This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 244
Kārearea by Māmari Stephens (Bridget Williams Books, 2021), 146pp, $14.99; Fragments from a Contested Past: Remembrance, denial and New Zealand history by Joanna Kidman, Vincent O’Malley, Liana MacDonald, Tom Roa and Keziah Wallis (Bridget Williams Books, 2022), 184pp, $14.99
One of Aotearoa’s swiftest birds of prey, the kārearea (New Zealand falcon or sparrowhawk), is beautiful, lethal and a threatened species. Māmari Stephens (Te Rarawa) named her blog after this bird because ‘the kārearea’s flight above has a comforting distance from the ground’, a distance she wished to gain through publishing her opinions anonymously. Thankfully, this initial anonymity gave way to self-identification. Her writing in Kārearea exemplifies the whakataukī, ‘Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini’ (‘My success is not mine alone, but is the strength of many’). As a legal scholar, writer, Anglican priest and wahine Māori, Stephens is incredibly aware of her social reproductive, intellectual and emotional debts to her community. This is a humble book. Through writing these pieces, Stephens realises the extent to which her ‘writing needs the people and experiences I come from, if my words are to make any sense at all’.
Kārearea is a nest, really, of the essays posted on Stephens’ blog between 2016– 2020. A many-feathered nest, it also includes sermons, essays written for e-Tangata, and academic publications. Whether writing about devastating casual racism, legal fictions, welfare and sentencing laws, the ethical issues of building marae on foreign soil, rangatiratanga, or her own mother, Stephens is gritty, thoughtful, sardonic and earnest.
While urging that ‘grievance is not a state of grace we should hold onto’, these essays detail the prevalence of cultural essentialism and racism in Aotearoa. Sadly, she notes, ‘just like the violent and heavy histories,’ stories of ‘everyday ignorance and racism are indigenous to Aotearoa as well’. These stories contain ellipses, silences that gesture towards a wealth of unwritten content. These silences are deliberate. In ‘The Only Māori in the Room’, for example, Stephens writes, ‘Of course, a lot of things had to happen for me to have been the only Māori in that room.’ Decades of personal experience and scholarship inform this sentence. But there is no further explanation. There is no need because the target audience knows, or ought to know, this backstory.
Culture, here, is a ‘marvellous double-edged sword’, both empowering and imprisoning Māori, depending on its definition and deployment. The obsession with culture can lead to the veneration of ‘an ossified understanding of Māori culture’, one which sees Māori people as innately practical, as naturally illiterate. This is the type of deep cultural stereotype that projects such as Te Takarangi, and Stephens’ own Legal Māori Project, have been combatting.
Flowing from mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and Christian faith, Kārearea abounds with homilies, honesty and hypothesis, including Stephens’ theorising about the weakness and strength of human nature, the social needs behind bigotry, and the ‘relational citizenship’ practised by Māori, which balances the pursuit of the common good and rangatiratanga. Stephens is honest, too, about her own internalised misogyny and racism, admitting that it took years ‘to realise that male leadership and breezy male authority in all matters are not written in the stars’. Thoroughly socialised through literature and movies to see only white faces, only male heroes, she saw ‘no narrative of Māori life’ until she was an adult.
The legal system, too, is something Stephens only gradually comes to see as socially constructed and contingent. This ‘poisonous exotic’ had ‘never been inevitable and was not immutable’. Having grown up in Ōtautahi/ Christchurch, detached from her hapū, one essay recounts Stephens’ ‘journey into Māori law’, to te ao Māori, and also to the Western legal system imposed on Aotearoa. Starting with a slap on the leg for breaching tikanga, this essay is a bildungsroman of Stephens’ passage from whakamā (shame) to mātauranga. This is a journey ‘defined by absence, understanding of loss, whakamā, accident and a sense of coming in from the cold’. As a child, she ‘had no clear idea that there was such a thing as tikanga Māori’. To her tūpuna (ancestors), this would have been unthinkable. Stephens speaks of the hurtful, harmful non-transmission of knowledge and custom to urban-based wāhine Māori, the burning shame associated with not knowing the reo, the tikanga, or how to karanga. Through intimate vignettes, Stephens shows the ‘haphazard development’ of her ‘understanding of the existence of mātauranga Māori: in particular, the way in which tikanga Māori comprises law’. The long process of understanding Aotearoa as having a properly bicultural, bilingual and bijural legal system, a journey both personal and professional, is an important one for any New Zealander to read. It will resonate with many Māori and should show Pākehā readers the alienating power of their colonial legal system.
Any review of Stephens’ work should hew closely to Mana Wāhine (the mana of Māori women), which shapes Stephens’ professional and personal life. As a research framework, legal project, and kaupapa of social transformation, honouring Mana Wāhine is imperative in Aotearoa. Although it doesn’t explicitly emerge until the final essay, Mana Wāhine suffuses the entire book. Her writing is lit up by the mana and mātauranga of Māori women, and a fierce love and respect for her late mother. The final essay, titled ‘Mana wahine, the legal system and the search for better stories’, exposes the legal system as the source of many false, harmful stories about Māori, rendering invisible ‘the mana, needs and rights of Māori women’ in New Zealand society. Focusing on a 1914 Supreme Court decision and its recent re-writing through the Feminist Judgments Project Aotearoa, Stephens shows that judges can change the stories they tell. And they ought to. Mana Wāhine-based readings of the law were possible in 1914, ‘even within the strictures of the colonial legal system’, and they are possible now. The rewriting of these stories ‘gives hope that the story of Māori women, and Māori generally, and the legal system, can change’.
