Lore meets law, Kate Riddell

Mihipeka: Call of an Elder Karanga a te kuia
Mihi Edwards
Steele Roberts, $29.95,
ISBN 1877228222

The Tribes of Muriwhenua: Their Origins and Stories 
Dorothy Urlich Cloher (Maori translation by Merimeri Penfold)
Auckland University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1869402693

Rere atu, take manu! Discovering history, language and politics in the Maori-language newspapers
ed Jenifer Curnow, Ngapare Hopa & Jane McRae
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1869402790

Grey and Iwikau: A Journey into Custom Kerei raua ko Iwikau: Te Haerenga me nga Tikanga
Alex Frame
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 086473431X5

These four books are linked by only a couple of points: they all share a focus on the effects of colonisation on Maori society and culture, and they all highlight what they see as the flexibility of Maori culture in dealing with that colonisation, compared with the inflexibility (thus far) of the colonising culture. Beyond these shared focuses, they make for rather disparate reading as a group.


Three out of four of the books are rather specialised and will appeal to limited audiences only. The exception is Mihi Edwards’ third installment of her life to date. Mihipeka: Call of an Elder carries on the story of Edwards’ life as a kaumatua  of her people, and her role as a reo karanga. It is in her descriptions of the karanga and the role it plays in powhiri and especially tangi that Edwards offers the most insight. She outlines the power that women have as the initiators of proceedings and their sacred role in the spiritual world of the Maori. She refers back to a rather idealised past, where spiritual matters and morality ruled before the Pakeha came and introduced more base pursuits. But, on the other hand, she is often at pains to point out where and when individual Pakeha have helped her, inspired her, and become her close friends.

In fact, her overall approach is a mixture of guilt and self-righteousness. But perhaps this reflects her confusion about how to view the colonial past and its effects on the present. I suspect that many New Zealanders share this confusion, and this may make the book of value to those who are interested in lived perspectives of that past. For Edwards reminds the reader that her experiences and memories are her own and how she really views New Zealand society – not as an academic exercise, and not removed from her own experiences. Many Pakeha New Zealanders would probably be surprised to realise the level of tension and frustration that exists among some Maori; perhaps with some awareness of it, that tension could be worked through with greater understanding.

The excerpts from the earlier two installments of Edwards’ life are refreshing, as are many of her anecdotes; but it is not always apparent to whom she is addressing her material – to the reader, to herself, or to the past. There is also much repetition and a lack of overall narrative coherence. Some stern editing would have helped to remove these flaws, but then the work would have been far less Edwards’ own. She perhaps has not much new to advance here, and this book is best viewed as something of a final public karanga to Papatuanuku (earth mother), and to all of us to respect each other and return to a lost morality.


Dorothy Urlich Cloher’s Tribes of Muriwhenua: Their Origins and Stories is, in short, the carrying on of a process of recording a selection of the traditions of the tribes of Muriwhenua (Ngati Kuri, Te Aupouri, Ngai Takoto, Te Rarawa, Ngati Kahu, and Te Paatu). This process was begun, in a written public sense, with the Waitangi Tribunal’s 1980s inquiry into the fishing, then land, claims of the Muriwhenua tribes. Of course, the process of recording tribal traditions is as old as the tribes themselves, but Cloher, and those she writes for, are undoubtedly aware that writing the stories down and having them published confers a “legitimacy” on them in the eyes of some, as well as preserving them in this literate world. What Cloher doesn’t explicitly point out is that these traditions are selected and, because of that, are political statements in themselves. Instead, she lets the stories do the talking and, appropriately enough, offers very little analysis or commentary.

This is a short book, made even shorter by the fact that it is translated “simultaneously”, page by page, by Merimeri Penfold. The translation makes the work considerably more valuable than it might otherwise have been, for this book will really only appeal greatly to people of Muriwhenua, who are themselves directly interested in either uncovering or comparing versions of their traditions. The provision of such a full translation will surely prove of great and lasting value to Muriwhenua people.

However, a comment on the quality of the publication is required: there are a number of typographical errors and some of the reproductions of maps and photos are of poor quality. Also, disappointingly, given the full translation of the text into Maori, quite a lot of the most important Maori words are not translated into English in the English text. This is a shame, as the lack of translation into English will further limit the relevance of the book to non-Muriwhenua Maori. Neither are the captions of the photos translated into Maori, which is a bit odd, given the emphasis on the translation of the text.


