This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 242
Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook by Alice Te Punga Somerville (Bridget Williams Books, 2020), 120pp, $14.99; Imagining Decolonisation by Bianca Elkington, Moana Jackson, Rebecca Kiddle, Ocean Ripeka Mercier, Mike Ross, Jennie Smeaton and Amanda Thomas (Bridget Williams Books, 2020), 184pp, $14.99
Until relatively recently, Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Āti Awa, Taranaki) seemed like one of literary and academic Aotearoa’s best-kept secrets. Whether parsing the poetry of Robert Sullivan, tracing the genealogical and creative connections between Māori and Pacific peoples, reformulating methodologies for Indigenous biography, history and literary scholarship, or dissecting the alienation of not-quite-belonging in either the English Department or Māori Studies, she is some kind of genius. And then she was awarded a Marsden Fund grant, published Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook, contributed a heartrending chapter to Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface (Otago University Press, 2021) and delivered the 2021 Michael King Memorial Lecture. Irrepressible. With the publication of this accessible BWB Text alongside her other projects, Te Punga Somerville will be recognised as an invaluable public intellectual for so-called ‘post-colonial’ Aotearoa.
Scholarship on Captain Cook abounds. Literally, it fills entire wings of libraries. This is a different kind of ink-spilling: historical, literary, interdisciplinary, polemical. As distinct from the infamous anthropological battle over Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) interpretations of Cook and his subsequent death in Hawai`i, Te Punga Somerville ventures on a different tack. Not merely de-deifying Cook, Two Hundred and Fifty Ways takes an academic hatchet to (neo-)colonial interpretations, norms and myths. This is fresh, emotive and supremely compelling Indigenous-centred revisionist history. Prioritising ‘stories of Pacific connection and anti-colonial Indigenous-centred narratives’, Te Punga Somerville is dedicated to shifting the focus of Oceania’s history away from its colonisers ‘and back to the relational, relation-filled context of the broader Pacific region’. With the acuity and Indigenous feminist scholarship of Haunani-Kay Trask, Leonie Pihama and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and its author’s own dark humour, this slim volume offers 250 wry, erudite lessons in changing history, and changing our reality.
Essentially, Te Punga Somerville challenges the fallacy of a single narrative, or a single starting point for histories. Revelling in multiplicity, cultural mythologies and intellectual honesty, she grapples with orientations and origin stories—where and when to begin ‘the history of this place’. Starting points, she argues, have ‘revolutionary significance’ in that they foreclose the telling of histories, predetermining what is remembered, and how. Revealing the profound messiness of imperial histories, and the complexity and agency of Pacific peoples, Te Punga Somerville debunks dominant stories and hero narratives. As many have before her, she makes the case for undoing Cook’s apotheosis. But this is part of a larger project of re-forging and re-theorising history. Along with allied disciplines, history is called to account for its complicity in imperialism. Thus, the importance of decolonial history could not be greater:
One of the projects of Indigenous people is to push back against colonial narratives.
This kaupapa is essential because it liberates imagination, allows us to see ‘alternative future[s]’ and is world-making. Te Punga Somerville argues we must expose the gendered, classed and racialised reproduction of settler colonial history, which ‘naturalises, produces and memorialises’ both the logic of settler presence and of Indigenous absence. In turn, this requires us to ask ‘What’s an archive? What’s history?’ How do you use Indigenous historical texts as historical texts? Whose voices matter? For each question, Te Punga Somerville reminds us:
The possibilities are endless and the stakes are high.
Ranging from the punchy one-liner (‘The cursor is blinking. All this fatal impact is giving me writer’s block’) to the mini-essay, these 250 paragraphs give the feel of intellectual bricolage at its politicised best. Her metaphors are crisp, acute diagnoses of neo-colonial society. From internet gun-listings to musings on academic methodologies, this work is interdisciplinary, wide-ranging, singularly focused, taut, baggy: an explosive paradoxical mix. In this work, Te Punga Somerville seamlessly blends literary studies, art history, intersectional feminism, history, anthropology, cartography, Indigenous and Māori studies and dark humour. Like many Indigenous scholars, she underscores the nexus between imperialism and climate change. She re-endows Indigenous women with sexual and political agency, with selves and subjecthood. She reminds us to question the content and context of what we read, hear and learn.
Humour, here, is Indigenous power. It is part of reclaiming histories and:
turn[ing] them inside out … mak[ing] them our own … We laugh, and together we both affirm and reject Cook’s Pacific.
Humour is also, of course, a coping mechanism, ‘because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry’ over these histories, over the mendacity in collective memory and national commemoration. This anti-colonial badinage does not disappoint. The ‘mansplaining’ of Indigenous studies, for example, is ‘to Columbus’:
to discover something that had already been known by others for a long time.
Some gags, however, are ambiguous and awkward: we want to laugh at the racist Pākehā but feel uncomfortable about that laughter, because it simply is not enough. Another reason the humour is dark, though, is the underlying sense of futility, of internal colonisation, which Ngũgĩ wa Thiong`o says demands ‘decolonising the mind’. And death is always dark. This kaupapa has devastatingly real health and mortality implications for Indigenous scholars, especially women, signalling that anti-colonial ‘academic labour contains its own kind of slow-motion punishment. This work is killing us.’ Still, the kaupapa is not masochism but mission, vocation, utu. In all its manifestations, for everybody—without exception—colonialism is exhausting.
