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Downing the Brown: When two tribes go to war

Representations of Māori in the media

“The processes of colonization attack us in our most sensitive areas:
in the way we perceive ourselves
blind to the way those perceptions have been constructed for us initially”
~ Spokane poet and scholar, Gloria Bird, 1993

A Tear in the Matrix

I’ve written about Africa a bit lately, but my skepticism about media re-presentations of brown bodies began with a story on Rwanda several years back, so its a fitting place to start.  That was when I could still bear to watch the 6 o’clock news (which I now only semi-jokingly refer to as the 6 o’clock Gossip). I was watching TV3 present a story commemorating the 1994 massacre in Rwanda.  The lead-in to the story went something like “it is a tribal feud that has gone on since the dawn of time”, complete with quintessential African image symbolising a place that is ancient (read: primitive), tribal (read: backward), and fixed (read: monolithic).  It then went on to discuss the horrific events that saw 800,000 Rwandans killed over a period of 3 months, mainly Tutsis.  At the time I was in my first year at university and doing an Anthro paper on the survival and resistance of indigenous peoples.  The global consistencies of colonisation – land theft, ethnocide and myth-making about the character of those colonised, combined with increasing wariness of the way news is presented (and consumed by too many as ‘just the facts’) had me racing off to the internet to conduct my own research.  Blow me down if I didn’t find a history to put the TV3 presentation to shame.  Not that TV3 are any different from other mainstream sources, as James Machira points out…

“…it is not lost to many observers that reports in the Western media about war and conflicts in Africa are often crisis-driven in such a way as to imply that Africans are naturally savage, warlike, violent and steeped in primordial tribal feuds. The perspectives taken by the reporters, the kind of headlines, pictures, statistics, and the language that they use, all point to a picture created to serve certain interests and agendas.”

Outside of such dominant (mis)re-presentations, a very different take on the ‘Rwandan massacre’ can be easily found (if not often sought) and several films have documented them; Rwanda: How history can lead to genocide, and Flower in the Gun Barrell.  From these and comprehensive sites like Rwanda: The wake of genocide, a far more complex history of tribal relations emerges, influenced in no small part by the colonization of Rwanda, first by the Germans and later the Belgians. Divide and conquer is a useful means of minority rule; hence formerly economic distinctions between Tutsi’s and Hutu’s were exploited and a privileged class of blacks created, stimulating rivalry and resentment between peoples.  Combined with global neo-colonial economic practices that plague ‘developing’ African nations, the resulting massacre was neither unforeseeable, nor purely ‘tribal’ in the colonial sense of the word:

“Perhaps there is no better case than Rwanda of state killing in which colonial history and global economic integration combined to produce genocide.  It is also a case where the causes of the killing were carefully obscured by Western governmental and journalistic sources, blamed instead on the victims and ancient tribal hatreds.
– Excerpt from Richard H Robbins’s Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism

Ancient tribal hatreds.  In post-colonial societies globally, the popular history of pre- and first contact is remarkably consistent.  Queue: ancient tribal hatreds, hunger for war (both literal and figurative), and general savagery.  What purpose does such a dominant narrative serve, or rather whose?  Justification for the invasion, appropriation and enforced rule of European colonisers at the time of settlement to the present day, for one.  From this telling of history, (un)settlers didn’t come to steal land and wield power, they came to civilise, to educate, to save the savage from himself.  And from ancient tribal hatreds.  Or general simple-minded backwardness – either is a useful fiction, and are often combined – but that particular representation is the subject of another post.  For this post the subject is Savagism – the invention of the savage: the (mis)re-presentation of black and brown bodies as naturally violent.

Disrupting ‘Savagism’

Having seen that the demonisation of the colonised ‘other’ was and is ubiquitous to the colonising process in Africa, a turn to the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand reveals the same narrative at work during settlement here.  Tim McCreanor (2009) examined early NZ re-presentations of Māori, including the influential Information Relative to New Zealand – compiled for the use of colonists.  First published in 1839, the booklet was a promotional tool of the New Zealand Company and was written by its secretary John Ward.  On Māori he wrote:

“they are physically and intellectually superior to the New Hollanders; but although their capabilities of cultivation are great, they are yet essentially a savage people” (p.62)

Evidence of Māori ‘capabilities of cultivation’ echo the aforementioned insistence by our finest thinkers like Moana Jackson, that Māori in reality ‘Once were gardeners’ as much as any other characterisation.  But in early colonial materials such talents must be surpassed by the more recognisable and useful warrior-theme:

“Their most conspicuous passion is war and they kill and sometimes eat their vanquished enemies, scalping and exhibiting their heads as trophies…infanticide is not uncommon…The spirit of revenge is implacable in their breasts…and their hatred of their enemies is deep and deadly.” (p.62-63)

To assist in the creation of the violent savage, no depiction is as powerful as that of the flesh-eater. The Western fantasy of tribal cannibalism has been examined exhaustively.  While early colonial texts are rife with descriptions of cannibal peoples in Africa, in North and South America, and in the island nations of the Pacific; careful examination of these texts and the available evidence for their veracity has been conducted, and as widespread common practice, been found wanting (Arens, 1979; Obeyesekere, 1993; Barker, Hulme & Iversen, 1998; Obeyesekere, 2005).  In Arens’ words:

“the discussion of cannibalism as a custom is normally restricted to faraway lands just prior to or during their “pacification” by the various agents of western civilisation…I have been unable to uncover adequate documentation of cannibalism as a custom in any form for any society”.