Rere atu, take manu! Discovering history, language and politics in the Maori-language newspapers is the most historically focused of the four books. It is a compilation of 12 articles, discussing, as the title suggests, the relevance of the 19th century Maori-language newspapers. This should prove a valuable resource for New Zealand historians trying to discover a Maori view of the colonising process. Though the existence of the newspapers, and especially the government-backed ones, is well known, they have not always been widely accessed and are far too valuable to be ignored. Several of the articles are especially helpful from this point of view. For example, Jenifer Curnow’s “A Brief History of Maori-language Newspapers” sets out a full history of each paper and the years they were published.

Unfortunately, in a review of this length, there is no space to comment on each of the articles, worthy though many of them are, and a few overall comments must suffice. The major frustration with this work is, in fact, that there are too many articles in the book for any one of them to do justice to the particular topic under discussion. Time and again, I found myself wishing the writer had been allowed a few more pages in which to elaborate. While the editors may have hoped to reach a wider audience by covering, however briefly, as many bases as possible, the result is that a number of major historical issues are glossed over very perfunctorily. In addition, some of the technical language used is not adequately explained, and some readers may struggle, as I did at times, to fit the various articles into the wider historical debates that exist. (Indeed, these debates are often not mentioned at all, even by way of a footnote.)

I noted too a number of factual errors. Lyndsay Head, for example, cites the battle of Waerenga a Hika as occurring in March 1866, when, she says, Bishop Williams’ mission station was burned by Pai Marire followers. In fact, the battle was in November 1865, and it was not Pai Marire followers who burned the station. Neither is there enough cross-referencing between the articles, and valuable space is wasted repeating basic information already given in earlier articles (such as when newspapers were published and by whom). Many of the pieces read more like synopses for a conference rather than fully developed discussions. Overall, however, the collection should prove a worthwhile resource for students of 19th century Maori perspectives, offering a starting point for exciting new research.


Alex Frame’s Grey and Iwikau: A Journey into Custom is the most challenging of these books, and perhaps the most rewarding. Frame’s thesis is that Grey’s and Iwikau’s 1849-1850 journey to Taupo (to attend the tangi for Iwikau’s brother, Mananui) shows the potential for mutual respect which then existed and which sets a precedent for developing a more organic New Zealand legal code.

Together the two great leaders struggled through difficulties on the journey to a common goal. This common goal reflects the possibility of a third culture in Aotearoa: neither Maori nor Pakeha, but a third “co-existing culture of interaction”. Frame suggests this third culture could be better reflected in New Zealand law, and that there is precedent in law for adopting culturally relevant concepts. According to him, such a moulding of the law has begun here but still has a long way to go. With the possibility of a New Zealand Supreme Court looming, Frame offers a timely reminder that looking in the past can assist present-day discussions about what is relevant to New Zealand’s sense of identity – legal or historical.

However, by focusing on the legal aspects of interaction that Grey’s and Iwikau’s shared journey reveals, Frame has perhaps overlooked a whole history of social interaction in New Zealand – interaction which sets a social precedent for the law to follow. There is, for instance, the precedent of much of 19th century Maoridom making aspects of Pakeha law and culture its own and yet still surviving as a unique and vibrant culture. Moreover, many parts of the country remained less than “colonised” well into the late 19th century. In significant areas of the country, lonely Crown officials, missionaries and settlers relied on their Maori hosts for survival and company. Of course, with the number of settlers arriving and requiring individual blocks of (Maori) land, this was not going to remain the case, but possibilities for meaningful social and legal interaction existed throughout the 19th century and beyond. So it shouldn’t be a matter for great surprise now that, in meeting, cultures must learn to adapt and adopt if they are to survive together. The law, as Frame suggests, perhaps has some way to go to adapt to the reality of today’s New Zealand society, but there are more than strictly legal precedents that may assist it in adapting. One of the challenging aspects of this book is that it takes the reader into the shadowy realms of questioning just what the law is. Does it exist separately from society or does it in fact stem from the society it serves? Again, because of the brevity of the work, such challenges are not resolved, nor fully explored. But the book does show that there are fields for rich debate in all areas of emerging New Zealand culture, and that by combining approaches there is more to learn.


Kate Riddell is an historian currently on parental leave from the Waitangi Tribunal, Department for Courts. Her views in no way represent those of the tribunal or the department.


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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, History, Language, Māori, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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