The virus mutates
Sir Peter Buck holds the stocky, dark-skinned man firmly and eyes him suspiciously. 'It is as though Buck believes that the man is a rare piece of wildlife, who might take flight at any moment', wrote Michael King, in a comment on the famous Ngati Mutunga anthropologist's demeanour in the this strange photograph, which was taken in Dargaville in the early 1920s, and published shortly afterwards in HD Skinner's groundbreaking The Morioris of the Chatham Islands.
Buck probably deserves the faint look of triumph that can be detected in his face: by the time he located the man we now know as Matene Totara Te Retimana in the upper Kaipara, he had spent years investigating rumours that a full-blooded Moriori had settled in Northland after being taken to the region as a slave in the nineteenth century.
Buck was a scholar of great probity, who undertook his research in a humble rather than inquisitorial manner. In his poem about the man, Kendrick Smithyman reflects on this humility:
Buck had questions. Wherever he went
he mightn’t ask outright - he knew how to behave -
of this one and that one, or of this one and that knew
alright to say directly "Tell me . . . Show me".
Said "Show me how they tie a knot and I’ll tell you
something worth knowing about these people."
There is nevertheless something disturbing about this photograph. For all his gentle professionalism, Buck was a member of one of the two Taranaki iwi which shattered the Moriori world by invading the Chatham Islands in 1835. His ancestors had eaten many Moriori, and enslaved others. Buck was barely removed from the era of Ngati Mutunga hegemony on the Chathams: he was born in a small and improvised settlement near Urenui, in the north Taranaki heartland of his people, set up by hapu which had hurriedly abandoned the islands because they were worried that their own traditional lands might be threatened by a new invader - the Pakeha.
Buck grew up with stories of the ruthless prowess of Ngati Mutunga taua, and even some of his most distinguished contemporaries imbibed their parents' contempt for the indigenous people of the Chathams. Maui Pomare, who was the first Maori to gain a medical degree and eventually became Minister of Health, harboured a lifelong disdain for Moriori, whom he considered 'slaves' and 'the offspring of slaves'.
By the time Michael King discovered the photo of Buck's Moriori, the man had once again become a mystery. In the notes to his magisterial 1989 book Moriori: A People Rediscovered, King laments that extensive research in the Dargaville area had failed to turn up any information about him, or any descendants he might have had. It was matter of conjecture, King concluded, whether the man in the photo was even named Te Retimana.
In desperation, perhaps, the historian fell back upon a anecdote from his friend Kendrick Smithyman. King's book quoted 'The Last Moriori', a poem Smithyman had written in the late 1970s, more than fifty years after his father had pointed out Retimana as the unfortunate man wandered down a Dargaville street:
Reputedly last of his kind,
quite surely one of the last
not crossbred but (as They said) pure
as pure goes, a Chatham Island Moriori
taken for a slave when a boy, taken
again in some other raiding, passed
from band to band, from place to place
until he washed up on the River.
This was the story, anyway, which is
as may be. He was
very old, he did not belong,
some chunk of totara which lay too long
in acid swamp.
He was kumara left on the pit’s floor,
sweetness dried, its hull drawn small.
He was what you found in caves but did not
mention, travesty gone
beyond human. A tatty topcoat, bowler hat,
blanket which seemed to look your way
without seeing you from the stoop of a hut
at the Pa. A few weak hungers,
he survived. He endured,
already myth, beyond legends of his kind,
a poor fact.
As I noted last year, in my review of Rhys Richards' fine book about Moriori dendroglyphs, Smithyman's poem deserves to be placed alongside TS Eliot's 'Gerontion' as an eloquent expression of ethnic prejudice. Smithyman's view of Te Retimana almost certainly owes more to Pakeha and Maori stereotypes about an inferior, immoral, doomed people than to any insight into the man himself. In 2005 the first modern Moriori marae opened on Chatham Island. Named Kopinga, the building stands near a cliff in the north of the island, and is shaped like an enormous albatross; its centrepiece is a huge carved pole on which the names of all the Moriori who were alive at the time of the 1835 invasion are inscribed. The name Te Retimana appears several times in the list, so when in 2007 Matene Totara's grandson Steve Te Retimana contacted Moriori historian Maui Solomon about his family history he was assured of a warm response. Together, the two men were able to establish that Matene Totara Te Retimana was taken from the Chathams as a boy by the islands' Taranaki conquerors, before coming north and assimilating into Nga Puhi society.
Late last year a three-day hui was held in Ruawai, a small town south of Dargaville, where descendants of Te Retimana were joined by Solomon and other Moriori. The event at Ruawai was ignored by the national media, but reported in the Dargaville News, in the Northern Advocate, and on some Maori news sites. This scant coverage was enough to bring another man who claims to be Moriori out of the woodwork and on to the internet.
Unlike Steve Te Retimana, John Wanoa has no connections to the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands. His surname does not figure on the carved pole at Kopinga marae, and he has made no effort to contact Moriori historians. Despite his lack of credentials, Wanoa has spent much of the last few months spamming a bewildering range of websites, forums, and e mail lists with the claim that he is not only Moriori, but a spokesman for a 'nation of Moriori'. Wanoa hails from the northern Kaipara, and he is indignant that the hui at Ruawai did not include him.