So, pacifying native peoples whose lands you were keen to invade necessitated the horrid practice of Savagism – the invention and re-telling of the myth of the savage, man-eating ‘other’ in need of colonial patronage.  As horrid as that practice is, Historian Paul Moon preferred the dominant version and in 2008 reinstated the Western obsession arguing widespread cannibalism amongst early Māori in his book This Horrid Practice: The myth and reality of traditional Maori cannibalism.  Defending his work from anticipated attack (he was writing of savages after all) and touting his own bravery in the face of threats to his career (which 3 years on have not come to pass) Moon claimed to be dealing only in “historical fact”.  At the risk of being picky, supposed ‘facts’ require evidence beyond an examination of popular stories of that time, as academic John Bevan-Smith’s review exposed.  Senior lecturer at Otago University Ian Barber, who conducted a critical review of the evidence on Māori cannibalism in 1992 (which was accessible to Moon in his exhaustive research) drew on the archaeological record and determined there was no support for Moon’s claim that cannibalism was widespread; but was more likely infrequent and primarily ritualistic.  Amongst those whose work he surveyed was Professor Phillip Houghton who’s anatomical research had led him to the conclusion that:

“There is no evidence to suggest that large tribal battles caused much injury (or even occurred) or that cannibalism was common” (Houghton 1987:41)

As to Moon’s stated fears of vilification, his credibility with the mainstream media and general NZ public as an expert on all things Māori appears to have increased.  As one journalist puts it “Want an opinion on whether taniwha exist? Or whether the Maori King should be the Maori King? The current go-to historian seems to be Paul Moon”.  So much for ‘burying him and ruining his career’.  Such is the power of tales that fit easily with pre-conceived and entrenched estimations of the cannibal savage.  Counter stories receive little attention outside of academic circles, thus Ian Barber’s conclusions that

“As one confronts the contrast of a more restrained interpretation of cannibalism … one must consider that 19th-century descriptions of New Zealand warfare have created a distorted, popular image of pre-European Maori violence

do little to dislodge that popular image.  That’s the thing with dominant ideologies; they’re informed by images and re-presentations that have been repeated so many times they become difficult to see outside of.  Racist ideologies as I’ve argued before are like water to a fish – the only way to get dry is to get out of the (cess)pool.  To do so it is necessary to draw back and see the extent to which this warrior trope is evident in every colonised society in the world.  From Africa, to the Americas and Australia/New Zealand, the colonised ‘other’ was everywhere recognisable – savage, warrior, violent. Is it really possible that in every country targeted for settlement, the native peoples were all the same?  Doesn’t this seem a little too convenient?  And what of the (un)settler Europeans, how did their behaviour stack up against the demonised savage ‘other’?  Civilised and peace-loving by comparison?  Hardly.  As W.E. Du Bois wrote in 1965:

“The paradox of the peace movement of the nineteenth century is a baffling comment on European civilization. There was not a single year during the nineteenth century when the world was not at war. Chiefly, but not entirely, these wars were waged to subjugate colonial peoples. They were carried on by Europeans, and at least one hundred and fifty separate wars can be counted during the heyday of the peace movement.  What the peace movement really meant was peace in Europe and between Europeans…”

From the late 1500s to 1800 – the period during which North America and Australia were first colonised, women (and some men) were being hunted in Europe, with an estimated 40-60,000 burned or hung as witches.  In the century following the colonisation of Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Belgians in Africa’s Congo were cutting the hands off children who hadn’t met their quota of rubber gathering for the empire (to say nothing of the estimated 10-13 million that perished during King Leopold’s bloody reign).  In the US in the 20th century Billie Holliday sung of strange fruit – the unusual phenomena of black bodies hanging in trees in the Southern US – lynching.  A horrid practice that saw the death of some 4,000 black Americans.  If the picture is difficult to grasp, the image directly below should assist. Shocking, isn’t it.  Not to some – though the re-presentation of white atrocities is rare and exceptional, hence the ‘savage’, ‘barbaric’, and ‘warrior’ labels have trouble sticking.

