‘Our ultimate duty’

Defending the integrity of Māori tradition

Nā Dr Michael Stevens, Emeritus Professor Atholl Anderson and Professor Te Maire Tau

In 1991, Tipene O’Regan stood before New Zealand’s leading historians and delivered the J. C. Beaglehole Lecture. It was a pivotal time. The dust had barely settled on the sesquicentenary of signing Te Tiriti and the government had granted the Waitangi Tribunal retrospective powers of enquiry a mere six years earlier.

Difficult questions were being asked of those who researched, wrote and taught New Zealand history; members of Tipene’s audience chief amongst them. Then, as now, these people were overwhelmingly Pākehā. And they were being variously called out for “white-washing” New Zealand history – which is to say continuing to exclude the Māori past – and cultural appropriation – which is to say “doing” Māori history.

The emerging shape of the nascent Treaty claims process and the resultant relationship between the discipline of history, the legal profession, and national political discourse, was a source of further angst. Tipene’s address was confronting and comforting. Confronting in that it challenged his peers to approach, analyse and disseminate Māori history on its own terms. In other words, to properly understand and utilise the skeletal framework of whakapapa. As Atholl Anderson observed much later, in a parallel defence of the historicity of Māori tradition, whakapapa can be tested independently of narrative but narrative detached from whakapapa loses its only reliable means of authentication. In Atholl’s words, ‘the more crucial data was always genealogical and geographical.’

The comfort Tipene brought to his audience was his assertion that any one of them was capable of examining traditional Māori history in the way he prescribed. It was fundamentally a question of how rather than who. As he put it, such matters do ‘not require a deep esoteric knowledge or the deep spiritual insights of the guru … whakapapa is not a mystery, it is essentially a task of intellectual management.’ Equally encouraging for his listeners was his belief, one not shared by all Māori scholars, that the study of Māori tradition can be enriched by academic disciplines from anatomy to ethnobotany.

Was Tipene trying to appease the Pākehā intelligentsia and placate his audience by saying what he thought they wanted to hear? No. Nothing of the sort. His overriding aim – then and now – was the ‘development of a disciplined scholarship of Māori’ and the chasing out of ‘mystical and invented nonsense.’

His lecture was, at its core, a passionate defence of ‘the hard, grinding business of producing solid evidence about our past,’ and efforts by earlier generations of Māori scholars like Tā Āpirana Ngata, Tā Rangi Hīroa and Pei Te Hurinui Jones. It was a total rejection of ‘the surge of mysticism’ that fills too many of our books, libraries and museums, and a great many heads of the great unwashed. The Ancient Nation of Waitaha crypto-history was a case in point. Although despondent about this retrograde activity – which he rightly described as ‘far worse than the inventions and extrapolations of the [Elsdon] Best and Percy [Smith] era’ – Tipene was confident that ‘in the very long-term, the careful and systematic methodology of scholarship will prevail over mystical nonsense.’ However, the ‘trouble is that it is a very long term, and there are a lot of lives and a large cultural identity that will be fed with inadequate and wrongly based knowledge in the meantime.’

What to do about this situation? The solution, as he saw it – as he sees it – is twofold. First, apply scholarly standards to Māori tradition and history which ‘is, at root, the only weapon we have with which to defend the integrity of the Māori memory.’ Second, while it is a ‘difficult task … to prevent rubbish from being published,’ when it occurs ‘it behoves the academic community and the tribes to denounce it very clearly as such, and if possible, to prevent its ongoing dissemination.’

Why does Tipene feel so strongly about these matters? Why should we? What, in other words, is at stake? In his view, ‘Ngāi Tahu heritage and history is part of our rangatiratanga’ and as such the ‘iwi must find ways to bring [its] intellectual and cultural property … under some greater control’ (while preventing the creation of what Atholl once called ‘a committee of cultural commissars’). In short, Ngāi Tahu needs ‘a rigorous and culturally inclusive scholarship and our ultimate duty is to protect it.’

That sense of duty drove Tipene and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu to establish Te Pae Kōrako, the Ngāi Tahu Archive Advisory Committee, in 2012. Actively supported by several senior Ngāi Tahu figures and scholars over the last decade, many of whom have since passed away, Te Pae Kōrako has overseen the development of Kā Huru Manu (www.kahurumanu.co.nz), Kareao (www.kareao.nz), volumes 1 and 2 of Tāngata Ngāi Tahu, and helped shape the ‘Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories’ curriculum. This same sense of duty further explains why we – Michael Stevens, Te Maire Tau and Atholl Anderson along with Puamiria Parata-Goodall and Tā Tipene O’Regan – were compelled to respond to a problematic article that the Royal Society Te Apārangi published in June 2021.

As Te Rangi Hīroa remarked nearly a century ago in 1926, ‘Sometimes we, or the Maori themselves, read into a tradition something that the original narrators of the tradition never attempted to convey.’

