen, and Ralph Hotere have helped raise the international profile of our small nation. Te Puea of Tainui, acknowledged as one of the most inspired leaders of the 20th century, Shane Cotton, the talented contemporary artist, and Thomas Ellison of Kaitahu, rugby player and lawyer, are all given hero status. It is also satisfying to see ordinary people acknowledged – people like Henare O’Keefe, ex-freezing worker and now working for Books in Homes, Huria Matenga who rescued people from a sinking ship, and Hamuera Tamahau Mahupuku, businessman and politician.

The 28th Maori Battalion is included, and deservedly so. Those warriors are the stuff of legend, famous in their lifetime and growing in stature and repute with each new telling of their stories. But five men are introduced before we get to Whina Cooper, the first woman mentioned. A minor oversight shows a photo of Whina Cooper being supported by a woman identified in the caption as Donna Awatere. It is in fact one of Whina’s family members.

My first question is where are the tribal affiliations? There is never a mention of iwi. I would guess that the omission is far from accidental, for no Maori I know would fail to include the source of the individual’s strength and mana. This omission exposes a gap between Alan Duff and his heroes: there is no inclusive language, no collective voice; the third person is used throughout even though many of the heroes are of Te Arawa descent, Duff’s own people. Rather, the perspective is of someone looking in from the outside. The heroes in this book stand alone, without the support of their iwi and their tipuna. Such support is important – if not for Alan Duff , then certainly for his heroes and for his Maori readers.

I like the definitions of a hero on pages 12 and 13, and it is appropriate that the first hero mentioned is Kupe, the Polynesian discoverer of Aotearoa. But then, for some inexplicable reason, Duff has chosen to illuminate Kupe’s story with Goldie’s 1898 painting, “The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand”. The pathetic, skeletal figures spawned in Goldie’s fertile imagination have little to do with the reality of early Polynesian voyages. Research proves that our people were well stocked with food and water when they journeyed out onto Maona Nui A Kiwa; they knew where they were going; and they knew how to get back. Geoff Irwin’s extensive research on ocean voyaging also proves that those early Polynesian sailors were only ten days’ sailing from the nearest landfall. But in Goldie’s romantic impression of the journey across the Pacific, the people lie wide-eyed, gaunt, starving and helpless, waiting for death, no-one is paddling, no-one is bailing; sorry sailors indeed. The text accompanying the painting details a more accurate account so why the contradictory juxtaposition?

Alan Duff’s Maori Heroes sits on the living room table at home and my mokopuna love looking through it. Alongside is Wahine Toa. Women of Maori Myth, with paintings and drawings by Robyn Kahukiwa and text by Patricia Grace, another book they find fascinating. Wahine Toa focuses on Maori mythological women and retells the stories of creation, death, and the mysteries of life. Robyn Kahukiwa’s striking illustrations celebrate the power and beauty of women and reiterate their importance in Maori mythology and history. Patricia Grace is one of New Zealand’s finest writers, and her text is elegant, clear, and concise.

Although the target audiences are somewhat different, both books look back towards the future, presenting some of the great heroes of Maoridom from ancient and modern times, from myth and fact. Both books use vibrant, powerful images to accompany and illuminate the texts. The long journey our people have made from mythological times to the present can be charted through Wahine Toa into the new millennium with Alan Duff’s Maori Heroes.


Reina Whaitiri of Kaitahu teaches New Zealand and Pacific literature in the Department of English at the University of Auckland.


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Posted in Biography, Gender, History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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