Colliding pasts, Lydia Wevers

Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds
Anne Salmond
Auckland University Press, $65.00,
ISBN 9781869408657

 

The cover blurb suggests Tears of Rangi is Anne Salmond’s “most ambitious book to date”, and in many respects this is the case, since in it Salmond tackles vast epistemological and ontological questions to do with the nature of reality and knowledge. Part of the sequence of books beginning with Two Worlds in 1991, Tears of Rangi is a hefty tome (509 pages), but, like her previous books, it is compellingly readable. Salmond has the gift of narrative, and it probably helps that she is also a superb orator. She has given a number of presentations on the material covered in this book and draws large and appreciative audiences. I have located Tears of Rangi as part of the six-book sequence that began with Two Worlds because, like its predecessors, it focuses on the period of encounter and early colonisation in New Zealand and the Pacific, but she explicitly also draws on and references her 1980 Eruera: The Teachings of a Maori Elder. Eruera Stirling is implicitly and explicitly with Salmond as she traces and retells the early history of encounter from Tupaia to the signing of the Treaty. She opens by quoting him as her mentor, and closes with a two-page acknowledgement. Under the title “He Taonga Tipuna”, his kindly and handsome face (in a photograph by Marti Friedlander) smiles out on the last page of text, accompanied by a letter he wrote Salmond after the publication of Eruera: it is like a photograph in the wharenui, a symbolic textual architecture that delivers both the grace note of the text, but also its permission and authority. For Salmond here is taking on a very big role, which is to re-present that early history in its full Māori dimension, speaking for both sides in what she terms an “experiment across worlds”.

Tears of Rangi begins with Tupaia and his famous sketch of Joseph Banks and a Māori man exchanging gifts, which Salmond links to the concept of the hau, the Māori concept of life force (she uses the phrase the “wind of life”), a force which accompanies the exchange of gifts and signals the lifelong entanglement of donor and recipient. She explains the complex networks animated and calibrated by a concept such as hau which flows through everything, is connected to the creation of the world as it exists, reflects the state of health of the world and its systems and allows new forms of life to emerge. The idea of the hau introduces what is the overarching argument of the book, the collision of Eurocentric ways of thinking with Māori cosmology, conceptual knowledge and social practice and their percussive legacies.

The effects of Enlightenment thinking on indigenous peoples around the world is not new territory; it has been the preoccupation of anthropology, history and a range of other disciplines (sociology, education, for example) for several decades now and has been part of Salmond’s historical narratives since Two Worlds. In Tears of Rangi, she lays out Lockean philosophy, Cartesian logic, dualism, Foucault’s order of things, Blackstone’s legal commentaries and many other thinkers in order to illustrate, by example after example, how the clash of conception and preconception played out in the early Aotearoan world. The Eurocentric side of this dialectic focuses on ordering systems (the Great Chain of Being, taxonomies such as Linnaeus’s, gridded mapping and charting, hierarchies) and concepts such as property. The Māori side concentrates on concepts such as hau and shows how rhizomatic, open-ended and contingent networks flow across all dimensions of the material and immaterial world and result in very different ideas of self and country. What Salmond brings to the discussion and what gives it depth and texture is the wealth of detail she incorporates into her narrative.

Salmond’s reading and research are prodigious, and because she has been dealing with this historical period for almost three decades now she has what is probably an unparalleled grasp of the archive. There are lots of things to relish and think about. For instance, how venereal diseases were known as the “Europe god” by Māori. How easy it was to insult Māori by not being generous enough with your gifts. (What were the “miserly gifts” given by the Church Missionary Society to Hongi and Waikato in 1820? What was the inadequate food offered at the signing of the Treaty?) And think of the many meanings derived from the words for flax and flax-making: descent, authority, boundary ropes, kinship and alliance. The back cover of Tears of Rangi features a beautiful photograph with the miraculous clarity of a glass plate, by Salmond’s great grandfather James Ingram Macdonald, of an unnamed Whanganui woman’s midriff and her hands, which are holding the flax she is weaving. Metaphors of weaving, entangling and intertwining abound in the narrative as descriptors of Māori society, whanau, and physical existence while the narrative of dispossession builds. And it’s not as if Māori, who were not only highly intelligent but also far-sighted, were unaware of their dangers. As Salmond points out, they knew what had happened to Aboriginal people, and those intrepid Māori who visited Port Jackson and Samuel Marsden had seen at first hand what follows when Europeans arrive in numbers. By the time of the Treaty, they were caught between a rock and a hard place. Again, none of this is an unfamiliar story, rich though it is in detail, some of which was certainly new to me.

