The myth that won't go away
The author of Rekohu has responded with a mixture of amusement and exasperation to the attemots of John Wanoa to reinvent the old myth of the Moriori as pre-Maori inhabitants of mainland New Zealand. As I noted a couple of months back, Wanoa has been presenting himself as a descendant of a fictional North Island Moriori people, and claiming that he is owed vast sums of money by the New Zealand government and the Queen of England. Rekohu can laugh at Wanoa's absurd claims, but he is annoyed that the basic facts of Moriori history have still not been assimilated by so many New Zealanders:
I concur with the assessment of the gentleman in question. I think he is a nutter! One comment that I feel obliged to reiterate though, because some of the esteemed scholars seem to forget it, presumably because they see it as being so bloody obvious is thus: the whole myth thing, whether perpetrated by the pakeha or by the Maori is actually irrelevant. Get over it for God’s sake! Moriori were. Moriori are! And Moriori will be. That is the important thing and the more that people continue to focus on the periphery of that, the greater creedence is given to bloody nutters such as that other bloke and the less mana, and significance is given to the actual story and reality of Te Imi Moriori.
It is easy to understand Rekohu's frustration. Since the 1920s, when HD Skinner produced his classic study The Morioris of the Chatham Islands, the Victorian notion that the Moriori were a group of Melanesians driven from mainland New Zealand by aggressive, latecomer Maori has been discredited amongst scholars. Major archaeological digs on the Chathams in the '70s filled in many gaps in Moriori prehistory, and Michael King's 1989 book Moriori: A People Rediscovered synthesised a huge amount of research and the oral traditions of the Moriori themselves to create a compelling and accessible account of the history of the tchakat henu of Rekohu.
King showed that the Moriori were the descendants of a group of early Maori who had arrived on the Chathams and had been unable or unwilling to leave. The cool climate, constant winds, and relatively small size of the islands led to important cultural changes, like the erosion of social destinctions, the adoption of a strict pacifism, and the abandonment of agriculture. In recent years scholars at the University of Auckland have put the icing on the cake, by using tests on rat bones to determine that the first settlers of Rekohu arrived from the northern part of the South Island around the beginning of the fifteenth century.
The problem with Rekohu's argument that the old myth of the Moriori as pre-Maori New Zealanders is 'irrelevant', and should not be subjected to criticism, is that the myth has refused to die amongst the Kiwi public. Again and again, it is invoked during discussions of issues related to race and history.
The current controversy over whether the city of W(h)anganui should have an 'h' added to its name has seen the Moriori myth bubble once again to the surface. Maori activists in W(h)anganui have long argued that, under the Treaty of Waitangi, their history deserves respect, and that this respect should extend to the proper spelling of traditional names. In a debate on the website of the New Zealand Herald prompted by the Geographic Board's decision that the name should change, a number of Pakeha opponents of 'Maori radicalism' used the Moriori myth to bolster their arguments.
A commenter with the unfortunate name 'Hopefully Fair' contributed this nugget of wisdom:
Boat people are boat people whether they came here 200yrs ago or 1000yrs ago. What happened to the original people before the Maori arrived, or does that upset the stomach...
'Richard from Timaru' also raised the spectre of pre-Maori settlement, and threw a little Martin Doutresque paranoia into the mix:
People want it changed to it's original name, that's fine, and I support that, but Maori are just one in a long line of people that have occupied this country. So the original names of these places wouldn't even be Maori. Sadly though, much of NZ's real history is sealed for decades by previous governments. History that shows NZ populated long before the maori.
Historic finds are dealed off from public access, and worse, some maori tribes have bulldozed it over to keep the myth going that they are native to this country.
Given the continuing currency of arguments like these, I think that the Moriori myth still needs to be countered publically, even if it is as dead as a dodo within the walls of academe. Rekohu himself seems to accept that the Moriori myth needs to be addressed, when he argues that Moriori history should be taught in New Zealand schools.
It seems to me, though, that there is a complementary argument which can be made against those who invoke the Moriori myth. Invariably, those who invoke the myth, or the related and even more absurd myth of ancient Celtic New Zealanders, identify the indigenity of Maori, and the validity of agreements like the Treaty of Waitangi, with the fact that Maori occupied New Zealand before other peoples.
All the evidence points to Maori being the first inhabitants of New Zealand, but even if they Maori were not the first New Zealanders that fact would not, in their eyes and in the eyes of the Treaty, stop them from being indigenous. That’s because Maori understand indigenity as something which derives not from first occupation but from a series of activities - taking possession of the land, naming it, burying the dead there, burying placenta there, and so on (it’s no coincidence that the Maori word for land is also the Maori word for placenta).
If the near-impossible happened, and the remains of a pre-Maori civilisation were discovered, then the Treaty would not have to be torn up and Maori would not have to abandon their claims to be the tangata whenua of New Zealand. Indeed, there have already been Treaty settlements where groups of Maori have been recognised as indigenous, and offered certain resources, despite the acknowledged fact that they were not the first occupants of their rohe.
A good example is the case of Kai Tahu, the iwi which was recognised as the tangata whenua of most of the South Island and given a range of resources in one of the first major Treaty settlements in the early ’90s. No Kai Tahu leader has ever denied that their iwi was not the first to take possession of the southern part of the South Island. The Waitaha and Ngati Mamoe peoples lived in the area before Kai Tahu arrived sometime in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. These prior peoples were either conquered or assimilated, or both, and Kai Tahu became the tangata whenua of most of Te Wai Pounamu. It was Kai Tahu, not Ngati Mamoe or Waitaha, who signed the Treaty, and the arguments about the Treaty concern whether or not the Crown honoured its obligations to Kai Tahu.
If Ngati Mamoe and Waitaha had survived as distinct groups inside the territory Kai Tahu controlled, then the situation would be more complex. In the Chathams, Moriori were conquered by two Taranaki iwi in 1835, but the Waitangi Tribunal found that this conquest did not erase Moriori mana whenua on the islands, because Moriori had retained their culture and traditions. Moriori and the descendants of their conquerors both have rights under the Treaty of Waitangi.
Those who claim that Moriori once populated the North and South Islands, or that Northland was once crawling with Celts, or that the Chinese built forts up and down the South Islands, cannot point to any person, John Wanoa aside, who claims descent from such phantom civilisations. They cannot show that the Maori groups which signed the Treaty of Waitangi were falsely claiming to control Celtic or Chinese land. They cannot demonstrate that Celtic or Chinese or mainland Moriori populations existed as subjugated peoples within the rohe of iwi which signed the Treaty. How, then, can the pseudo-historians use these phantom peoples as evidence of the illegitimacy of the Treaty of Waitangi?