1. Children of the Congo with missing hands 2. Witches burning at the stake 3. Lynching party (literally)

And yet one need not look overseas to see the savagery of colonial action – perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the Waitangi tribunal claims process is the in-depth documentation involved of histories of settler violence spanning the entire country.  Hours of devastating reading, with findings like this for Tuhoe:

“The Crown responded by sending an armed force into Te Urewera, killing non-combatants and destroying homes, food supplies, and taonga. Many people died, either as casualties or from hunger and disease, and this created a lasting legacy of pain and grievance.”

To be clear, the purpose of examining the creation of the violent savage theme is not to claim some kind of purity on the part of those colonised.  Any challenge to received (perceived) wisdom regarding native peoples often provokes a ‘straw man’ counter-accusation of romanticising pre-colonial existence as peace-filled and at one with nature.  It is a strange kind of binary logic implying that Māori can only have been one or the other.  Instead I imagine the diversity of lived experiences of native peoples covered the spectrum of peaceful-to-violent, like all peoples. What is key here is countering the continued re-assertion that Māori, along with other indigenous peoples, are naturally prone to savagery and violence, unlike their colonial masters.  Again – Māori once were warriors, and gardeners, and philosophers, and scientists, and (gasp) human.

The fantasy persists

So the notion that all colonised peoples share a history of constant warfare and violence defies logic, but not ‘common sense’.  Common sense being a sure indication that mischievous ideologies are at work.  One might ask – common to who?  Common sense has a curious habit of by-passing the brain and slipping off the tongue, as evidenced in the 2005 unfortunate words of former Labour MP and then High Commissioner to Canada, Graham Kelly.  Speaking to a Canadian senate committee, this government emissary spoke disparagingly of a number of New Zealand’s minority ethnic groups, and had this to say about his country’s indigenous people:

“There were seven canoes that came in 740 from Hawaiki, so there are seven tribes. They all held each other’s hands to stop them from sinking on the voyage. Once they got to New Zealand, they started fighting and eating each other so there have been Maori wars ever since”.

Kelly’s recounting of history is straight out of a 1950s NZ school history text, and no doubt informed by his (mis)education in that era (although I am skeptical as to whether things have changed much in that respect – at least in mainstream education).  The widespread coverage given Kelly’s remarks provide yet another layer of myth to the violent cannibal savage, with some protesting the angry response to his characterisation as unwarranted, given he was merely “telling the truth”.  Followed up a year later by the already interrogated debacle of the warrior gene, the release of This Horrid Practice a year and a half after that, and the constant repetition Savagism requires becomes apparent.  So omni-present is the fantasy even the country’s Prime Minister John Key felt safe in his off-the-cuff suggestion earlier this year at a tourism industry function that he may have been white meat for Tuhoe’s cannibals had he been dining in Tuhoe country.  This after his prior refusal to return Te Urewera National Park to Tuhoe, its rightful guardians.  Again defended as a ‘speaker of the truth’ by, amongst others, Māori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell; international media showed that sometimes you have to be outside the country to see such arrogant mockery for what it is.  In the context of this post it is not the poor taste (pun intended) of Key’s comments that is most problematic, but the re-presentation of the warrior flesh-eating savage.

The continual association of things Māori with violence (as opposed to things Pākehā) can be seen in the perpetual denigration in some quarters of the haka traditionally performed before All Black (and other) rugby matches. A letter to the Dominion Post in the lead-up to this year’s Rugby World Cup titled The haka a violent portrayal of savagery epitomises what is a regular critique of this Māori ritual:

Not all New Zealanders, including me, view the haka with reverence. It’s a violent portrayal of savagery, which is unnecessarily used to indoctrinate children at school. And we wonder at increasing violence.

According to this argument, it is the cultural performance before the rugby match that is horrific in its violence, not the cultural performance of the game of rugby itself.

From the warriors of the sporting field, we return to the title of this post, and the problematic of warring tribes.  Here media re-presentations of political wrangling are implicated.  When Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira broke away from the Māori Party earlier this year to start up a new political entity – Mana, numerous media outlets described any friction or competition between the two in language that characterised these two parties (in the subtext ‘tribes’) as naturally aggressive.  Headlines such as ‘Hone renews war with the Maori Party’ in the Sunday News; ‘War on for Māori electorates‘ in the New Zealand Herald; ‘War of words over party’s agreement with Harawira‘ on Radio New Zealand; and ‘Mana, Maori party leaders in uneasy truce‘ from online news-site Stuff; show how naturally a language of war fits when discussing matters related to Māori.  It may seem a fitting metaphor in the lead-up to an election; and yet similar language is not found when discussing other potential rivalries such as the two major parties, National and Labour.  Even during the height of a bitter contest over the leadership of the far-right party Act, headlines ran more along the lines of ‘President: Hide can fend off Brash‘ – a far more civilised frame.