Mana Wāhine and the rewriting of history also undergird Fragments from a Contested Past, a rewarding early publication from Joanna Kidman (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa) and Vincent O’Malley’s (Pākehā) Marsden-funded project, ‘He Taonga te Wareware?: Remembering and Forgetting Difficult Histories in Aotearoa New Zealand’. With Liana Macdonald (Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne o Wairau, Ngāti Koata), Tom Roa (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato) and Keziah Wallis (Kāi Tahu), Kidman and O’Malley have produced a poignant, preliminary exploration of the ‘memory wars’ that are still fought over the New Zealand Wars (1843–72).
Using a powerful combination of historical and ethnographic methodologies, the researchers investigate the commemoration (or lack thereof ) of these wars and how these acts of memory have shaped the nation. They recap Māori struggles to tell their versions of violent historic events, visit human remains buried under forgotten battle sites, and witness racist Pākehā outrage over the petition to commemorate the New Zealand Wars.
They road trip down the Great South Road, explore the history of Kihikihi and the state’s neglect of Rewi Maniapoto’s cottage, and consider refugees and raupatu, closing with a reflection on silences between Roa and Kidman. They visit locations of massacre and great violence in ‘states of neglect and decay’, places forgotten and renamed and overlaid by highways in ‘deliberate acts of cultural erasure: not just forgetting but destroying the tangible reminders of that history’. Evident in all former colonies, such erasure is encoded in colonialism and imperialism.
Each chapter fuses archival research, field notes and interview transcripts, expressly inviting the reader ‘to look over our shoulders at our notes recorded at the battlefields and listen in to conversations that took place … on the road’. This is an intimate book, full of mamae (pain) and maumahara (remembrance). But it is not a book without hope. Part of its kaupapa is making the case for ‘a wholesale shift in the way that Pākehā New Zealand engages with the history of the wars fought on our own shores’. The transcribed field notes are revelatory, both glorious and inglorious. We are witness to great pain, wanton racism, and the exercise of rangatiratanga. (Charming and poetic, Kidman is also very funny.) Interspersed with narrative analysis, these notes record each researcher’s observations of ‘historical memory in action’. The authors trace the vicissitudes of official and public memory throughout the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, tracing the rise and fall of colonial ‘gutsy champions’ and the themes over which the ‘competing streams of Māori and Crown memories’ chafe and strain.
A timely publication, considering the now mandatory teaching of New Zealand history in schools, Fragments explores how to teach these difficult, sanguinary histories, how to improve the accessibility and user-friendliness of important knowledge, and how to use kōrero tuku iho (history) to start undoing the structural harms of racial capitalism and colonialism. Each chapter considers how history can serve as a ‘beacon for the future’. If we knew our past better, there would be less Pākehā fear and racist backlash against the perceived rewriting of New Zealand history. Observing that ‘we live in a time of radical historical reappraisal’, the co-authors reveal this global and local revisionism as something to embrace. The divide over revisionist history is posed as largely generational, with older Pākehā men being most resistant to Māori versions of history. Kidman and O’Malley propose that rangatahi, or youth, may be the necessary agents for change, prompting the nation to a ‘deeper historical consciousness’ capable of unsettling settler colonial narratives. Teaching New Zealand history as part of the curriculum has great potential for these agents of change.
Against the settler state’s ‘art of forgetting’ or of misremembering (the nurturing of ‘distorted or false memories’), key weapons in the ‘memory wars’, the co-authors advocate for alternative forms of remembering. ‘What a nation or society chooses to remember and forget speaks to its contemporary priorities and sense of identity.’ Reconciliation, therefore, requires an ‘ethical remembering’, the ongoing, deep dialogue and understanding of Māori and Pākehā pasts. Fragments is ethical remembrance in practice.
The last chapter is a standout. Somehow, through only black marks on the page, Kidman and Roa’s conversation offers the kind of quiet that makes you lean in, straining to hear more. Reflecting on his King Country childhood and the intergenerational transmission of stories of invasion, Roa contemplates the ‘silences that travel with Māori communities at times when historical memories become too painful to put into words’. If the recitation of oral history is a form of resistance and survival, the embrace of silence is a shield: another, more complex form of record-keeping. Together, Kidman and Roa think through the pain and memories embedded in silence, how to find tribal archives in those silences. They consider the histories carried in the ‘quietness’ around the atrocities at Rangiaowhia. They situate silence as part of Te Wāhi Ngaro, something ‘very tangible’ that is ‘an essential part of mātauranga’. Silence, too, resonates over time. Echoing the pain across centuries, carrying on the afterlife of violence. Silence, too, must be a part of teaching and learning history.
Fragments forces us to reckon with the type of peace we are living with. Peace should mean securing both memory and land and ensuring better outcomes for all. Is the peace we have—one characterised by distorted national memory—one we want? Can we reimagine peace, through deeper knowledge of our history, and attain a peace that is more rewarding for all? The authors do not pretend to have the answers, but prompt us to think deeply on these issues.
Both texts grapple with New Zealand’s ‘messy, contested and uncertain history’ (Kārearea), the stories that have ‘shaped us’ (Fragments). They are also bound by what is unsaid or cannot be said. Silences, the tiny gaps or vast chasms between kōrero, are fundamental to history. Silences are a way of storytelling, a way of life, a form of research methodology. A blend of kōrero, writing, and silence, history has always been immensely important to national, local and individual senses of identity. We need to share histories more often, to pay more attention to who we are, who others are, and to be more comfortable sitting with silences. There is trauma in these histories. But the secondary trauma of national forgetting, the mamae of memory distortion, only aggravates that initial injury. Mauri ora, he taonga te wareware.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is working on a PhD in New Zealand history at the University of Cambridge and is a Research Fellow for Te Takarangi at the University of Otago Faculty of Law.