What is surprising in Tears of Rangi is how little explicit reference Salmond makes to the historiography. Of course, there are footnotes, and an extensive bibliography, especially of primary sources, but little actual reference to the not inconsiderable number of historians who have worked on this period. A notable example of this for me was the story of Thomas Kendall. One of the three men who founded a mission settlement at Rangihoua in 1814, Kendall wrote and published in Sydney the first book in Māori A korao no New Zealand; or, the New Zealander’s first book; being an attempt to compose some lessons for the instruction of the natives. Kendall’s efforts to understand te reo Māori resulted both in close friendships with Māori leaders such as Hongi, but also a shift in his cultural understanding and sympathy. The historian who first drew attention to Kendall as a figure of significant transculturation (“I have been so poisoned with the apparent sublimity of their ideas, that I have been almost completely turned from a Christian to a Heathen”) was Judith Binney, in her 1968 book Legacy of Guilt. Binney is not mentioned in the text (though she is footnoted) until almost the end of Tears of Rangi, and then it is for her monumental work on Tuhoe, Encircled Lands. I don’t mean to suggest by this that Salmond is unaware of these fellow labourers (she is not, and she is doing something different in any case), but it gives her book an “eye of god” register. Rather than showing the interweaving of historical research that constitutes the current landscape of Pākehā knowledge about these decades, she produces a magisterial narrative drawing principally on primary sources.

One of the things this raises for me is readership. Who is Salmond writing for? Where she is at her strongest and most interesting is in her etymological unfolding of te reo Māori and therefore te ao Māori. Concepts and world views are most fully elaborated in part two, “Rivers, Land, Sea and People”, her final four chapters, which take the colliding ontologies and epistemologies of encounter history into contemporary politics. It is fascinating to see how ideas that were troublesome from the start are still, and even more, troublesome now: the obvious one is concepts of land and land ownership, what it means and meant for Māori to transfer land to others and the extremely tangled history of property law and its abuses.

Salmond’s recent campaign to clean up rivers lies under her chapter “Tears of Rangi: Awa/Rivers”, where she describes the Tribunal hearings about the Whanganui and Waikato rivers and discusses the ownership of water. Each of these last chapters strongly links ancient Māori cosmology and beliefs with what Māori have to know to operate in the New Zealand legal system: how to apply legal arguments about property and title to progress their arguments through the courts. It is in these scenarios that the hybrid of Māori knowledge, their amazing capacity to retain the spirit and core of matauranga Māori while successfully and powerfully deploying European methodologies, shows most clearly. But it is also wearily and repeatedly shocking to see how the erosion of their traditional physical, spiritual and conceptual worlds has resulted in such continuing damage and mutilation to the polity, to Māori collectivity. As Salmond says, Māori ways of living and thinking, now as then, are rarely thought of as being on the same footing as Western modernity.

Tears of Rangi is a very accessible, well-written, richly detailed, magisterial narrative with a political agenda it drives home with punch. It will find many readers, as have Salmond’s other books, but I find myself wondering who those readers are. This is not just an idle question, which it may seem to be, for I am a reader, though I would describe myself as a critical reader, in dialogue with the text. But the text does not invite dialogue as it might if Salmond interpolated other scholars more liberally into her text, or did a bit of arguing with them herself. A general reader (a term I have difficulty with because I never know who fits this troublesome description) with not much historical reading might not realise the extent to which the European history of encounter has been researched and examined. Instead, the reader is in Salmond’s hands as she unfolds a great and continuing debate. There is no doubt what we are to think about this, and politically I agree with where Tears of Rangi takes me, but historical narratives are always also blurry, provisional, the examples spill over the available categories or rhizomes and rewrite them, as Kendall saw himself to be doing, and any narrative depends on the contingencies of the person doing the writing. Salmond is explicitly sheltered by her tipuna and follows in his path, but I would have liked some more signalling of the other paths that cross with hers.

Lydia Wevers is a Wellington writer and researcher.

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