Scoop Review of Books

Treasures of the Tchakat Henu

Manu Moriori: Human and Bird Carvings on Live Kopi Trees on the Chatham Islands by Rhys Richards
Paremata Press, Wellington, 2007. Reviewed by SCOTT HAMILTON

manumoriori-cover.jpgLast year Television New Zealand won plaudits for broadcasting The Big Picture, Hamish Keith’s documentary series about the history of visual art in this country. One of the outstanding features of The Big Picture was its careful presentation of Maori as well as Pakeha art traditions. Keith began the first episode in his series in one of the painted caves of central Otago, and noted the influence of Maori rock art on twentieth century Pakeha artists and writers like Theo Schoon, ARD Fairburn, and Tony Fomison.

Yet there was no reference in The Big Picture to a treasure of New Zealand art that rivals the limestone paintings of Otago for age and beauty. On the cool Chatham Islands, six hundred and fifty kilometers east of Christchurch, the trunks of more than a hundred and fifty kopi trees are covered by ancient carvings. These simple yet immensely suggestive images were made by the Moriori, the tchakat henu (tangata whenua) of the Chathams.
Moriori are descended from a group of Maori who travelled to the Chathams from one of the two main islands of New Zealand some time around the beginning of the fifteenth century. It is likely, but not certain, that the travellers came from the southern part of the South Island.

Perhaps because of the harsh climate of the Chathams, the Moriori did not grow crops. Like the Australian Aborigines, they lived as hunter gatherers. Moriori society was more egalitarian than most Maori societies. Slavery did not exist, and elders wielded less power than most Maori chiefs. Moriori society was also distinguished by its pacifism. Early in Moriori history, an elder named Nunuku-whenua forbade war, and placed strict limits on violence. ‘Nunuku’s law’ ordered that fights between individuals must stop as soon as blood was spilt.

In 1835 two Taranaki iwi, Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama, invaded the Chatham Islands and enslaved the Moriori. By 1862, when slavery was abolished on the Chathams, only about one hundred Moriori remained. After they were freed Moriori were unable to recover much of their land, and their population continued to decline. In recent decades, though, there has been a ‘Moriori renaissance’, and in January 2005 the first modern Moriori marae opened on the Chathams.

Hamish Keith’s neglect of Manu, as the dendroglyphs of the Chathams were called by their makers, is not entirely surprising. Few New Zealand artists or art critics have shown much interest in the outdoor art galleries of the Chathams. The influence of Manu cannot be detected on any famous modern painting. There is no controversy over Pakeha appropriation of Moriori art motifs, to rival the famous arguments over the use of Maori motifs by artists like Gordon Walters and Dick Frizzell.

A curious double-sidedness characterises the attitude of many Pakeha toward Moriori. There is a profound ignorance about Moriori culture and history, reflected in the lacuna of The Big Picture. Despite or because of this ignorance, Moriori are often invoked by Pakeha during discussions about race relations in Aotearoa. Indeed, it is difficult to follow any debate about Maori-Pakeha relations on talkback radio, on blogs, or in the letters column of a newspaper without encountering references to a certain account of Moriori history.

A powerful and long-lived myth claims that Moriori were Melanesian pre-Maori settlers of mainland New Zealand, who were conquered and then driven to the remote Chathams by more ‘advanced’ and ‘aggressive’ Polynesians. The myth has its origins in some of the wilder speculations of Elsdon Best and other early New Zealand ethnologists, and has been discredited for decades in scholarly circles. Nevertheless, it persists in the minds of many Pakeha, and a surprising number of Maori.

The political uses of the Moriori myth are not hard to discern. Like so many ideological artefacts of Victorian ethnography, the myth assumes a teleology of history – a grand narrative of relentless historical ‘progress’, with its endpoint in imperial Britain – and a hierarchy of ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ races. According to the mythmakers, Maori were destined to supplant the primitive, lazy Moriori, before being themselves overwhelmed by the even more advanced and industrious European race. Even if the notion of more and less advanced races has lost some of its appeal today, the Moriori myth still allows talkback radio callers and right-wing bloggers to insist that the Maori are not the tangata whenua of New Zealand, and were in some way deserving of the dispossession they experienced at the hands of Pakeha.

