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Māori Past and Present

Tangata Whenua: An illustrated history
by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris
(Bridget Williams Books, $99.99)
Reviewed by Mark Derby

tangatawhenuacoverbwbwebsiteThis imposing tome seems more likely to be bought as a prestigious gift, or an adornment for the coffee table, than to become a carefully perused and frequently consulted addition to your personal book collection. In its heft, exceptional production values and omniscient tone, Tangata Whenua looms a bit like a Bentley in a downtown parking building – a distinguished and doomed reminder of a former literary age.

Even before reading the first word, its qualities are apparent in its heirloom materials, beautiful photo reproduction and classic, elegant page design. The superb production of my copy was only marred by a random and evidently unintended switch of typefaces in the middle of an essay on muttonbirding.

The opening sentence of this book is as authoritative and promising as its outward appearance – “Polynesian seafarers from the centre of the blue Pacific hemisphere were the first human inhabitants of New Zealand when they arrived about 800 years ago.” Persistent efforts by self-appointed experts to assert the existence of a pre-Māori race continue to surface periodically in our national kōrero. They are the intellectual equivalent of burps at the dinner table, and it is satisfying to see them so promptly disposed of.

Thereafter, however, the archaeological record of human arrival and occupation in this country is laid out in a dauntingly technical manner, incorporating the genealogy of Polynesian language, mitochondrial DNA and the tooth surfaces of the Pacific rat. It is an impressive, but for this reader, somewhat intimidating introduction to the origins of the Māori, eased only by the magnificent illustrations.

The relationship between the Moriori people of the Chathams, and of Māori generally, is made explicit in a valuable summary which also traces the enduring myth that the Moriori were a distinct race, conquered and exterminated by Māori. It is a fiction which some Māori have found it convenient to subscribe to, and this book reports an experiment by Te Rangi Hiroa of Taranaki, whose U.S. training in anthropology included such dubious methodologies as phrenology and crude racial stereotyping. He employed these techniques to study veterans of the Maori Pioneer Battalion returning from WW1, and found that fully 39% of them were descended from the “indolent and peace-loving” Moriori race, an irony which, as this book drily notes, “he declined to pursue”.

Tangata Whenua is structured in three parts, dealing successively with the period to early European contact, the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the modern era. The second of these sections draws heavily on the majestic works which the same publisher, Bridget Williams, produced for the late Judith Binney. The current book therefore serves as a useful précis of those earlier volumes. It is replete with rich and often unfamiliar details, such as the haka composed by the warrior-prophet Te Atua Wera after his people’s defeat of British troops at the battle of Ohaeawai in 1845. “You will not return to your home in Europe” he exults to his fallen opponents. “To Jesus Christ and the Bible. I turn and expose my buttocks over you.” This section of the book also evidences the lively writing of Binney’s colleague Vincent O’Malley, and offers a foretaste of his yet-to-be published history of the Waikato Wars.

It’s not until its final, modern-era section that Tangata Whenua really begins to strain at its pre-digital seams. I admit a bias, as a former writer for Te Ara – the online encyclopedia of NZ. However, when describing the exuberant flowering of Māori film-making, modern music and theatre, it’s surely a distinct advantage to be able to give moving, breathing examples of these artforms alongside the text and still images. No matter how handsomely designed and splendidly illustrated, Tangata Whenua is simply no substitute for Te Ara in this domain, and the digital publication has the further and considerable advantages of being free, and infinitely updateable. In five, 10 or 20 years’ time, which are you more likely to turn to?