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St. Andrew's on the Terrace Winter Lecture

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 4 July 1989
The Hon and the Rt Rev Sir Paul Reeves, GCMG, GCVO, QSO

Each year on the fourth Saturday in June the Taranaki tribes meet at Manukorihi Pa, Waitara, to observe Pomare Day. We gather inside the meeting house, Te Ikaroa a Maui, the great fish of Maui. The tekoteko at the apex is Maui himself, standing firmly with his fishing line and hook. Just below him is a figure representing Sir Maui Pomare who out of the heavy sea of racial conflict hauled up the fish which is the Taranaki Māori Trust Fund, the acknowledgement in 1936 of injustice committed in 1859. Inside, the house is richly carved and decorated. Among the figures represented there, Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake who resisted at Waitara in 1859 and Titokawaru catch the eye.

Over the years the weather has remained consistently cold and windy. My impression is that more people are turning up each year and a fuller programme may soon be called for. We spend the day together but it is the spirit of other men, their words and their history which bind us. Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kaakahi, the two prophets of Parihaka who stoutly and passively resisted the influx of settlers in the 1870s, these are the ones whose influence is strong. Their sayings are recounted and present day situations are assessed in the light of what they stood for. The women present wear the raukura, the three white feathers, in their hair. And then before the hakari, a large group of women, children and young men sing waiata and perform the poi which belong to Parihaka and tell of Te Whiti and his sayings. The sound and actions owe nothing to modern Māori equivalents, but through them an ancestor rises up and faces us. There used to be a fife band at Parihaka. That has gone but the bass drum remains and is beaten steadily and rhythmically.

Two books have just been published about Taranaki history, and my relatives are a little nervous and so am I. Hazel Riseborough has written Days of Darkness: Taranaki 1878 - 1884, which deals with Parihaka, the government of the day, confiscation and imprisonment. The author in her preface says "This study does not seek to probe the philosophy behind Māori responses to injustice; that story remains to be told by those who have a right to tell it." Those should be comforting words but I doubt whether my relatives will ever read them. The other book is about Titokawaru, the warrior whose figure is in the meeting house at Waitara. I Shall Not Dieby James Belich elegantly and clearly tells a story about conflict in Taranki between 1868 and 1869. Jock Phillips in a review says Belich "never allows himself the novelist's licence to enter the mind of his character and outrun the evidence." My relatives would be comforted by that, but their uneasiness remains, even though James Belich worked closely with the late Ruka Broughton, a man steeped in Taranaki history and tradition.

In the meeting house on Pomare Day, someone was repeating sayings of Tohu, giving an interpretation of their meaning and using that as a guide for the present. What he said received wide agreement and someone else stood up and added something Te Whiti said. This was not a neutral telling of history. In Albert Wendt's phrase, "we are what we remember, society is what we remember."

But now, it is as if our history is running loose around in the bookshops and the libraries and has a life independent of us. Hazel Riseborough and James Belich have written admirable books and I have read them both. My relatives feel though that the public at large is more likely to believe what is written in a book than what is told from one person or one group to another. It is not simply a question of accuracy, rather one of authority or mana. Hazel Riseborough recognises this. She says "documentary sources may enable us to say what Te Whiti did but not why. Elaborating the 'why' is a task for his uri, his descendants, using sources properly available on to them and giving a Māori view of the years in question " But Maoris retain much of their history in oral tradition and I doubt whether they are going to distill that into a book. What must be acknowledged is that to neglect Māori sources is to neglect half the Parihaka story. The permission and co-operation of those who guard this body of oral literature won't be obtained easily or quickly.

Can I also say how hard it is to correct an error once it has appeared in print. Eric Ramsden, in 1933, wrote of a Waikato meeting house, part of which he claimed was carved by Princess Te Puea. In fact, he was quite mistaken, but the error was perpetuated for more than 40 years by W. J. Phillips, Anne Salmond and John Cresswell. In the oral tradition, someone would have stood up and contradicted the statement.

Here is a lengthy quotation from Judith Binney.

"There have been two remembered histories of New Zealand since 1840: that of the colonisers and that of the colonised. Their visions and goals were often quite different, creating memories which have been patterned by varying hopes and experiences. The Māori oral histories of these events have been largely suppressed histories although they live in their own world. In the twentieth century it is the European written histories which have dominated. Hone Mohe Tawhai accurately predicted, while considering whether or not to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, that the sayings of the Māori would "sink to the bottom like a stone" while the sayings of the Pakehas would "float light like the wood of the wau tree and always remain to be seen."

Oral history deals with listeners rather than readers. Elsdon Best records that when he was Secretary to the Land Commission, an old man recited 406 songs for him from memory, a genealogy which took 3 days to recite and included over 1400 persons in proper sequences and much other evidence on the occupation of certain lands. Oral history presupposes a community that gathers in order to hear. The narrator is firmly within his own narrative. Events are described in which he took part but which may have occurred before the narrator was born. The event has become part of his life. The experience of his ancestors is met face to face. Māori oral history conveys what is seen to be the essence and wisdom of human experience to those who are living and listening. There is a focus on whanau and hapu; whakapapa or genealogy is important; the transference of many by successive generations is important.

The oral nature of Māori culture is an issue which is at the heart of the present debate about the Treaty of Waitangi. D. F. McKenzie says the Treaty "offers a prime example of European assumptions about the comprehension, status and binding power of written statements and written consent on the one hand as against the flexible accommodations of oral consensus on the other." However, if we can better understand how the oral and literary traditions were operating when the Treaty was signed, we may be able to work out how the compact could be reconstructed and interpreted.

