Uncovering the complexity of Māori histories
Historian Associate Professor Aroha Harris (Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi) uncovers the complexity of Māori histories.
"I've written poetry since I was a schoolkid and I had this idea I could be a great novelist. I wrote lots of beginnings but never any endings. Fortunately, history is a great way of writing stories. You don't have to make up the story because fascinating stories are ready-made for you.
"The focus of my PhD was Māori community leadership after World War Two. I had an idea that the 1950s and 1960s had been underdone not only in general New Zealand history but also Māori history.
"History books tended to skip from Apirana Ngata and Te Rangi Hiroa Buck and the two world wars in the early twentieth century, to the 1970s when all of a sudden Māori appear angry and protest-y. The generations the histories missed were those that my parents and grandparents belonged to.
"On the rare occasions when the 1950s were mentioned, they were depicted as a period of decline for Māori: Māori apparently moved to the city and everything went to hell.
"I wanted to have a fuller picture. It's important to understand the whys and hows of negative statistics that emerged post-war but I didn't want to produce only negative stories. I wanted to show positive role models, to show that Māori have always been active in community life — all the arts and all the sports and all facets of society.
History books tended to skip from Apirana Ngata and Te Rangi Hiroa Buck and the two world wars in the early twentieth century, to the 1970s when all of a sudden Māori appear angry and protest-y.
To unravel that complexity, I engaged with oral histories and researched in government archives and in my family's own private archives, taking an insider approach.
"This including looking at waiata composition and whakataukī —songs, speeches and sayings from people like Ngāti Hine rangatira James Henare.
"Looking at waiata gives you a snapshot of what the composer thought about the events of the day at the time of composition, as does looking at fiction. For example, I looked at short stories published in the 1960s in Māori Affairs magazine Te Ao Hou.
"One of the best responses I had to my thesis was from one of my kaumatua. I couldn't even believe he read it in the first place, but he loved it because it was the first time he could read a 'book' about people he knew. The history was familiar to him.
"Later, in my chapters in Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History —from post-World War One to the present day — I wanted to bring in stories that don't usually get told, about break-dancing and street kids. I talked about gang culture within a discussion about the Māori economy, rather than within a social discussion.
Looking at waiata gives you a snapshot of what the composer thought about the events of the day at the time of composition.
"I think we do a disservice to our history if Māori can only occupy certain roles. I can't imagine Māori being on their best behaviour 24/7 while Pākehā were always evil.
"Colonisation is more complicated than that because humans are complicated and we’re all a little bit weird. I don't say that to undermine the history of colonisation but to find a deeper understanding. People's actions matter, but it is simplistic and unhelpful to categorise all the members of a particular group as only ever good or only ever bad.
"As the historian member of the Waitangi Tribunal panel for Wai 898 (Te Rohe Pōtae District Inquiry), I'm often interested in the sources for the research presented, or the way the sources have been collected. I have a tendency to be pedantic about details like dates, people and places. I'm interested in what’s been excluded from a research report as well as what's included.
"The people who present to the Tribunal often have some document from their grandmother in the trunk in their garage, or they have an old invitation to some big hui in the early 1900s. I'm usually busting to ask what other documents they have and whether anybody is doing non-Tribunal research on their papers. I can't ask those things, of course, but I’d love the opportunity if I could.
I wanted to bring in stories that don't usually get told, about break-dancing and street kids.
"As 2018 President of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, I'm keen to emphasise trans-indigenous exchange.
"Through the Association I've been to panels that incorporated three different Indigenous languages — that's a good signal that different Indigenous nations are finding common ground and solidarity and are exchanging ideas."