Written by a senior academic at the University of Otago, Priscilla Wehi, and six co-authors, this article advanced several spurious claims. Chief amongst them was that Polynesian explorers, beginning with a navigator named Hui te Rangiora, journeyed from Rarotonga into Antarctic waters ‘and perhaps even the continent likely in the early seventh century.’ The authors’ evidence? Their own inferences drawn from 1890s English translations by Percy Smith of Rarotongan narratives recorded in the 1860s. As we noted, with characteristic restraint, the authors presented this “traditional” material without nuance, qualification or critique, and based extraordinary claims upon it without commensurable evidence. For example, how the extreme practical difficulties of sailing a Polynesian waka to and through subpolar westerlies might have been overcome.

Our view is that these Rarotongan traditions need to be critically evaluated, which is how we approached them. Having done so, we found the authors’ assertions debatable on key points of interpretation and plausibility. As Te Rangi Hīroa remarked nearly a century ago in 1926, ‘Sometimes we, or the Maori themselves, read into a tradition something that the original narrators of the tradition never attempted to convey.’

As he explained, different methods of speech and forms of expression have to be considered and one ‘must be careful of the overlying strata of popular exaggeration and modern interpretation that have been superimposed on the original narrative.’ According to Te Rangi Hīroa, such recent ideas lead to ‘erroneous explanations … that throw discredit on the truth of tradition.’ We cannot agree more.

In summary, we think the Hui te Rangiora narrative is more mythic or legendary as an origin story, than historical as a voyaging narrative. Taking our methodological cue from Te Rangi Hīroa, we did not find any reference to Hui te Rangiora sailing to Antarctica. The shortfalls that led to this situation might be of only passing interest to Ngāi Tahu whānui. However, three of the article’s seven authors were employed by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and their institutional affiliations are listed, in posterity, as such. Media coverage of the article described Te Rūnanga as co-leading the project from which the article stemmed. Ngāi Tahu whānui ought to be interested and concerned.

What was the nature and extent of the media coverage this article generated? It was, unfortunately, uncritical and celebratory. News outlets throughout New Zealand and around the world lauded the prowess of pre-modern Polynesian voyaging and the capacity of indigenous knowledge to survive colonial marginalisation and speak truth to patriarchal Western power on the dawn of the Anthropocene of its own making. A year later, the original article has been viewed nearly a whopping 19,000 times: a career-enhancing statistic by any measure.

How did the Royal Society respond to our request to publish a critical response to Wehi et al? To put it politely, utterly inconsistently with academic conventions, the principle of open debate, and the society’s stated aim of advancing and promoting the pursuit of knowledge. This attitude was unexpected, especially by Atholl and Tipene, a Fellow and Companion respectively of the Royal Society.

It was only our dogged determination that led to the eventual publication of our reply in September 2021. This has been viewed little more than 450 times, bringing to mind the quip of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, that ‘A lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.’

Fortunately, a companion article we submitted to an academic journal managed by the Scott Polar Research Institute and published by Cambridge University Press fared much better.

In his seminal 1926 article The Value of Tradition in Polynesian Research, which we quote from above, Te Rangi Hīroa criticised scholars who considered tradition – which is to say, orally disseminated knowledge – so full of error that it is of little or no value in ethnological research. ‘This attitude of condemning, without investigation’, he wrote, ‘is, to say the least of it, unscientific.’ He was also critical of the same people who too readily accept as true ‘unverified print matter’, which he characterised as equally unscientific. Many of the Royal Society’s founders and subsequent luminaries, several of whom held key government positions in colonial New Zealand, operated exactly as Te Rangi Hīroa described. Indeed, several prominent New Zealand academics continue to hold such views. However, consistent with wider movements throughout the Anglosphere, the Royal Society has begun to unpack its role in the British colonisation of New Zealand and subjugation of Māori. This is laudable and sits behind the institution’s relatively new bicultural name.

No matter how well-intentioned this all might be, were he alive today, Te Rangi Hīroa would likely have some difficulties with how institutional biculturalism and “cultural awareness” has unfolded within the Royal Society, and for that matter, New Zealand’s universities. In short, uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection.

The society has also attempted to ‘unlock the innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people’ and ‘blend’ mātauranga Māori and Western science, which are suspiciously treated as bounded. No matter how well-intentioned this all might be, were he alive today, Te Rangi Hīroa would likely have some difficulties with how institutional biculturalism and “cultural awareness” has unfolded within the Royal Society, and for that matter, New Zealand’s universities. In short, uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection. Are there other options? What approach might Te Rangi Hīroa have preferred instead? Conceivably a model based on his passage Cross-Bearings on Tradition, which has much to like about it. Describing the Māori technique of using landmarks to generate cross-bearings and thereby record and re-locate fishing grounds, Te Rangi Hīroa wrote:

In Polynesian research, we are trying to locate some of the things that happened in the past. Tradition gives us one line along which we may venture forth, but we are not sure how far we should go. We require another line from the traditions of another branch of the race or from another branch of science. By such metaphorical cross bearings, we hope to locate the fishing grounds of the past.