It is often forgotten that the Moriori myth, which was still being taught in some schools in the 1980s, denigrates the tchakat henu of the Chathams as well as Maori. Michael King compared the stereotyping of Moriori as a degenerate, idle people destined for dispossession and extermination to the caricatures that the Nazis used against Jews and other ‘inferior’ races. The few references to Moriori in New Zealand’s highbrow culture have tended to come courtesy of the myth of a doomed, inferior people. A good example is Kendrick Smithyman’s famous poem, ‘

The Last Moriori’:
He was
very old, he did not belong,
some chunk of totara which lay too long
in acid swamp.
He was kumara left on the pit’s floor,
sweetness dried, its hull drawn small.
He was what you found in caves but did not
mention, travesty gone
beyond human.

These lines, which were written in 1978, lean entirely for their effect on the notion of the Moriori as a doomed, degenerate people. Smithyman’s poem is the Kiwi equivalent of TS Eliot’s notorious portrait of a ‘degenerate’ Jewish landlord in his poem ‘Gerontion’.

Smithyman would perhaps not write the same poem today. The Moriori renaissance, and the appearance of Michael King’s book Moriori: a People Rediscovered and Barry Barclay’s fine film Feathers of Peace have made the old myth less acceptable, at least amongst New Zealand intellectuals. But even friendly scholars have not entirely lost the habit of treating Moriori as a mere prop in arguments about Maori-Pakeha relations. Michael King, for instance, seized upon the Waitangi Tribunal report on the Chathams, which adjudged the Moriori the ‘first indigenous’ and Maori the ‘second indigenous’ peoples of the islands, and argued that it could be a model for the whole of New Zealand. In doing so, he diverted attention away from the uniqueness of Chathams history and Moriori experience.

Rhys Richards’ Manu Moriori argues that the Chathams dendroglyphs and the culture they represent are both unique and intrinsically important, and should not be viewed through the prism of either Pakeha or Maori preconceptions. Despite its modest proportions and accessible language, Richards’ beautifully designed and illustrated book manages to synthesise much of the best work done by generations of scholars of Moriori culture. Richards pays tribute to HD Skinner, the dissident ethnologist who stowed away to the Chathams after World War One and found enough evidence to blow the myths of his predecessors out of the water, and Christina Jefferson, who rode a horse around the Chathams in the 1950s in search of uncatalogued dendroglyphs. By the 1950s Moriori had lost much of their culture, and the days when carvings were made had long since passed, but Jefferson was able to interview several elderly people who had held on to information, and her 1956 book about the carvings was a sort of time capsule that scholars and Moriori activists could open decades later.
Richards, who has himself spent decades studying the dendroglyphs, argues that Moriori may have intended them as depictions of ancestors. Moriori lacked the timber necessary to replicate the meeting houses of Aotearoa, with their tall posts where the images of ancestors were carved. Perhaps they decided to instead carve a record of their forebears on the trunks of the stout kopi trees that grew across their cool islands.

Manu Moriori really comes into its own when Richards accuses other scholars of over-emphasising the connections between Moriori and Maori culture. He argues that Moriori need to be treated as an ‘independent’ Polynesian culture, not as a mere adjunct to Maori. Rather than looking for parallels in Maori culture, Richards compares the dendroglyphs to the art of Eastern Polynesian peoples. He is particularly interested in the way that squatting ‘hocker’ figures feature prominently in both Moriori dendroglyphs and the art of the inhabitants of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Richards shows himself to be a sensitive art critic when he praises the simple grace of the Moriori carvings, and notes their very modernist ability to evoke a great deal with a few enigmatic lines.

Sometimes Richards’ apparent reluctance to use Maori culture to interpret the dendroglyphs seems to count against Manu Moriori. For instance, Richards notes the fact that most of the humans depicted in the carvings have three fingers, without mentioning the ubiquity of three fingered figures in Maori carving, and the many interesting theories developed to explain this phenomenon.

