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Exploding the Myths I: 10 things your history teacher never told you

Tungia te ururua kia tupu
whakaritorito te tupu o te harakeke

The histories of native peoples are often silenced, relegated to ‘pre-history’: before history really began and foreign lands were ‘discovered’ by a Columbus or a Cook. Enough of the singular and narrow story of history. My question here is simply this: What are the little-known histories that disturb and disrupt the dominant idea that “if it wasn’t for us, you’d still be running around in grass skirts?

10.  There was no Great Migration

There wasn’t? I hear you cry, mystified.  No indeed, and why – because our navigators and sailors ROCKED THE BOAT!!  I kid you not. It has been a source of frustration to New Zealand academics throughout the 19th and  20th century to try and figure out the mystery of Māori migration.  For years it has been written in school history books that a fleet of waka arrived together to these shores in around 1300. The Great Migration.  Its a convenient tale for a number of reasons.

First it implies that this all-at-once settlement of New Zealand came about by chance.  Apparently some people don’t find it hard to believe that an entire extended whanau; mum, dad, uncles, aunties, cousins, elders and so on would just jump in a boat and push off for … wherever?!  A “lets just see where the wind blows us” kinda deal.  Who does that?  So by this thinking it was really a matter of luck that these early  Māori  stumbled across the land under the long white cloud – Aotearoa.  Back in the day, newly pulled up to port in big flash ships like the Endeavour, deep-sea voyaging by Māori must have seemed an impossible feat to early (un)settlers looking aghast at waka that seemed to be held together by little more than plant material.

Secondly, to acknowledge separate arrival times over several centuries was to think the unthinkable.  That Māori had made deliberate back and forth voyages across vast areas of the Pacific displaying navigational skills far beyond those of their European counterparts who at that time were still clinging to the shores of their own lands.  It no doubt helped that Māori don’t appear to have bought into the notion as the European world had, that the earth was flat.  Not if their expeditions across Te Moana nui a Kiwa (Pacific Ocean) with very little apparent fear falling off the edge, are anything to go by.

9.  Māori only sometimes were warriors

Contrary to novels and movies and the latest genetic ‘science’, Māori once were warriors only at certain times of the year.  You can think of it like ‘war season’.  E hika, with kumera to plant, titi to gather, and fish to catch how on earth could peoples be off making constant war and still survive?  Its a crazy idea but for some strange reason one that has spread like proverbial wild fire.  Unlike countries now who employ a professional class of warrior (called armies) that can be sent off to do battle for oil freedom, Māori did not find their people quite so disposable.  Archaeologists – those weird academics that spend all their time digging,  haven’t been able to find evidence of large scale battles prior to colonisation.  No evidence of widespread flesh-eating (as in human) either, but that hasn’t stopped that particular myth from doing the rounds every 20 years or so.

Which doesn’t mean that when needed Māori didn’t kick kumu on the battlefield.  As (un)settlers found in long battles where even with strength of numbers on their side, their foe were difficult to defeat.  A historian mate assures me that in the history of colonial warring in Aotearoa it is the disposability of a large number of crown soldiers rather than any military prowess that bought battles to an end.

8.  In fact, Māori led the world in peaceful protest

Te Whiti o Rongomai, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin L King Jr. Note any similarities?

While much of the world pays homage to Ghandi as artist supreme in the art of peaceful resistance, it was in fact Te Whiti o Rongomai who beat Ghandi to the (non) punch by several generations.  And the Ghandi Foundation acknowledge him as such, suggesting Te Whiti’s peaceful resistance may have inspired this global leader, in much the same way he then inspired Martin Luther King.  In 2003 an international delegation of representatives of Martin Luther King Jnr and Mohandas Gandhi came to Aotearoa to pay homage to Te Whiti’s deeds post-humously.  Which given the international honour being shown was covered extensively by the media: television, newspaper … I mean you do remember that right?  No?  Funny that.

