Tangata ora, Matariki Williams

Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History
Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris
Bridget Williams Books, $100.00,
ISBN 9781927131411

The final chapter of the weighty Tangata Whenua is titled “Tangata Whenua, Tangata Ora”, and the book could just as easily have been called that. Throughout the three millennia that are chronicled, an overwhelming theme of the book is that Māori endure, adapt, and live. Any student of New Zealand history will have heard the unfortunate phrase uttered in 1856 by physician and politician Dr Isaac Featherston, that it was the duty of Europeans to “smooth down … [the] dying pillow” for Māori. His was a viewpoint brought forth by the belief that the indigenous population could not withstand European conquest and disease. What more of a testament to Māori endurance can there be than the release of a book detailing the way in which Māori live, nigh on 150 years after that phrase was uttered?

Tangata Whenua is a triptych of insights into te ao Māori (the Māori world) from a trio of authors, each an authority in their fields. With a chronology that echoes the time periods based on the growth metaphors developed by Hirini Moko Mead in Landmarks, Bridges and Visions (1997), we are taken from the ancient beginnings of modern day Māori by Atholl Anderson (Ngāi Tahu) in “Te Ao Tawhito: The Old World”. The late Judith Binney picks up the timeline at 1820 in her chapter, “Te Ao Hou: The New World, before we reach the final section a century later with Aroha Harris (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) in “Te Ao Hurihuri: The Changing World.

Linear narratives when presented like this can imply a simplified version of history. These narratives may cause readers to think that change is captured within these time periods, that the creation of a new world for Māori all occurred within the century 1820-1920, when, in reality, the strings of history weave their way throughout time. Though Tangata Whenua does use this narrative structure within its chapter headings, there are overlaps throughout and constant references to the future to reinforce the point that history continues to influence contemporary Māori society. By including the “Across Time” pauses throughout the chapters, bridges are made wherein photos of ancient taonga tūturu are juxtaposed with their 21st-century counterparts rendered in plastic; it is, after all, an illustrated history. However, it is just as much a material history, and the photos beautifully encapsulate the material ways in which Māori culture and society has changed. The material culture of Māori is important to note as the majority of the photographs depict aspects of it, and if taonga is not independently shown, then people are wearing taonga or are in proximity to taonga. Aside from the linguistic and archaeological evolution that is covered, this is another measure for how Māori have adapted to physical and cultural changes in society.

A striking example of these constant adaptations is carving style. Māori carvings, painted in the ubiquitous ochre red, are familiar and highly recognisable symbols of taonga Māori. This dominant version of carvings flooded the market when it found trade and economic favour with settlers. At the same time, they are symbolic of the way in which Māori carving innovation was arrested by the demands of the market. The ubiquity of this familiar style makes the earliest known examples of Māori carving more breathtaking in their distinctness. Included in the book is a well-known example: a waka found at Anaweka in the South Island featuring a turtle carved in a naturalistic style. The waka is the kind of object that proponents of the field of material culture studies (myself included) dream of, as the very materiality of the waka provides profound insights into the culture it is born from. Modern-day carbon dating places the waka as being from about AD1400, close enough to the migration from East Polynesia for the turtle to be in the “craft memory of tangata whenua” (as it is termed in the book in reference to other early carvings). The waka, though, is carved from mataī, so was definitely made in Aotearoa, but is of a style that was used in the long, migratory voyages across Polynesia. By adding this material knowledge to some of the oral cultural traditions that speak of travel back to the mythical Hawaiiki, the significance of Anaweka is undeniable to Māori carving history, but it also gives Māori mythology a tangible presence.

There is a statement by American museum professional Kathleen McLean in a 1999 article, “Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue”, that I hold dear. McLean describes the duties of museums as twofold: enticing people in with the stories they hold and having them return through what they have seen. Specifically, she states that, though museums can attract people from a variety of backgrounds, “Whether they return will depend, to a great extent, on whether they can make personal connections and see something of themselves within.” Tangata Whenua has left me with a similar feeling. There is a homogeneity ascribed to Māori as a people that I find reductive in respect to the multiplicity of Māori experiences and Māori identities. Tangata Whenua has gone to great lengths to ensure that many of these stories have been told. When I look at the photographs of carvings I can see my marae, with the rakau whakapapa I can visualise my Koro working his fingers along his own rakau as he recounts the generations of our tipuna. In the final chapters, the authors write about the movies and music that I have seen and listened to, each of which are Māori stories told by Māori voices.