Richards’ determination to stress the uniqueness and value of the dendroglyphs and the culture they represent certainly leads him to make a couple of claims which will cause controversy amongst other scholars. Richards argues, in the face of a reasonable body of evidence, that Maori never carved on trees. Carvings found on karaka trees at in parts of the lower North Island are scornfully dismissed as ‘patternless jumbles’ of lines and ‘thin colourless scratches’. Wasn’t the same sort of tone used by the ethnographers who denigrated Moriori material culture in the nineteenth century?

Richards’ other provocative argument concerns Moriori origins. He accepts that the Chathams were first settled by a group of Maori around the beginning of the fifteenth century, but argues that a second group probably arrived a little later, directly from East Polynesia. Richards offers no evidence for this assertion besides an interpretation of Moriori oral tradition. Shouldn’t the history of scholarly misinterpretation of Maori oral tradition make him more cautious? Didn’t Elsdon Best support the Moriori myth with a disastrously over-literal reading of Maori legends?
Even if a couple of the claims it makes are questionable, Manu Moriori deserves a place in libraries up and down New Zealand. Richards’ book makes a convincing case for the aesthetic and historical value of the dendroglyphs of the Chathams. Near the end of Manu Moriori Richards notes that fences and shelterbelts of trees now protect the surviving groves of carved trees. More and more tourists come to wander through these unique art galleries. Will the next television history of New Zealand art discuss the Manu of the Moriori, alongside the taonga of Maori and Pakeha art? We can certainly hope so.


Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.


  1. Keri Hulme, 2. June 2008, 23:34

    Kia ora! One up for Scoop book reviews & Scott Hamilton – had not even heard a whisper, a twitch of the kumara vine about this work, but will certainly buy it now. I went to school with a Solomon, and have been interested in Moriori since then (as a Kai Tahu, I was already aware that Moriori had southern links and were most certainly not the moribund grotesques that certain Pakeha racists insisted they were…)

  2. Scott, 3. June 2008, 14:25

    Kia ora Keri – I’m pleased you enoyed the review.

    I’m not an anthropologist, but I became interested in Moriori culture and history after I took a part-time job on an Info Desk in Auckland Museum and found myself bombarded with dodgily-premised questions about the tchakat henu of Rekohu. That old myth of a pre-Maori people dies hard, especially when it’s supplemented by New Age fairytales like the Nation of Waitaha and the Chinese discovery of Aotearoa. I’ve blogged about the apparent indefatigability of the myth here:
    As you can see, quite a few of the mythmakers popped up in the comments thread under the blog!

    The question about which part of Aotearoa the Moriori came from is very interesting. There doesn’t seem to be a certain answer, but analysis of the Moriori language by Rhys Richards and others reveals an affinity with the Ngai Tahu dialect. The only Maori dialect with more words in common with Moriori is Taranaki, and of course it was two Taranaki iwi which colonised Rekohu after 1835. It’s natural, then, that Moriori vocabularies recorded decades after 1835 should show the influence of Taranaki Maori. The similarity with Ngai Tahu, though, is harder to explain away.

    There are also marked similarities between the material culture of Murihiku and Rekohu. A number of scholars have made a connection between the mysterious flowing lines of the limestone paintings of Murihiku and the Moriori dendroglyphs. (When visitors to the museum complain because we don’t have any Moriori dendroglyphs on display, I take them to see some of the rock paintings mounted in the Maori Court, and suggest a similarity. That seems to calm them down…)

    Since I reviewed Richards’ book reports of a new threat to the Manu Moriori have appeared in the media. It seems that a plague of beetles may be damaging the kopi trees of the Chathams, and the carvings those trees preserve:

    It may be, then, that the conclusion of my review was too optimistic. Perhaps the unique achievements of the Manu will have to be preserved and perpetuated in other settings, as modern-day artists draw inspiration from them. It’s notable that the Moriori marae which was opened on Rekohu a couple of years ago includes a work of carving which uses some of the forms of the dendroglyphs.