The story of Parihaka is recounted in full here, As a quick brush up, in the late 1800s massive land confiscation at odds with the tricky treaty’s guarantee to Māori of ‘full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries’ and so on and so on, was getting on tangata whenua’s last nerve (to put it mildly).  At Parihaka Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi led a peaceful movement to disrupt the land-grab going on all around them.  Frustrating the process by pulling up surveyors’ pegs and ploughing on confiscated land; any form of violence was strictly forbidden (strange for savages).  How was the peaceful movement countered?  With the 1800s version of the Terrorism Suppression Act, allowing peoples to be arrested en mass, and held without trial.  Hundreds of men and boys were shipped down south and forced to work – contributing to the infrastructure of cities like Dunedin.  Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested and detained in the South Island also.  In order to put this uppity duo in their place they were shown the wonders of European technology.  To which Te Whiti responded:

“The Pākehā have some useful technology but not the kindness of heart to see that Māori also possessed much great technology which if adopted would lead to stability, peace and a great new society.

No wonder he was considered a madman by many.

7.  Māori once were geographers

Te Ika a Maui, shaped like a stingray

Māori history has it that Maui fished up the North Island – Te Ika a Maui from his canoe – the South Island – Te Waka o Maui.  This taonga tuku iho has been handed down for generations.  When looking at a map today, it is very evident that these two bodies of land do indeed mirror the shape of a fish (a whai or stingray) and a waka.  Yet as old as this story is, how did Māori know the topography of the land, when no aerial view was available to them?  Geographical skills of course.

But wait, that’s not all.  Much is made of the nuisance of taniwha when it comes to roading or building developments. According to ‘common sense’ this is just Māori holding up progress or trying to make a quick buck.  But NO, not according to Auckland University’s Dr Kepa Morgan, a senior lecturer in civil and environmental engineering.  It seems that taniwha may well serve as important symbol or warning sign, of land not suitable for flash new highways or highrise developments.  Ngati Naho protested the construction of State Highway 1 near Meremere several years back citing a problem for their taniwha Kura Tahi.  Their concerns were heeded and 14 months after the highway was finished the Waikato River flooded.  If the highway had been built on its original site it would have cost thousands to repair; thanks to Kura Tahi the road, and the taniwha, were safe.

Not so at Ngawha where several years later concern was expressed that the taniwha Takauere would be irked by the building of Ngawha Prison.  This time the powers that be weren’t so open minded and carried on regardless.  Since completion there have been numerous problems with the stability of the prison’s foundations – basically its sinking into the ground.  An issue that had already cost the Government $100 million more than originally budgeted to build the prison in the first place.

6.  Māori once were astronomers

Several years ago a talkback announcer, displaying the usual depth of knowledge talkback announcers have (think: puddle in January), was bemoaning Māori objections to genetic modification and exclaimed: “This is science.  What the hell would they know about science”.  Hmmmm.  Science to this dude obviously comes in a white coat (not to mention white skin).  To the contrary, early Māori displayed scientific genius; not least of which was evident in their intimate knowledge of the stars.  As Elsdon Best somewhat begrudgingly put it:

“It is assuredly a fact that in former times the average Maori knew much more about the stars than does the average man among us.”

And here we’re not talking just descriptive knowledge: a series of names and understanding of their location and appearance at certain times of the year – though undoubtedly this too.  It is the system of scientific use made of that knowledge that was astounding – from navigation and gardening to the marking of time.  It was obvious to even the most ‘scientific’ of the time that Māori had spent considerable time studying the heavenly bodies.  This was the knowledge of the tohunga kokorangi, the Māori astronomers. None of these bodies is perhaps as well known as Matariki (Twinking Eyes), known by the Europeans as Pleiades and the Japanese as Subaru (every time you see the Subaru logo on the back of a car, you’re looking at Matariki) which heralds the beginning of the Māori New Year.  But that knowledge was not limited to just stars. Māori had names for comets, meteors, and clouds too.  From those consisting of several strata (layers) –matahauariki, to fragments of cloud or purei ao; as well as a working knowledge of what these various forms meant in terms of weather patterns.  Meteorologists then too – chur.  It was English Anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor who in the late 1880s said:

“It always happens in the study of the lower races that the more means we have of understanding their thoughts the more sense and reason do we find in them.”

You don’t say.

Exploding the Myths II to come… ma te wa!