This shows that not only was Te Rangi Hīroa not opposed to confirmation of Polynesian tradition through reference to other kinds of knowledge, but he felt such external cross-referencing was often crucial to the authentication and validation of Polynesian tradition. You will recall that Tipene made the same point in 1991 with respect to Māori history. And you are starting to see that these eminently reasonable positions and practices do not currently have the purchase they should within New Zealand. To quote Te Rangi Hīroa once more, ‘There are historians and — historians.’

Te Maire offers a useful four-stage chronology for analysing the Māori past. This runs from myth, to mytho-history, to historical events originally recorded orally, to history based on written sources.

Fortunately for Te Pae Kōrako and Ngāi Tahu, we are able to draw on several of our own historians, especially those who have consciously avoided the worst aspects of postmodern cultural history which has spawned many of the difficulties we refer to. Te Maire, for example, offers a useful four-stage chronology for analysing the Māori past. This runs from myth, to mytho-history, to historical events originally recorded orally, to history based on written sources.

Te Maire observes that mythical Māori figures – usually supernatural – explain natural phenomena or impart moral instruction. Mytho-historical figures, on the other hand, are based on actual Māori people, but these are so distant in time that their stories are encoded in mythic templates and often overlaid with symbols. For Te Maire, the historical realm begins with Māori who existed immediately prior to the sustained presence of Pākehā. These are putatively “retrievable tīpuna”. While recollections of these people contain smaller mythic or symbolic elements, he notes that details of them can be light because they were first encoded orally.

The historical realm, in contrast, is based almost entirely on written sources, which renders the Māori past more detailed and more accessible to present generations. Applying this approach to the Hui te Rangiora narrative, which is what we did, prevents it from being (mis)understood as literal history, while simultaneously protecting it against misplaced claims of total irrelevance by the sorts of people Te Rangi Hīroa took issue with. Again, you will recall that in his 1991 Beaglehole Lecture, Tipene told his mainly academic audience that they and their host institutions were, alongside iwi and hapū, obliged to call out scholarly ‘rubbish’ whenever it appeared in print and help prevent its circulation. With that in mind, what repercussions befall Wehi et al? Well, in November 2021, the Marsden Fund – administered by the Royal Society – awarded her and the University of Otago $660,000 for a project entitled Kaitiakitanga and Antarctic narratives. This aims to bring ‘ancestral methodologies, from pūrakau (stories) through to traditional and contemporary visual and sensory transformations of Māori knowledge, to bear on the urgent need for future reimagining of human and planetary futures.’

What can we conclude from this? Above all else, that in 2022, as in 1991, the state continues to invest significant amounts of taxpayer money into Māori-themed scholarship of questionable quality. Now, as then, Ngāi Tahu cannot rely on the New Zealand Government, or its system of higher education, to help uphold our rights and interests. At great expense to us, we ourselves are still the only ones actively protecting the integrity of our traditions and culture. That is the raison d’être of Te Pae Kōrako and the Ngāi Tahu Archive which, as with Ngāi Tahu Whakapapa and Kōtahi Mano Kāika, we will always need. Without them, we cannot hope to be a self-determining people. ‘Our ultimate duty’ indeed.

Select bibliography/further reading

Anderson, Atholl, Sir Tipene O’Regan, Puamiria Parata-Goodall, Michael Stevens, and Te Maire Tau. “On the improbability of pre-European Polynesian voyages to Antarctica: a response to Priscilla Wehi and colleagues.” Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (2021): 1-7.

Anderson, Atholl, Tipene O’Regan, Puamiria Parata-Goodall, Michael Stevens and Te Maire Tau. “A southern Māori perspective on stories of Polynesian polar voyaging.” Polar Record 57 (2021): 1-3.

Hiroa, Te Rangi (P. H. Buck). “The Value of Tradition in Polynesian research.” Journal of the Polynesian Society 35, no. 3 139 (1926): 181-203.

O’Regan, Tipene. New Myths and Old Politics: the Waitangi Tribunal and the challenge of tradition. Vol. 17. Bridget Williams Books, 2014.

Tau, Rawiri Te Maire. Pikitūroa o Ngāi Tahu: The Oral Traditions of Ngai Tahu. University of Otago Press, 2003.

Wehi, Priscilla M., Nigel J. Scott, Jacinta Beckwith, Rata Pryor Rodgers, Tasman Gillies, Vincent Van Uitregt, and Krushil Watene. “A short scan of Māori journeys to Antarctica.” Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (2021): 1-12.