In her indictment of Aotearoa’s fraught pedagogical arena, Te Punga Somerville pre-empts certain predictable responses to 250 Ways, future-proofing her own scholarship against racism. In the voice of a hypothetical (all-too-real) stranger, she barks:
This isn’t history. This isn’t academic. Where are the footnotes? … That’s what happens when you ask Maories [sic] to write about Captain Cook. They break the rules. Maybe they don’t even know the rules.
Te Punga Somerville self-identifies as an irredentist, which should alarm precisely nobody. Like 250 Ways, Imagining Decolonisation reminds us that colonisation is ‘a structure, not an event’, an enduring invasion that means genocide, expropriation, cultural alienation and the rest.* And thus, decolonisation is not a metaphor, or a tick-box in cultural awareness training. It means land-back. It means cultural, intellectual, political and economic sovereignty. As Bianca Elkington (Ngāti Toa Rangatira) and Jennie Smeaton (Ngāti Toa Rangatira) clarify in their introduction, Imagining Decolonisation emerged from a project on decolonising urban spaces. Through personal kōrero, as well as empirical and historical analysis, this multi-authored text reveals how colonisation has impacted on Māori and Pākehā, and how these impacts endure. It further reveals the acts of decolonisation needed to re-indigenise and restore ecologies, to heal human and non-human relationships, to eliminate socio-economic disparities and racism, and to build a more just society. While decolonising efforts must be led by Māori, Pākehā solidarity—in public and private—is essential to the kaupapa, because ‘decolonisation is the work of all of us’. This pukapuka sets out to ‘demystify decolonisation’, to reveal how and why this is something every New Zealander ‘can get on board with and benefit from’. But it achieves so much more than this modest mission statement. A wānanga in print, this book is a meeting of hinengaro (intellect) and ngākau (heart), of Māori and Pākehā.
With a clear, cumulative structure, the co-authors build the reader’s comprehension of what colonisation is, and ‘consistent and continuous’ Māori resistance movements (Mike Ross); different global forms of decolonisation and the specific kaupapa Māori-inspired version most apt for Aotearoa (Ocean Ripeka Mercier); the impact of colonisation on Pākehā and other non-Māori New Zealanders, and ‘practical ideas’ for how Pākehā can start doing the mahi of decolonisation (Rebecca Kiddle; Amanda Thomas); and the success stories of mātauranga Māori: the stories of tangata whenua that ‘remain strong despite the efforts of colonisation to suppress and co-opt them’ (Moana Jackson). Although the version of decolonisation endorsed here does not demand the ‘removal of the coloniser’ feared by some Pākehā, Mercier (Ngāti Porou) emphasises the need for systemic overhaul, ‘a fundamental shift in the ideas, knowledges and value sets that underpin the systems which shape our country’. Decolonisation means liberating minds and transforming the world.
The intertextual resonances are most striking between Te Punga Somerville and Jackson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Porou), who focus on how Māori have always resisted the ‘stubborn past tense’ of colonisation. Refusing either to relegate history to the past or to accept Pākehā histories, Māori have committed to honouring and revitalising their own kōrero. Jackson describes the ideological metamorphosis of history into ‘a kind of rebranding’, which depicted colonisation as:
a grand if sometimes flawed adventure that was somehow ‘better’ here than anywhere else.
Always a show-stealer, Jackson discusses how the capitalism, sexism and racism of colonisation disrupted the tikanga of Māori relationships with the land; corrupted the roles of wāhine and tāne; and reduced Māori to stereotypes (the ‘warrior race’ or ‘noble savage’) and their ‘sacred and complex understandings of the world into simple myths and legends’. Beyond these ‘intruder stories’, he also canvasses alternative constitutional models, and the radical, transformative potential of history, or how ‘the identification and “un-telling” of colonisation’s past and present lies’ can help to build new relationships and futures.
Elsewhere, Te Punga Somerville has written of Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies:
Linda’s book warmed Indigenous connections before, and after, they had been made.
Both texts reviewed here are similar conduits: serving as bridges between Māori and other Indigenous scholars, heat conductors, manifestos, pou (pillars). This is writing as a form of, and route to, sovereignty. Despite the clear focus on Aotearoa, transnational Indigenous solidarities are writ large in both books, with the results of colonialism and imperialism traced through many lands. However, these writers do not limit themselves to intra- or inter-Indigenous connections. Instead, they sear solidarity into much broader swathes of humanity, trying to incline all audiences towards supporting decolonisation and Indigenous sovereignty. This kaupapa, each author shows, should be all our kaupapa.
At a time when the national history curriculum is being solidified; when He Puapua—the expert report intended to ensure Aotearoa’s compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—has been labelled ‘separatist’ and ‘an action plan to destroy democracy’; and when mātauranga Māori is abused and wilfully misunderstood, these short texts are indispensable antidotes to historical ignorance, inertia, quietism, populist racism and aggression. Continuing its legacy of educating New Zealanders through ‘short books on big subjects’, Bridget Williams Books is delivering public service after public service. We have come so far from the attempts of certain Pākehā scholars to indigenise Pākehā-ness, to claim ‘white native’ status through settler colonial lineage. Pretty far, but not far enough. With sufficient circulation, and subsequent action, perhaps the current generation of Māori activist-intellectuals (and their Pākehā allies) will make irredentists and decolonisers of us all.
*Patrick Wolfe, ‘Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native’, Journal of Genocide Research 8:4 (2006), 388.
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.