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kia ora BoD,
    One of the things that has put me off the Facebook pages and arguing with red necks is the constant droning repetitve statements which invariably go,”do the Maori like electricity, the internet, proper homes, medical care, because without the white man coming here blah, blah, blah…. – again that whole notion of bringing civilization and knowledge to the unruly savages. (though I was unaware that the first colonizers had toasters, microwaves and such when they got here. And gee, thank god they brought all those antibiotics and such as well along with the disease they toted along.) In those comments it reinforces what you are writing and what the educational “system” puts into our heads from the first day of school as children, much less university. I certainly do not recall any modules in my American education about the culture of American Indians, and it was almost as a footnote we had mentioned George Washington Carver, an African American who should have a bloody national holiday in his honour.
    By the way, watched the debate last evening and thought Hone was awesome. I may be a bit biased but I thought he was the star.

    November 17, 2011
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      Yep, its a wash-rinse-repeat type cycle that’s for sure. The ole’ grass skirt line is well passed its use-by date, I guess this is just my effort to put it into retirement. When I used to read a little philosophy; predominantly if not completely from white men, I would wonder what knowledges we’d missed out on from women, from black/brown peeps whose thoughts and questions were not written down for ‘posterity’ (although passed on orally in places). Those sorts of thoughts usually get put down as ‘myth’ and ‘legend’ not philosophical musing.

      I missed Hone but Angeline was great too. A line-up of passionate, articulate peeps. Can’t be politics…

      November 17, 2011
  2. Nadia #

    I love this blog 🙂 At school the main myth I learnt was that NZ isn’t racist and wasn’t really colonised like other countries, the settlers were kind to Maori they saved us from our own savagery anyway it was all over a long time ago we’re really 1 nation now. Nobody believed it

    In part 2 will you include the myth about Maori cannibals colonising the real indigenous people? Any time I say anything about Maori somebody brings it up! Even if I say “Maori are over-represented in prison” or “Maori culture isn’t totally bad” some white person ALWAYS accuses me of killing and eating the Mori-ori –or the original settlers Celts or Vikings. My mother even believes that and she’s Maori! Where do they come up with this nonsense? :/

    December 8, 2011
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      Kia ora Nadia! I think Lenin (not John but Vladimir) said it best when he said “A lie told often enough becomes truth”. And like any tricky often repeated phrase, what that kind of nonsense allows for is a crappy justification for their own actions “hey, we might have colonised the place (and stole land, bought misery etc.) but at LEAST we didn’t eat people”. In many respects WHY its such a popular truth is even more important than whether it is truth. Which it isn’t. That may be a good suggestion for Part 2… will ponder on it 🙂

      December 8, 2011
  3. Kia ora ,
    The conundrum Maori and other Indigenous peoples find ourselves in is that if we change, adapt, adopt or in any way take on the cloak of modernity, we’re considered no longer to represent our cultures, no longer ‘traditional’, whereas the often frantic modernising of European’s and their descendants is nothing more than normal.

    I’m not so sure about the association of the fish-like shape of Te Ika a Maui being an outcome of our geographical skills (I’m a Maori geographer myself…). Surely as an ocean-going fishing culture, ANY land ‘coming out of’ Te Moana Nui a Kiwa would have been metaphorically interpreted as a fish. 🙂

    February 11, 2012
    • “I’m not so sure about the association of the fish-like shape of Te Ika a Maui being an outcome of our geographical skills (I’m a Maori geographer myself…). Surely as an ocean-going fishing culture, ANY land ‘coming out of’ Te Moana Nui a Kiwa would have been metaphorically interpreted as a fish. :)”

      So you think that a people that explored the hell out the Pacific Ocean would not also seek to explore the extent of the new lands they arrived at? I think that’s basic survival 101 shit, know the layout of your habitat. Get a bearing on the situation.

      And I know it’s possible. For instance if you were to walk or sail the coast from Kapiti to Taranaki and noted your position in relation to those 3 formations that are occasionally discernible on the horizon (Taranaki, Ruapehu and Tarawera), you’d be able to get a rough idea where you are in relation to where you started. Not saying that that’s how they did it, but that’s how I might approach it.

      July 18, 2012

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