Giving voice to early Māori writing

31 August 2011
Kuni Jenkins and Alison Jones
Kuni Jenkins and Alison Jones

For Kuni Jenkins (Ngāti Porou) and Alison Jones (Pākehā) creating the exhibition Ngā Taonga Tuhituhi represents a dramatic departure from the usual academic research outputs of article and book writing. The exhibition comprises 18 archival images from their research into the earliest Māori use of ink and paper and its significance for understanding the dynamics of the two-way teaching and learning relationship that existed historically between Māori and Pākehā.

Digitally reproduced and enlarged, the images date from 1769 to 1826. They include surviving textual material such as copybooks from one of the earliest schools, and the fascinating letters and drawings of Tuai and Titeri, two young men from the Bay of Islands who visited Australia and England in 1818, and became important teachers of English missionaries headed for New Zealand.

Supported by a Marsden Fund grant, Kuni and Alison’s main goal initially was to present their research only in book and article form, but the idea of an exhibition soon took on a life of its own. While the book is due out later this year through Huia Publishers, the exhibition is already up and running with the help of sponsorship from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga (the National Institute of Research Excellence for Māori Development and Advancement, based at The University of Auckland).

Safely transported inside three custom-built crates, the exhibition had its first public showing last October at the week-long Ngāpuhi Waitangi Tribunal hearings in the coastal community of Te Tii. Hundreds of people (mainly Māori) from school children to kaumātua were able to get up close, touch and interact with the images.

“For Kuni and me, it was a priority to take these images out of the archives and back to the descendants, to the people of the hapū whose stories they represent, but who don’t usually have access to them,” says Alison.

Requests have since flowed in and Alison and Kuni have travelled with the images to Northland marae and other venues. The collection has also been hosted by the University’s Waipapa Marae, Auckland City Library and Te Whare Wānanga o Aotearoa in Māngere. It has proved a powerful vehicle through which to tell the Māori side of the story about the first educational encounters with Pākehā.

“What was in the mind of Māori in this early period, that they kept on trusting these people who couldn’t speak very much Māori, and when they couldn’t speak much English?” asks Kuni. “Genuine communication must have gone on. The exhibition helps put Māori back in the picture as active participants in the relationship. The images are a starting point for inserting a Māori presence into the gaps of the historical records,” she says, arguing that a critical re-reading of historical moments in this way has direct relevance to contemporary educational issues.

“So often we think about Māori educational success in terms of what teachers, governments and schools should do, and the idea of relationships seems somehow banal or common sense,” elaborates Alison. “But it’s actually quite profound, and quite difficult to articulate. What we have done by trying to tease out some of those first Māori-Pākehā educational relationships historically—and how Māori might have understood and engaged with them—I think has huge resonance today, by suggesting the elements required to make educational relationships successful.”

Kuni and Alison’s own relationship stretches back to the 1980s when Kuni was an undergraduate at The University of Auckland, and Alison her tutor and lecturer. Both are now professors—Alison at the University’s Faculty of Education, and Kuni at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, dividing her time between the Tāmaki and Whakatāne campuses. The inspiration to pursue their current research began with Kuni’s doctorate, completed in 2000, which Alison supervised.

Kuni credits Alison with being the driving force behind taking her work out of its PhD covers into the wider world. Alison describes their continuing academic collaboration as mutually dependent. “I do the writing and Kuni has the ideas. I couldn’t write without her ideas. We have different ways of approaching the world. Although we have struggled with my voice tending to be dominant we try to end up with a product that we are both happy with, that expresses something that is beyond both of us, that neither I nor Kuni could do alone. It’s an ongoing friendship that I think is really productive.”

Their research journey has taken them into archival collections both here and overseas. They have spent time in Sydney’s Mitchell Library and the suburb of Parramatta, where Samuel Marsden’s “New Zealand Seminary” once stood, and which Tuai and Titeri attended. Kuni has studied the Church Missionary Society records stored at Birmingham University, and followed the trail of Tuai and Titeri to the town of Madeley in Shropshire, England where they stayed in 1818.

Back home, she and Alison have tracked back through the references in seminal texts by Judith Binney and Anne Salmond, following leads deep into the historical material held at institutions such as the Alexander Turnbull and Hocken Libraries. From a visit to Auckland City Library’s special collections, Alison recalls the impact of seeing for the first time the original 1818 drawings by Tuai and Titeri, and Māori students’ copybooks from 1826.

“The hair stood up on the back of our necks. I think we both fell in love with the aesthetic aspects of those pages. It was the absolute beauty and power of those marks on the page, and the sense of boys having produced these objects with their own hands almost 200 years ago, with such passion, enthusiasm and engagement. Their story had to be told.”

While the images have generated much interest amongst non-Māori, it has been the reaction of Māori audiences that has made them confident about the validity of the exhibition as a research output, especially for communities that normally may have little opportunity or desire to connect with academia.

“I have been amazed and excited at the deep reflective talk from Māori in response to the images, seeing themselves as part of an important New Zealand story that they had not known about before,” says Kuni. “The images then become for Māori not just pieces of writing but taonga. What’s been really necessary for this process is the time Alison and I have spent talking with people one-to-one while standing next to an image. You start where they are at. They ask you what’s this, who’s that, and why is this? So you can talk about one object, and that expands their knowledge, and their desire to understand what they are looking at.”

The popularity of the images has influenced the final shape of the book. Originally conceived as a story with illustrations, the images have now become much more prominent. The book expands upon the material featured in the exhibition and charts how Māori progressively engaged with the written word from Cook’s arrival right through to 1825, the date of the first known independently-written Māori text. With the exhibition in demand and work on the book almost over, there is, says Alison, more to come.

“We are really in the middle of the project. There are just so many aspects of the story still to be told, and we are just part way through telling them.”