Working with those who talk back, Paul Diamond

Tuamaka: The Challenge of Difference in Aotearoa New Zealand
Joan Metge
Auckland University Press, $29.99,
ISBN 9781869404680


Growing up in Pukekohe during WWII, Joan Metge wanted to be an archaeologist. When a family friend said, “Wouldn’t you get more out of working with people who could talk back?” she turned to anthropology. She enrolled in geography (anthropology being as yet unavailable at Auckland University College) and completed an MA in 1951 – the first year the stage one paper in anthropology was offered.  Anthropology gave Metge the opportunity to find out more about a Maori world she had glimpsed as a child in South Auckland, and this, not some overseas people, became her focus of study.

In 1953, Metge began a field study of Maori urban migration to Auckland city, extending it in 1955 to a rural Northland community she called Kotare. This saw the beginning of a “lifelong pattern of alternating fieldwork in Maori communities with sharing my developing understanding of Maori life and worldview with members of the wider society”.

Publications have been one way Metge has shared her understanding. Her first book (A New Maori Migration: Rural and Urban Relations in Northern New Zealand) was based on her doctoral thesis, completed at the London School of Economics and supervised by ex-pat luminary Raymond Firth. This was followed by The Maoris of New Zealand (1967; revised 1976; reprinted 2004). The broad scope of these early works reflects the dearth of material about Maori society when Metge began her work.

Over time, Metge’s publications focused on more specific aspects of Maori society, including cross-cultural communication; the many meanings of whanau; and aspects of cultural concepts such as whakama. This collection of six essays revisits themes and topics explored in her earlier work and offers new insights.

The articles are based on (mostly unpublished) talks; some have been revised and expanded for this book. Tuamaka refers to the name for a rope plaited in the round from five or six strands of flax fibre. Flax and rope metaphors occur frequently in Metge’s writing, consistent with her recurring theme of the potential for Maori and Pakeha elements to be combined into a more powerful, richer whole:

Complete in themselves, the six essays in this book are related to each other by a shared focus on the central issues of nation-building in Aotearoa New Zealand. They make particular reference to the Treaty of Waitangi, the challenges and rewards of cross-cultural encounter, and recognition of Maori culture as a national resource. Their emphasis is positive and forward-looking: what we can do to turn our difficulties into assets.


Tuamaka opens with an essay (“Turangawaewae: The Trick of Standing Upright Here”) offering a different take on Curnow’s famous poem. It utilises three bodies of local knowledge: self-knowledge; knowledge of the land; and knowledge of the peoples of the land, including Maori and Pakeha. All three, argues Metge, have the potential to be woven together “like the strands in a taura whiri, the Maori metaphor of the plaited rope”.

Language, a particular area of interest for Metge, is addressed in three essays. In “Whakatauki: Wisdom in Proverbs”, she sheds light on some of the many traditional sayings used by Maori storytellers and orators. Storytelling is further explored in “Korero Purakau: Time and the Art of Maori Storytelling”.

“Huarangatia: Maori Words in New Zealand English”, the longest essay in the collection, is a fascinating examination of the often-cited phenomenon of Maori words becoming part of New Zealand English. Metge looks at 23 words for key Maori concepts to understand this process whereby “the language of a politically dominant majority [is] made distinctive by the incorporation of words from the indigenous minority”.

It’s more common to see the process in reverse, and the New Zealand situation is highly unusual in the Pacific and possibly in the world. As Metge explains, this doesn’t mean the process has been straightforward or identical for all words. The meanings of some Maori words have changed, and sometimes words are misinterpreted. Utu, most commonly translated as revenge, ignores other important dimensions of the term. Metge argues that the close association of kaumatua with the English words elder and elderly in the minds of most non-Maori leads to unfortunate misunderstandings, for example, “when non-Maori attach a minimum age of 65 or 70 to the category, fail to recognise the status of Maori leaders in their 50s, or expect all elderly Maori to be knowledgeable about things Maori”.

Metge’s observations of changes in the meaning of words point to changes in Maori society. In the 1950s, for example, hui almost always referred to special gatherings held on marae, with associated reciprocal relationships between the participants. Over time, the word hui has “escaped not only from its marae base but from the Maori cultural context”, and is now used to refer to “gatherings of all sorts, whether or not they are even organised or even attended by Maori”.

Similarly, changes in references to powhiri illustrate how “the function of the powhiri has changed from being the prologue to a hui to a symbolic acknowledgement of the existence and status of the tangata whenua in a general context.” Insights such as these illustrate the value of Metge’s approach and counter criticism (in reviews of some of her books) that she hasn’t kept abreast of changes over time.

“Anga a Mua: Living History”, the final essay in Tuamaka, is a poignant overview of Metge’s work, delivered at the 2009 Stout Research Centre conference (not in 2008, as listed in Tuamaka). The title alludes to the approach Metge used to gain the trust and co-operation of her fieldwork informants:

It took two years of trying before I finally hit upon an explanation that made sense to Maori listeners. “Well,” I said, “I am writing history as it happens, so that one day your mokopuna [grandchildren] will be able to read what life was like for you.” The moment I said it I recognised an important addition to my initial aim of helping Pakeha officials and politicians better understand Maori migrants and their needs.


This approach also helped bridge the gap between anthropologists and historians. Paradoxically, Metge’s work is more likely to be prescribed by university departments other than anthropology. It has remained relevant. Perhaps, as she has wryly noted, “it is simply a matter of surviving long enough to become history.”

Metge’s zeal for communicating her research has been combined with a gift for lucid writing. Like her other works, these essays are easy to read, sometimes deceptively simple, layers of meaning becoming apparent after more than one reading. In a 2000 radio interview, Metge noted two of her outstanding qualities were curiosity and stubbornness. To this must be added a finely honed skill in cross-cultural communication – her work can be read as a primer for how to engage with Maori. Whatever the context, similar underlying tenets apply. In the essay about whakatauki, for example, she argues that Pakeha should appreciate the richness of Maori literature and culture:

There is, however, a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Appropriation means to take over as your own: when done without regard to the rights of the original owners it is damaging to both parties and especially to the relationship between them. The best safeguard against this is for Pakeha to work in partnership with Maori: to go to Maori experts for instruction and explanation, to check back with them when venturing into the field of interpretation, and to support them in the continuing struggle to keep the language alive.


While this advice remains sound, applying it in practice may be difficult in a contemporary Maori society where experts are thin on the ground or may not live in their tribal areas.

Like Michael King, and other Pakeha who have worked in the Maori world, Metge has been challenged, and several instances are recounted in this collection. In each case, the effort she had put into building relationships enabled her to weather the storm and continue working. It’s a valuable lesson for anyone venturing into the same territory.

Tuamaka is thoroughly referenced, and, apart from a missing note in the “Huarangatia” essay, is well presented. Despite a vastly different context, Metge’s research, and in particular her approach to working with and understanding Maori, remains valid and important. Association with Maori, maintains Metge, encourages flexibility of mind, and her work exemplifies this. Scholarship and race relations in this country have benefited from her decision not to follow a childhood interest in ancient Egypt, Crete, Greece and Rome, choosing instead to study Maori and sharing her insights.


Paul Diamond is a Wellington reviewer.

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Posted in Essays, History, Lecture, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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