Wanoa's wild claims derive not from any knowledge of Moriori history, but from a reading of the voluminous pseudo-histories of this country written by Pakeha cranks like Noel Hilliam, Barry Brailsford, Kerry Bolton, and Martin Doutre. Wanoa is Maori, but the fact that many of the creators of these pseudo-histories are motivated by an anti-Maori political agenda does not appear to faze him. In foam-flecked statements like this one, which was posted on several websites and at least one email list, Wanoa recycles some of the most outlandish claims of the pseudo-historians:
My Company is SUING the NZ Governments CORPORATE FRAUD COMPANY called "HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN IN RIGHT OF NEW ZEALAND" for all the STOLEN LANDS and the DESECRATIN of Urupa Ancestral Grave SITES especially ONE TREE HILL where BLOODY PAKEHA DUG UP THE MORIORI PUPONGA MANUKAU BONES of ERU MANUKAU Ancestors then CRIMMINALLY BLATANTLY INUMANELY CRUSHED THEM ALL IN ROBERT ROBERTSONS PAKEHA FLOUR MILL IN MT EDEN along with the rest of ERU MANUKAU'S MORIORI TUPUNA BONES...
TAKE NOTICE THAT YOU ARE ACUSED THE NAMED PERSONS SEVERALLY MUST REBUTT ALL OUR MORIORI PUPONGA MANUKAU CLAIMS HISTORIC LAND CLAIMS before 4pm on the 30th September 2008 or earlier as our MARAE COUNCIL so determines TAKE NOTICE THAT the 20 SOVEREIGN STATE GOVERNMENTS who signed AGREEMENTS with each other including ERU MANUKAU Minister of Security Intelligence MAORI CROWN SOVEREIGN GOVERNMENT Representative under the PARAMOUNT by right of Inheritance MOHI WIREMU TE MAATI MANUKAU the 4th Members of the Order of the ST JOHNS and Her Majesty the Queen most Honorable Member...
Wanoa claims to be a descendant of a group of pre-Maori Moriori who lived at Puponga, which is the peninsula on the Manukau Harbour often nowadays known as Cornwallis. He claims to speak for these people, and for Moriori who lived on the Auckland isthmus, on the Kaipara, and in the Waikato. Wanoa claims that the Moriori of the North Island were conquered by Maori and then Pakeha, and that traces of their existence have been systematically hidden by a conspiracy embracing both groups. Now, though, under the leadership of a shadowy exile from New Zealand named Eru Manukau, the 'Moriori' are about to make a comeback, and execute a series of complicated legal manoeuvres which will somehow lead to their taking control of these islands.
It is easy to dismiss Wanoa as a crank. But his views are perhaps significant, because they represent the assimilation and adaption by a Maori of the anti-Maori propaganda which the likes of Kerry Bolton and Martin Doutre pump out. The virus has mutated. Wanoa is ashamed to be a Maori, and has identified himself with a fictional pre-Maori people. Wanoa gives this people the name Moriori, perhaps in deference to the long-standing myth that the Moriori were pre-Maori inhabitants of the North and South Islands, but he allows them many of the qualities of the ancient Celts which Bolton and Doutre believe resided here. Wanoa's mainland Moriori were a technically advanced people, not hunter gatherers, and they maintained extensive contacts with other parts of the world, including the mythical ancient civilisations in South America that so fascinate Pakeha pseudo-historians. Wanoa's claims about a conspiracy of silence and his reference to a mill grinding up the bones of his ancestors are clearly sourced from the Celtic New Zealand circle.
The only authentic part of Moriori culture which Wanoa invokes in his statements is the pacifism which made the Chathams so easy for Maori to conquer in 1835. Wanoa's mainland Moriori were peace-loving folk, who apparently refused to use their advanced technology to defend themselves against savage Maori invaders.
How can we understand Wanoa's conversion to and indefatigable advocacy of a profoundly racist mythology? I find it hard to believe that Wanoa has been moved only by the eloquence of Martin Doutre's prose, or the logic of Kerry Bolton's arguments. I think that his decision to repudiate his Maoriness is also related to a far more subtle and widespread tendency in contemporary discourses about New Zealand history.
The old myth of the Moriori as an autocthonous people driven from the North and South Islands by savage Maori invaders has been in decline for two decades, as the 'Moriori renaissance' symbolised by the opening of Kopinga marae helps to clarify the origins and the history of the indigenous people of the Chathams. But the longevity of the myth is nonetheless remarkable, given the lack of the scholarly suport it has commanded, and this longevity has to be related to the political usefulness of the idea that Maori were, like Pakeha, a people who had displaced another to take control of the North and South Islands. 'We only did to them what they did to the Morioris' is the sort of statement that can still be encountered occasionally on talkback radio shows and in the letters columns of newspapers.
Although the myth of the Moriori as a pre-Maori people has become harder and harder to advance, many Pakeha still feel a need to legitimise the conquest of Maori in the nineteenth century by finding a moral equivalent for this conquest in Maori history. For many of the more intelligent apologists for colonialism, the Maori invasion of the Chathams in 1835 has become a sort of justification for the Pakeha treatment of Maori later in the century. In her fine study of the history of the Moriori myth, Canterbury University's Jacinta Blank identified the danger of making a simplistic interpretation of the events of 1835 into a new version of that myth.
Blank's research helps us to see how the undeniable brutality of the 1835 invasion and the contrast between 'warlike' Maori society and peaceful Moriori society are now sometimes held up as reasons why Pakeha were justified in imposing their laws and government on Maori at the point of a gun in the New Zealand Wars. The actions of two small Taranaki iwi in a very specific historical situation - a situation largely created by the coming of the Pakeha, with his guns and his insatiable need for food and building materials - are used to condemn all of Maori. The diversity of Maori societies is ignored, and Moriori pacifism and egalitarianism are idealised, rather than treated as the pragmatic choices of a people forced to inhabit two small, isolated islands with limited resources. Moriori, who were once condemned as a degenerate race, are now patronised as utopian innocents, and Maori are cast in their familiar role as savage opportunists.
Perhaps the self-deluded, self-hating John Wanoa is the victim of a new chapter in the history of the Moriori myth, as well as the fantasies of the Celtic New Zealand circle.