Getting the archive to the people, Matariki Williams

He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women’s Voices from the Nineteenth Century
Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869408664

This book is weighty with expectation, what unfolds within its covers being immediately problematised by the title, He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women’s Voices from the Nineteenth Century. The title is a subtle nod to the reality that the “voices” the book is highlighting have yet to be heard in broad New Zealand histories.

From the outset, the difficulty involved in providing these voices a platform is explored through the comprehensive introduction, “Voice, Text and the Colonial Archive”; as someone who has worked, studied, researched and written about that other institution of colonial making, the museum, my interest was piqued. There are many similarities between the content of the introduction and museum curatorial research. This is especially pertinent when navigating scattered and incomplete museum records. As a reader, it was my working knowledge of historical records that caused me to struggle as I continued reading, as the following chapters did not maintain my interest. However, two interactions I had during the reading of He Reo Wāhine altered my initial interpretation of the book and caused me to read it afresh.

A salient point is made in the introduction that personal bias has ramifications in the way in which archives and collections are built, and in how metadata is recorded. From a museum perspective, taonga Māori were, for the most part, collected by non-Māori, and associated information related to who the taonga were from, the use of the taonga, are largely missing from records, as these were deemed unimportant or irrelevant by colonial collectors. Bias is evident in other ways in the museum: as with the lesser-known voices of wāhine Māori in the colonial archive, there are fewer taonga related to wāhine Māori in museum collections, as the predominantly European men who were building collections tended to collect objects they found a familiarity with, that is, the objects of other men.

This is all to illustrate my awareness of how bias can influence the way museums and archives are built and, yet, in my first impression of He Reo Wāhine, I had ignored my own privilege in having immediate access to historical collections. It wasn’t until I talked with my aunty about the book that this became evident. My aunty, someone who does not work in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) sector, had picked up the book and remarked on how interesting it was, her favourite aspect being that she could open the book anywhere and be immersed in the details of a 19th-century Māori woman’s life.

This is a point that is reiterated by the authors in the epilogue: the book is an affirmation of these records, it reveals new avenues for future research to explore, to flesh out the existing histories of New Zealand women and include Māori voices.

In acknowledging the range of writing presented in He Reo Wāhine, and highlighting the enduring presence of their words, we must also recognise how these women’s words were mediated via official translations and records made by people representing the voices of these women. In the chapter “‘If I die, I am dying for the Lord’: Religion”, the relationship between Māori and settler missionaries is explored. The ōhākī, a person’s dying words, of some women are examined, the records of which were documented by missionaries who sought to convert Māori to their religions. It is in their favour to portray Māori women as repenting and accepting of these new Gods. This is but another moment in the book that suggests a close and critical read of institutional material. Given that the archive can be assumed to be authoritative, this is a crucial point to make.

For me, the most fascinating parts of He Reo Wāhine were in the moments where pre-contact tikanga intersected with the emerging dominance of the patriarchal, colonial society. One of these intersections was in the newcomers’ lack of understanding of karanga and whaikōrero, and how they influenced how colonial government officials saw, and received, information about Māori society. Those in positions of power were predominantly men who recognised themselves in the male kaikōrero, and as there was no European equivalent for a karanga to enable their understanding of a Māori woman’s mana and her symbiotic relationship with Māori men, wāhine Māori were overlooked. A quotation in the book illustrates how these societal changes came to influence a Māori woman’s sense of self-influence with a court recording stating: “Witness said she was no man, and could not answer politics, as she had to attend to household duties.” At face value, this could be read as the success of the introduced patriarchy making wāhine Māori subservient, but the way in which the authors have interpreted this is that the woman could be making a statement about how society is changing around her: she is aware of how she is becoming disenfranchised by societal change.

In a similar vein were the words left behind by a woman using the nom de plume “Hinemoa”. Hinemoa’s is an intimate insight into a hopeless situation, but, again, the enduring sense of pre-contact tikanga fascinate, and I am grateful to the authors for sharing her story.

Throughout He Reo Wāhine, the tenacious nature of wāhine Māori agitating for the betterment of their whānau and iwi is shown. Reading this tenacity was empowering, as their decades of writing led to tangible change for their people, and knowing that their mahi lives on in the archive continues that feeling. The breadth of writing forms uncovered by the authors is also to be commended as it acknowledges the range of ways in which these women communicated: from letters and petitions that adhere to the governmental structures they had to work within, to the many forms of waiata that most accurately reflected their emotions. However powerful their writing is, the stories illustrate the inflexible reality of their situations: “Women, along with men, were required to submit themselves to a judicial process over which they had little control in order to salvage what they could of their legal land rights.”

Hearing my aunty’s take on the book made me realise that, as a worker in these memory institutions, I have the ability to immerse myself in this history on a day-to-day basis. I can access these taonga in a way that the majority of New Zealanders can’t, and most likely never will. This is a major objective for the book, and one that was raised during a public talk given by one of the book’s authors, Angela Wanhalla. During question time, a wāhine from Ngāpuhi stood up to thank Wanhalla and also to ask, “This has highlighted the problem, but what is the solution?” She mentioned also how the effects of the events covered in the book – land loss, decline in political agency – were still being felt today, and continue to be aired during the Treaty settlement negotiation process.

It is a big question, but the answer came that the book is a starting-point. That, at its best, it will lead to further research, but it is crucial that our people are made aware that these archives exist. If we can’t get people to the archives, let’s get the archives to the people, through books like He Reo Wāhine. In this book, you will read of these women that I have deemed tenacious and relentless in their prolific letter-writing and petitioning; it must also be known how selfless a lot of their actions were. They were often writing for people other than just themselves. This is reflected in the book, and in what the authors have achieved in bringing these women to light.

I can’t think of any other recent book that I have read that so considerately takes readers through its research processes to outline the limitations encountered when researching in uncharted territories. This year marks the 125th anniversary of universal suffrage in Aotearoa. Already, there has been an upswell of publishing in recognition of accomplished New Zealand women; we must also remember what has been started with He Reo Wāhine; we must remember these wāhine and their words that persist, lest they go quiet again.

Matariki Williams (Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue) is a Curator Mātauranga Māori at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Editor – Kaupapa Māori at the critical arts forum The Pantograph Punch, and guest-editor for RNZ’s The Wireless.

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