Renavigating the past, Bernie Kernot

Maori Peoples of New Zealand: Nga Iwi O Aotearoa Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
David Bateman, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869536220

National encyclopedias bear some resemblance to national exhibitions in the way they sum up and present knowledge relevant to creating and projecting a national identity. That would appear to be the case in the two encyclopedias published in this country over the past century.

The ponderous six-volume Cyclopedia of New Zealand published between 1897 and 1908 was a commercially driven project that covered the country region by region, extolling the commercial and civic enterprise in the colony. It was all we had for 60 years until the publication in 1966 of our first government-sponsored official An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand in three volumes. Under the editorship of A H McLintock, this became a landmark publication for its time, notable for its great breadth of coverage and the scholarly authority of its entries even on minor topics. Witness, for instance, McLintock’s discussion of the All Black haka which never seems to lose its topicality.

McLintock’s volumes have served us well but, 40 years on, a new encyclopedia, Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, is in production and Maori Peoples of New Zealand is an early volume. The contrasting styles and presentations of these two projects is a measure of the seismic technological and cultural shifts that have shaken the world over the last few decades. Electronic technology enables Te Ara to appear on-line and in published form, as well as providing a wealth of visual material not possible in the 1960s. Furthermore, the authoritative gravitas of An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand has yielded to a popular, easy-to-read text, which in this case was largely written by Maori contributors for Maori readers. The McLintock volumes objectified Maori in the depersonalised form of the day as “the Maori”, frequently in association with the pronoun “he”. It was essentially a Pakeha discourse carried on by Pakeha for Pakeha. In Maori Peoples, Maori have become the subjects of their own discourse.

It has been compiled by a team of Maori authorities led by veteran Maori academic Ranginui Walker. Its 45 shortish chapters are mostly the stories of the major iwi as told by writers who have affiliations to those iwi.

Grounding these tribal stories are a series of scholarly contributions summarising present knowledge on Pacific prehistory and archaeology, including the settlement of New Zealand, and written by Geoff Irwin, K R Howe, Rawiri Taonui and Carl Walrond. All those oceanic canoe voyages of recent years are included in Taonui’s review of Polynesian navigation and the remarkable recovery of navigational knowledge through the teachings of traditionalist Caroline Islands navigator, Mau Piailug. Through Piailug a whole new generation of young navigators from Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Rarotonga and New Zealand has emerged.

In this opening section, a cluster of chapters on traditional Maori belief and thought are among the most interesting in the whole volume. Written by Te Ahukaramu Charles Royal, a former lecturer at Te Wananga O Raukawa, these review the creation mythologies, Hawaiki traditions and the culture heroes said to have been here before the canoe migrations. Royal follows Margaret Orbell in interpreting these traditions as religious narratives and therefore to be taken as reflections on life and existence, and human relationships with land. The influence of the late Maori theologian, the Rev Maori Marsden, is evident in Royal’s interpretation of the creation stories as furnishing the foundations for an all-encompassing world view which, in my experience, still resonates today in contemporary Maori culture.

The iwi chapters, written to a formula, cover the full gamut of tribal histories from earliest mythological foundations up to the year 2004. All are copiously illustrated and include significant sub-texting. As an outsider, I found a certain blandness about these stories: the unadorned facts of history give little insight into the emotional load borne by iwi as a result of colonisation. Only Paul Meredith is prepared to raise contentious issues when he comments on emerging political tensions in his “Urban Maori” chapter. Some other accounts stand out for the quality of their presentation, most notably “Ngati Porou” for the elegance of Tamati Reedy’s prose.

Not all the tribal information is available in this book. One needs to go online, especially for biographical information. Nevertheless, references to prominent and notable personages in the book throw up some surprising omissions. Apart from Dr Manahi Paewai, claimed by Rangitane, the only other Maori footballers to feature are rugby and rugby league stars playing in and aspiring to represent Australia, players like Jeremy Paul, “Lord” Ted Goodwin and Timana Tahu.

The Hoani Waititi Marae in Auckland features strongly, but the late Hoani Waititi himself is ignored. In similar vein there are no references to Peta Awatere, Sir Charles Bennett or Sir James Henare, all of whom commanded the Maori Battalion, yet Kingi Areta Keiha of Gisborne and Brian Poananga of Rangitane are nominated by their respective iwi as military leaders.

There are also conundrums to ponder. I was surprised to learn that the famed 19th century Rotorua guide Sophia was claimed by Ngati Ruanui of south Taranaki, as well as Te Arawa among whom she lived. Her Ngati Ruanui whakapapa is quite clear and unambiguous. One has to assume she married into Te Arawa.

Arrangements of the iwi chapters in alphabetical order may have the logic of simplicity, but my preference would have been to group them on a regional basis thereby keeping together iwi with shared historical links. I also think it was a mistake to intersperse “Maori Overseas” and “Urban Maori” among the iwi chapters. They might more usefully have rounded off the book as concluding chapters. It would also have been helpful to have brief biographical details of the contributors. Not all are as well known as Tamati Reedy or Mason Durie.

Of most concern to me is the use of the plural “Peoples” in the titles of both Te Ara volumes of “New Zealanders”. The Te Ara project is quite unapologetic about welcoming all people living in New Zealand “and giving them a sense of their roots, their whakapapa”, as these volumes undoubtedly do. In a postmodern, multicultural world, the hegemonic notion of national identity dissolves into a multiplicity of ethnic and tribal identities. So be it. Te Ara does have plans to include symbols of national identity in a forthcoming publication. Nevertheless both Maori Peoples and its companion volume Settler and Migrant Peoples raise questions about the nature of nationhood. Are we to understand we are nothing more than a congeries of tribes or ethnicities? Certainly tribal identity has enjoyed resurgence over the past 30 years, but it has not been at the expense of a sense of a common Maori identity. The Maori nation might be a shadowy reality but neither its symbols nor its aspirations can be ignored. The very term “Maori” embraces all tangata whenua, including the growing numbers of “non-tribal” Maori like John Tamihere. The unqualified representation of Maori as simply tribal which Maori Peoples projects is in my view misleading.


Bernie Kernot is a Wellington reviewer.


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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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