Last night while Anne went to WOW (Wearable Arts in Wellington) Jenn from next door elder-sat with me. She grew up in the Caitlins. On a beach there after a big storm had washed away a large totara log she and her sister discovered a cache of Maori adzes and flints on the beach where the log would have been. The find was given to the Otago museum.
The early intermarriage of the southern Maori to the best of my knowledge has meant we no longer have large amounts of knowledge of their way of life and world view before the Pakeha arrived. Obviously seals and mutton birds in season would have provided protein but it must have been a hard existence compared say with those living in the Bay of Plenty or Bay of Islands.
That thought arises from my reading about Elsdon Best. Most people look bewildered whern I say I’m reading about him. Jenn didn’t. She’d had studied his works when she did anthropology at Otago university.. I was fascinated when she told me about anthropological digs during the summer vacation.
As a young man I sought truth in books. History in which I majored was supposed to instill a sense of critical thinking. It didn’t work that way. Books were still the guru, they would provide the answer Just as in poetry Baxter provided meaning in his observations so Best seemed the best source for information about early Maori.
With my Canterbury background I found myself teaching in the Waikato. There was a big deficiency about Maori history in my background so in my way I set out to remedy it. Michael King in the same situation went and talked to the elders. I didn’t have his common sense. I was regional president of PPTA, he was education reporter for the Waikato Times. We met several times a year over a beer to chew the fat. I noticed we quickly diverted off education, he enthusiastic about his research into the life of Te Puea, I into my delight in teaching New Zealand writing.
At that stage I didn't make the obvious connection from Michael’s interest. As far as I was concerned. Sinclair and Oliver had delivered the sermon on the mount on New Zealand history. Over time Michael’s work along with others would erode that edifice. Just as Bellich showed the complexity of the New Zealand wars. Since then I’ve read accounts of Te Kooti, Te Whiti and Ratana and have become aware of the spiritual underpinning of their movements.
Holman talks about ‘the spread of an indigenous Christianity, controlled by Maori, for Maori, based on Old Testament metaphors of a chosen people, persecuted by remote authority, exiled tribes, warrior kings and prophets.’ It’s a succinct summary of an important historical force in our past that I was completely unaware of when I left university.
Elsewhere he writes, ‘Maori were managing their entrance into the modern world through the door best was exiting: Christian literacy and biblical anthropology. He missed the significance of contemporary Maori experience in his search for an essentialised ‘Maori mind’ – a supposed mysterious and primeval psychology existing prior to European contact, persisting right through to his own day, untouched by half a century of Pakeha influence.’
I’m enjoying the Holman book. It’s pulling together many threads I’ve observed and read about since that young man started teaching.
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