From political reporting, to scientific or historical ‘findings’, to popular novel-turned movies like Once Were Warriors the savage warrior trope is maintained.  While arguably the concrete colonisation of the country ended over a century ago, ideological colonisation persists, and as Native American scholar Gloria Bird conveys at the beginning, attacks us in our most vulnerable places – influencing how we see ourselves.   And yet of this spectre: the persistent and insistent portrayal of the easily knowable and always fixed national foe – the Māori savage, what should by now be obvious is this: It is a lie, it is a lie, it is a lie.  Yet lies told often enough, and in a manner that renders the theft of land and natural resources and the domination of peoples palatable, even justified; are destined to become incontrovertible truth.  Further they have powerful and devastating effects for Māori, which, given the burgeoning length of this post, is a topic for another day.  Suffice to leave the scary violent savage fantasy here, with this parting message:

We are not who you say we are.
You are who you say we are.
And because you say we are who we are,
some of us have become who you say we are.
But we are not who you say we are.
You, are who you say we are.

♦ ◊ ♦ ◊ ♦

Arens, W. (1979). The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Barber, I. (1992). Archaeology, ethnography, and the record of Maori cannibalism before 1815: a critical review. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 101(3), 241-292.
Barker, F., Hulme, P. & Iversen, M. (1998). Cannibalism and the colonial world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Houghton, P. (1987). A Vigorous People: Health and Well-being, in J. Wilson (ed.), From the Beginning: the Archaeology of the Maori. Auckland: Penguin Books in Association with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, pp. 37-42.
McCreanor, T. (2009). Challenging and countering anti-Maori discourse: Practices for decolonisation. Keynote speech delivered to the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference on 27 August 2009 in Palmerston North.  Retrieved from
Michira, J. (2002). Images of Africa in the Western media. Retrieved from
Milner, G. R., Anderson, E. & Smith, V.G. (1991). Warfare in Late Prehistoric West-central Illinois. American Antiquity, 56:581-603.
Moon, P. (2008). This horrid practice: The myth and reality of traditional Maori cannibalism. Rosedale: Penguin Books.
Obeyeseke, G. (1993). The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Obeyeseks, G. (2005). Cannibal talk: The man-eating myth and human sacrifice in the South Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kia ora, E.

    During the European transatlantic slave trade rumors were rife all along the West African coast that captives were being taken away to be devoured. The fact so many disembarked and none returned only fueled the speculation that their bodies were being harvested. Some thought their fat was rendered to make oil. Others believed blood was extracted to make wine, or their skin was removed and cured to make the leather shoes worn by European slave traders. In a sense, those rumors were true. The bodies of Africans (and Amerindians) were consumed in the factories (plantations) that generated the immense wealth without which the West would never been able to colonize and conquer the globe. They were cannibalized by ruthless capitalists.

    On another note, beginning in the 15th century, the remains of Egyptian mummies became a common ingredient in European medicines believed to have the power to extend life and preserve health. By the 16th century the business in Mummia, as it was called, had grown to the point that cemeteries in Egypt were stripped of cadavers to supply the European market. Some of the more unscrupulous dealers (if it is even possible to measure gradations of scruples in such an odious enterprise) resorted to processing fresh local European corpses to meet the immense demand. So while Europeans were sailing around the world on their so-called “voyages of discovery” labeling practically everyone they encountered as “cannibals” and “savages,” they were eating powdered human remains out of the belief it would enhance their longevity. No one knows how many thousands of bodies were consumed in this manner.

    — John

    November 14, 2011
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      Kia ora John – and thank you for your in-depth and insightful comment (‘comment’ is so not the appropriate term here). Everything you’ve written is fascinating; extending the points I was trying to make beautifully. I had no idea about the literal consumption of human remains in pill (or other) form – it shocks me on one hand and doesn’t surprise me at all on the other! But mostly I love your points about devouring bodies in factories – the ‘neo-plantation’ as you so aptly put it. A few years ago, reading up on Angela Davis’s prison stuff and looking at practices here where, as is the case globally, prisons are populated by mostly brown/black bodies, I wanted to use the term ‘neo-slavery’. The incarcerated are put to work for corporations (for free – sold as ‘job-skill training’) often displacing those already in low-paid employment who as a result may enter the ‘alternative-economies’ (drug-dealing etc.) only to wind up in prison doing for free what they were once paid, albeit poorly, to do. Its a crazy, crazy world.

      November 15, 2011
  2. Gloria Bird #

    Very honored that you chose to include quotes from my work. This is the kind of discussion that needs to continue. –Gloria Bird

    March 12, 2012
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      Ngaa mihi mahana Gloria – thank you for taking the time to read. And for being such a wonderful conversation starter.

      March 15, 2012
  3. Ki Ora, Thank you for reminding my short term memory pakeha brain, of my own legacy of savagery.

    February 15, 2014

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