Wednesday 5 February 1840 was a particularly fine day in the Bay of Islands. A large decorated marquee had been erected on the lawn in front of Busby's house at Waitangi and people were gathering in large numbers to discuss a proposed Treaty between Queen Victoria of England and the Māori Chiefs. Proceedings opened with Hobson explaining the purpose of the meeting and then Henry Williams read the Māori text. For 5 hours the chiefs debated the proposal. Initially those opposed spoke strongly and at length. Later, other chiefs, all supporters of the English missionaries, managed to swing the mood of the meeting towards Hobson who nevertheless was far from sure that the chiefs would sign the Treaty. Later that day and on the southern side of the Waitangi river, Maoris continued to discuss the issue. That discussion went on late but by the morning of Thursday 6 February, the chiefs had decided that the Treaty should be settled straightaway. Food was running short and people were beginning to drift away.

For the Maoris present at Waitangi, the public debate and subsequent decision about the Treaty of Waitangi was an oral exercise carried out in front of Busby's house and at the hui later that night. The decision to go along with the Treaty was agreed to by the consensus of the Maoris present. They talked the matter through. The actual signing of the document was a reflection of the consensus already reached. The 5th and 6th of February 1840 was significant for its oratory and the document we call the Treaty of Waitangi is a witness to only part of what was discussed.

The Waitangi Tribunal has said that "A Māori approach to the Treaty would imply that its wairua or spirit is something more than a literal construction of the actual words used can provide. The spirit of the Treaty transcends the sum total of its component written words and puts narrow or literal interpretations out of place."

People talk about the principles of the Treaty, whatever they may be. Principles usually flow out of documentary history and legal process. On the other hand, Maoris talk about the spirit of the Treaty and that speaks of an oral tradition which encompasses debate and consensus. The spirit of the Treaty can be recovered only if the Treaty text is regarded not simply as words put together by Hobson, Busby, Williams and others but also as a product of a social situation faced by Maoris and Pakehas at that time.

My prime focus is not on the Treaty of Waitangi as such but on an oral tradition which is alive and functioning in this country. We can say too that the history of the Māori and the history of the Pakeha over the past 150 years are histories which interact. Ultimately, they are not separate histories. At some time John Bryce confronts Te White just as Titokawaru eludes McDonnell. Much of the evidence being presented to the Waitangi Tribunal is a narrative of events shared between Māori and Pākehā. It is not a case of Māoris churning up history which is theirs and theirs alone.

The telling of history, whether it be oral or written, has never been neutral. If there was one objective truth there would be no need for histories. But history always reflects the priorities and perceptions of the narrator. Life is like that so why should history be any different? But if the perceptions contained within a Māori oral tradition could be revealed, perhaps the dominant culture would change its attitudes about its possession of "truth". Perhaps it will become more receptive to new insights. A start has been made. Judith Binney and Michael King are historians who have written books which owe much to oral accounts. Binney reports a positive response by Maoris to her work on the prophet Rua. The dominant culture may also find that leaders revered in the Māori oral tradition, figures such as Aperahama Taonui or Tawhiao, are barely known to New Zealand as a whole.

As a further example, let's take the issue of land. When Marsden bought 200 acres of land at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands in 1814, he paid 12 axes for it, a potent symbol of the deforestation of New Zealand and the pastoral economy to come. The 19th Century immigrants yearned to create in this new land the old rural virtues being lost in England - a house, a garden, a home. Grass was more valuable than trees. The impenetrable bush seemed so different from English deciduous forests. It harboured the things which threatened the realisation of the settler's dream.

A traditional relationship of people and the land can be likened to "partners in marriage". But in 19th Century New Zealand and in the words of the French socialist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhou, people were attached to the land "as they are to a tool or even less than that, to something which enables them to levy a certain revenue each year".

We can understand how people would want to adapt the environment to their own needs and cultural expectations. As Robert Frost said of America:

"The land was ours before we were the land's
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people."

But attitudes are changing. Recently, I heard Professor John Morton on the radio asking, "When I own a title to land, what should it let me do? How free should a freehold be? Here at home we could do with an ethic of the land. We might come to see our land more as an ongoing heritage less as an investment to yield the best profit in the shortest time

We know that nature, conservation and sustainability are not issues confined to far off places like National Parks. We know that vast plantations of the ubiquitous pine tree flatten the hills and ridges and as the landscape becomes uniform, the stories and history which belonged to each piece of land disappear. But there is also a Māori spirituality emphasised again and again in oratory. Peaks, rivers and features are named to commemorate ancestors. The link between land and ancestry is continually emphasised. My whakapapa or genealogy links me not only with my ancestors but also with the whole of creation. This kinship relationship with the natural order provides the framework for the way a Māori sees the world.

How do we move these two traditions, one post-colonial and largely literate, the other indigenous and largely oral, towards each other? "Contact", said the psychologist Fritz Perls, "begins in the appreciation of difference." That is where we are now. Gradually the dominant group in this country is sensing that the Māori oral tradition and the spirituality that goes with it tells its own distinctive very of what is a shared historical experience. We are beginning to loosen up.

I was asked to look into the future of our country and the options before us. Frankly, I am equally concerned with where we have come from, what we are becoming and what's going on in our minds at the moment. But ahead of us, I see an unending process of discovering and responding. The specific agenda may involve Māori self-determination, industrial relationships, the administration of justice, international relationships and so on. What I don't see is an end to this process. A healthy society is one which handles this process properly. The journey is as important as the destination.

Every now and than the foundations of our world shake and open up space for our imaginations. People sense this undercurrent of instability and this is our history. A New Zealand Herald editorial of 1925 said "All is yet molten, mercurial. There are more departures to make than precedents to follow. To have a history may be an old land's glory and safeguard; to make history is a new land's perilous employment."

If that is what we have to do, then we must learn from each other. And for that to happen we must be motivated by our hopes and not held back by our fears.

Last updated: 
Tuesday, 4 July 1989

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