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September 11, 2017 | by  | in Books |
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Tukua mai te reo: Ētahi whakaaro mō te pukapuka He Reo Wāhine

When I was taught certain things about New Zealand history in high school I took them as objective truth. When they told me that Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand I absorbed that information as truth, even as my bones knew that Māori had been here long before. When my education prioritised teaching about World War One and the Vietnam War, I was not able to stop and think about the ways in which this information was relevant — or not relevant — to me, and the nuances of these histories that were unseen.

Where are our histories preserved? In statues dedicated to Pākehā men in our parks and town squares. In stale documentaries that prioritise certain dominant voices and neglect others. We know that the media has a bias, but we are not critical of history in the same way. But history is written by humans. Last week I had a kōrero with historian Angela Wanhalla. She is of Kai Tahu descent, and has whakapapa back to Ngāti Moki marae of the Ngāi Te Ruahikihiki hapū. Her new book with Lachy Paterson brings forth a rich puna of historical knowledge that is not often talked about. That is the voice of wāhine Māori. He Reo Wāhine disrupts the narrative of our colonial history, bringing to the light the voices of our wāhine in the 19th century.


ART - Book - He Reo Wahine


What are your areas of interest? And what questions do you ask yourself when you’re doing your kind of research?

A lot of my interest in history is to do with women’s history and Māori history. That goes back to my PhD which was on the history of a community who lived in a reserve on the northern banks of the Taieri River in Otago. The reason why I studied that community was because my family have a connection to it through my father, and my dad never knew very much about it. So as I was doing my PhD he got to kind of explore that part of his whakapapa in a bit more detail which was really great. It became quite clear that it was a community that was really unusual because it had a really high level of intermarriage. Through the story of intermarriage I could tell a little bit about how that community changed over time. But also it could help me think about how to make Māori women the centre of the story as well.

One thing I find with New Zealand history is that, particularly for the colonial view of looking at the 19th century, Māori women don’t really feature very strongly in it. Often because it’s said that there aren’t any sources available to tell their stories — and by that I mean the kind of sources that historians would traditionally use. We want to think about how we might respond to an argument that’s been made that there just aren’t the sources out there. We both want to see Māori women’s history, but also Māori writing from the 19th century be two central features.


I’ve heard that as an indigenous people, we have the greatest written record of our language because of things like letters in archives. This is information that we can’t really use properly because of the volume of it. In writing this book, what was your encounter with that archive?

There is a huge, rich, wonderful archive of Māori writing available. That’s through things like the Māori language newspapers from the 19th century — which Lachy Paterson has written a book about. There are also, as you mentioned, a huge number of letters available. Many of those have been sent to colonial officials, so Archives NZ and their branches across the country do hold a number of wonderful Māori language materials in their archives. You’ve got Māori sending huge numbers of letters to officials. Sometimes as friends, but often to complain about injustices. There are also lots of petitions that Māori send to the government during the 19th century — I think in total there are over 2000 petitions and they are a wonderful resource for exploring Māori collective protest. Māori women just loved sending letters to each other, and they could see how letters in particular fitted really beautifully within oral culture. Also, many Māori wrote manuscripts, and a number of those are lodged in archives as well. There’s a huge wealth of material out there that historians can work with but, because quite a lot of it is in Te Reo Māori, not a lot of historians are making use of it.


I saw a quote from the book — Do not think that this letter is from a man. No, I am a woman who wrote this letter. (Kataraina Kahuwahine). Do you think that the resources you encountered challenge the narrative of what we are told about Māori women in the 19th century?

Like you, I really like that quote because it indicates that often we assume that people who are writing in the 19th century are men. It shows from that woman’s perspective that she didn’t want a colonial official to simply see this as a man’s voice or perspective. Māori women were as interested in the effects of land loss on their community as men were. What I think our book shows is that Māori women are deeply engaged, and they had a perspective and a voice. They were willing to engage with the state as much as they possibly could to register those injustices at the feet of colonial officials. I am just so amazed at the amount of material that’s out there in the archives, showcasing Māori women’s abilities to politically organise and to engage with the state and try and gain some justice during that period.


What is something that you found particularly exciting to write about?

What is most exciting about this book is that there is a wealth of material from Māori women out there that Māori women wrote. I think that’s really important in terms of how we might tackle colonial history. What it also does, is help us understand how big histories like colonisation and capitalism — those big drivers of change — also affect people at the most personal level. We get to hear Māori women say that and say how they experience the effects of colonialism in their communities. It’s also bringing in slightly different communities that we don’t always hear about in history books. One of them is Taumutu, near Lake Ellesmere, and that’s where my family connect to. What was really exciting for me on a personal level was to see that women from that community were writing and petitioning and they feature in the chapter that’s focused on petitions. Often in histories we write, we don’t often see those little communities at the forefront.


What is the importance for you (as a Māori woman) of writing books like this, of bringing these materials to light? Why do this work?

As a Māori woman, but also as a historian, I’m really passionate about telling histories that matter to people. I think the stories that are in He Reo Wāhine will matter to a lot of people because they will see their tūpuna there and they’ll see the people that they can really admire represented in this book. I want to write histories where my father can recognise himself in it and he can recognise his family. Where my brother and sister can recognise themselves too. I think that historians have to do our best to actually represent the diversity of the past in the present day, as much as we possibly can. Because if we don’t, we effectively exclude people from history. And I don’t want to write histories that exclude. That’s why He Reo Wāhine exists.

We often have particular narratives that are quite strong in our history. I am influenced by the work of Aroha Harris, Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney — all those wonderful historians. They’re the people who I admire greatly. I want to write histories like them that challenge some of those deeply held narratives that we have. Those narratives that make assumptions about New Zealand having a racially harmonious past when that’s clearly not the case! Challenging narratives and making people uncomfortable is what historians should be doing.


Why do you think the women that are doing these petitions, writing these letters to officials, aren’t remembered or aren’t known about?

I think they are remembered in their communities and in their families. They just haven’t been foregrounded as much as they possibly could in our written histories.We’ve seen that kind of trend here where New Zealand history wasn’t at all of interest to New Zealanders. It wasn’t a part of the academy until around the 1950s and 1960s. The history that New Zealanders read and got taught at school was British history, the history of other places, not the history of us. There’s been this kind of remarkable shift in the last 70 years where we’ve produced our own academic scholarship that explains why this place and our people and our history is really important and exciting and interesting. In the 1970s and 1980s feminist scholars were coming to the floor; also, at the same time, we’ve got the growth of Māori history where Māori historians were also saying the same thing — we need to look at Māori history too. What we have seen in the last 15–20 years is that there is now recognition of the wonderful rich resources out there that are available. That includes work by Māori, and also Māori women. We tell the history of war, as a major event in people’s lives. Those kinds of histories tend to be more prominent too.

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