Memory and practice, James Ritchie

Ko Tahu, Ko Au: Kai Tahu Tribal Identity
Hana O’Regan
Horomaka Publishing, $29.95,
ISBN 0473079518

In their long journeys into time, the cultures of Polynesia were refined, renewed and developed in their contents and characters not by conscious effort but by circumstances. Some say these migrations were not intentional but accidents of drift from place to place. Others regard this as an insult and affirm that their ancestors navigated by star and sea signs, sailing to known places, not adventurers but just sailors. Both are likely; why waste words arguing the matter? Whichever was the case, the emigrants or survivors carried their own version of their culture as is always the case with migrants.

Without books there was only memory and practice. All that was to be known they knew. From small samples, sometimes reduced by mortality for one reason or another, they regenerated their cultures, pruned and adapted to new situations. In the process, strong messages were encoded about cultural survival, growth, and efflorescence. In Maori, for example, take the meanings in these aphorisms: Mate atu he toa: Haeremai ra he toa – When a warrior falls another arises. Or E kore au e ngaro; te kakano I ruia mai I Rangiatea – Because I am of the seed which was scattered from the ancient homeland, I shall never be lost.

There are many, many such. Think of the confidence they give as you step ashore on another island with only all that you have around you, tools and techniques, words, thoughts, ceremonies, chants, stories, memories, relationships. In a word, culture. A waka was (and is) a cultural capsule.


Margaret Mead took the view that cultures never really die. They may appear to disappear, swamped by immersion in some other. Only total genocide would ever result in total death for a total culture. All cultures have dealt with their histories of contact, of being conquered, or of being conqueror, of absorption or holocaust, by accommodations of one kind or another. Some thunder through the history books, growing from tiny minorities to overthrow dynasties and empires. Some creep through the cracks of time like rising damp in the cellars of the civilisations, doomed by their own inertia, decadence or arrogant pride. In the direst moments of apparent culture loss, the urges to survive come upon some one, or many, and away we go again. There is always another island just over the horizon where the seed may be re-sown.

All my life I have heard Maori spoken of in the language of culture loss: “Our elders are dying”; “Every year fewer attend our marae”; “This reo the young now speak is not the language I heard when I was a child”. These comments reflect the romantic notion of some perfect time of cultural aboriginality whose modern representation is but a faded shadow on the wall of the cave in which we now live. Pakeha cognition is patterned by the image of the fall, decline from some nobler state, things falling apart, deterioration. Isn’t that what history is supposed to be all about? Well, that’s one way of regarding it, but Maori thought is dominated by the assurance that virtue, stemming from Hawaiki, is always with you, living through you, calling you to the next island. If you think I am also talking romantic nonsense, you really do need to read this book.

Ko Tahu, Ko Au is the result of the author’s personal journey as she has constructed her Maori identity in the face of its denial by the society around her and, indeed for much of her life, by Hana O’Regan herself. This personal story parallels the story of the journey of her tribe Ngai Tahu, or Kai Tahu, if you prefer, from contact to modernity. It is also illuminated by references to the life stories of seven other members of the “White Tribe of Ngai Tahu”, as one insolent journalist called this South Island iwi. It is a book about the politics of identity, if you will, but for this reviewer it is much, much more than that. It is an assertive outstretching of new (but old) cultural wings, more than just a personal
statement; not just another anguished tribal history, but Hawaiki here and now – Kai Tahu re-emergent.

The book comprises three parts: the identifying features of Ngai Tahu – land, language, traditions, Ngai Tahu as nymph; Ngai Tahu as chrysalis, the 19th-century influences on tribal identity; finally, the emerging future, ready for new flight, as butterfly or dragonfly or simply as itself.

From the earliest days of contact onwards, Ngai Tahu drew the cloak of their own history around them, closer and closer, remaining proud throughout the insults and abuses of colonial experience. They chose the path of assimilation. They knew who they were, but as those obvious tribal identifiers were taken from them or retained by fewer and fewer of their number, the opportunities to be who they were in truth, were reduced.

Isolated from their kinsfolk in Aotearoa, ravaged by disease, rape and pillage from lawless men of the seas and later the goldfields, injuriously attacked by Te Rauparaha, intensely degraded by planned white settlements, they followed the path of quiet immersion in the new society growing up around them. They were not entirely absorbed; they just withdrew. But in the sight of many they had simply ceased to be. In the ethos of social Darwinism, who should care about that? Surely only the fittest should survive! Inevitability became the justification for even more oppression. Their bloodlines became linked with (but rarely acknowledged by) those of the rural squattocracy and into the professional families of the southern cities and small towns. But mostly they just became part of the genetic soup of general New Zealanders.


None of this was directed by anything other than circumstances, opportunities, necessities. It might have been easier to reconstitute their identity had there been some ghastly event to rally tribal loyalty and feeling. But there was not. In one sense, Ngai Tahu took refuge deep within their chrysalis phase where its parts could reassemble to emerge as the distinct tribe it is today – Kai Tahu nui tonu.

The role of the Claim is given some prominence in maintaining tribal identity, from its first articulation in 1849 through to the Waitangi Tribunal report on it and the subsequent settlement including formal legal identity for the Runaka and tribal organisation. But this is not a history of the claim, no cold objective account; its strength is not in the undoubted facts. Rather it depends upon the stories of the eight kaikorero, individuals who shared their life experiences with Hana O’Regan, including, of course, her father, Sir Tipene. This widens the story, making the book more collective, yet no less personal.

These individuals emerge and re-emerge through the book, illustrating the mixture of the rich Maori cultural background that is the groundswell of Kai Tahu identity, blended with an almost aggressive supplementation by European-derived traditions – not just the Celtic background of the O’Regans, but those of the Newtons, the Bradshaws, the Solomons, the Ellisons, the Crofts, the Davises and many others. Rejected as they often were by the Pakeha world, Ngai Tahu voraciously gobbled up the bigger fish which seemed to be gobbling them.

They did this by holding fast to the more inalienable of their tribal rights, their bonding to their lineages (whakapapa), their distinct inflected language (reo), their deep emotional attachment to place (wahi tapu), the sacramental attachment to food and its gathering (mahinga kai), a similarly sacred retention, indeed adhesion to names of people and places, the hooks of tradition, to death rites and ceremonial (tangi, even if held in a seemingly ordinary home just down the street, become for the wake a ceremonial marae). And above and beyond all this, the sheer pleasure of being together from time to time, of sharing stories, jokes and old arguments (paki waitara), of telling things in a Kai Tahu way. For them, assimilation had no pejorative connotation. It was their safety, their satisfaction and their protection.

And with the mix comes a heavy dose of that quiet pragmatism that has carried the tribe through. You see it in the “Blue Book”, a record made in the 1920s of all the major bloodlines of Ngai Tahu, a task so thoroughly done that only one other line has had to be added since it was first published. It remains the basis of the now formidable beneficiary roll which the Runaka maintains as its mandating authority.

To what genre does a book such as this belong? I have to answer, its own. If you want history, go to the Tribunal report. The personal character of this book demolishes the objective/subjective distinction. It is not a personal testament or cultural therapy. It is simply a delight to read and begins, on the shoreline of its arrival, its own journey in time.


James Ritchie is Emeritus Professor at Waikato University.


Ko Tahu, Ko Au is available direct from the publisher:


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