Every time I open Tangata Whenua this happens. I find something new to expose preconceived notions of my identity and something that reaffirms it. This homogeneity of Māori experience that I so often rail against is presented in a new package here: Tangata Whenua reinforces the inalienability of historic ideas of Māori to Māori identity and tells us that this is not a bad thing; that Māori are both the sum and parts of our culture. One aspect that I would like to see more of is the experience of Māori overseas. As of 2013, one in five Māori lived in Australia, with significant populations in the United Kingdom and the United States. What does their Māori experience look like in comparison to Māori in New Zealand? Do Māori born overseas consider themselves tangata whenua of a land they may never have visited?

Throughout Tangata Whenua there is a subtle tension between the oral history and culture of Māori and Western viewpoints and histories. Anderson’s penultimate chapter begins with the following passage:

In archaeology, tangata whenua are mere shadows conjured up around material remains, and even in the web of tradition they are caught simply by ancestral name and event. It is only in the journals and sketches of early European visitors that a contemporary record begins of people as individuals and groups; emotionally expressive, ritually constrained, acting socially, reacting politically and interacting with visitors.

Being challenged to view your culture from a school of thought that is derived from outside your culture can be a difficult process, and is something that I was taught to do by Peter Adds during my Māori Studies undergraduate degree. Every year, he tasks his third-year class to challenge their accepted notions of tikanga, notions passed down by respected whānau members, many of whom are the keepers of iwi knowledge. He argues that we should supplement this knowledge with information from other fields of study to gain new insights into tightly-held tikanga. Tangata whenua, in the passage from Anderson’s chapter, are studied from a Western field of knowledge (archaeology) and supplemented by records of contemporaneous Western insights.

Just as tribal histories diverge from one another, so, too, do the records of early encounters. Personal proclivities and interests in particular stories mean that a lot of what was heard by Tupaia (James Cook’s Tahitian translator) was not passed on, nor was it probed by Cook. These points aren’t explicitly made in Tangata Whenua, but the book itself is a rectification of this, a sublime blend of taonga, Western knowledge and inherited Māori stories made into a form that is uniquely Māori. This book reifies this aim from the outset, with Anderson beginning his chapter with the mythological origins of Rangiātea and Papatūānuku before delving into archaeological and linguistic records to fill out the story of Māori origins. This approach is reflected by the artwork that is included throughout: contemporary Māori artists draw on mythology and traditional forms constantly to inform their own practices. A cursory glance through the book will provide many examples in which Māori artists have proven that artistic innovation is alive and well.

Living as a Māori woman in modern New Zealand society means that I read Tangata Whenua through a particular lens. When I read about the matrilineal and matrilocal origins of our culture, I find a counterpoint to the arguments that Māori society undermines women’s rights by not letting women stand on a marae. I am then disheartened to read further on that, in the emerging Māori society, women no longer took their land with them into marriage and precedence of power lay with males. Reading Tangata Whenua as a member of the living Māori culture means that the earlier chapters are reflected upon in interesting ways, because the identity I have today doesn’t match this ancient identity, but I am provided with a lot of food for thought about how it evolved from it. Given the constant glimpses into the future, I reflect on how the past has impacted on contemporary society and how it has resulted in what we are today. Perhaps greatest of all revelations given by this book is that Tangata Whenua is a kaupapa Māori publication in the purest sense of the word: it is Māori stories told in a multiplicity of Māori voices, but it is for everyone.

Matariki Williams (Tūhoe, Ngāti Whakaue, Taranaki, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Hauiti, Te Ati Hau) graduated with her Masters in Museums and Heritage Studies in 2015 and works at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 

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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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