Is Kiwibank honouring a grave-robbing crank?
[Reproduced below is an article I'll be circulating in various places over the next couple of days. Regular readers of this blog will already have had the dubious pleasure of encountering many of the characters mentioned in the text. Update: it now seems possible Noel Hilliam has falsely reported receiving a prestigious award from Kiwibank, and that his local paper has repeated and elaborated his claims. See the comments thread at the bottom of this post for more information on this curious development...]
Kiwibank has dismayed archaeologists, historians, and Maori by handing a prestigious award to an untrained self-proclaimed archaeologist with a history of illegally removing bones from Maori burial sites.
Noel Hilliam, a retired farmer from Dargaville, was recently awarded the Kiwibank New Zealand Senior of the Year Award for 2010. According to Kiwibank, the award recognises older people who have been responsible for 'incredible achievements' that create 'national pride'. In an article reporting the award, the Dargaville Online newsletter presents Hilliam as one of New Zealand's top scholars, and claims that his work 'may well contribute to a new understanding' of New Zealand's history.
In reality, Hilliam lacks any training in archaeology, history, or any related subject, has never published research in an academic journal, has never presented a paper at an academic conference, and has never taken part in a scientific archaeological excavation or survey.
Despite his lack of training and expertise, Hilliam confidently promotes a bizarre theory about the prehistory of New Zealand in his writings and his public pronouncements. Hilliam believes that a race of white people lived in New Zealand thousands of years ago, before being conquered by the ancestors of the Maori. He claims that there is an enormous conspiracy, involving the New Zealand government, academics, museum curators, and Maori politicians, to hide the fact that white people arrived in New Zealand long before Polynesians. In a profile published in the Franklin E Local courier last year, Hilliam characterised himself as a 'warrior for truth' who is continually persecuted for his views.
Without the permission of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust or local iwi, and in violation of the 1993 New Zealand Historic Places Act, Hilliam has repeatedly raided Maori burial sites in the Kaipara region and removed human remains, in the hope of using them as evidence for his claims about an ancient white race. In December 2005 Hilliam gave a lecture at Dargaville's museum, during which he displayed some of the many skulls he has removed from Maori grave sites. The theory that an advanced race of white people settled New Zealand long ago before being conquered by primitive Maori has never had any credibility with experts on our history, but it has appealed to this country's white racist groups. The first person to argue that whites are New Zealand's indigenous people was Kerry Bolton, a pseudo-scholar who has had a leading role in a series of neo-Nazi groups, including the New Zealand Fascist Union and the National Front. Another high-profile advocate of the theory that whites reached New Zealand long before Polynesians is Martin Doutre, a self-proclaimed 'astro-archaeologist' with firm connections to white racist groups and Holocaust deniers. Doutre and Hilliam have collaborated on a number of projects, and Doutre often uses photographs of skulls Hilliam has unearthed in the articles he publishes on his website and in racist magazines.
Besides Doutre, Hilliam has worked with the 'Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha', a New Age religious group which claims to be descended from a race of aliens which arrived on the earth over half a million years ago and settled in New Zealand a few thousand years ago. In 1996 Hilliam and Pat Ruka, a leading member of the Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha, held a ceremony at Dargaville museum to celebrate Waitaha 'history'. Ruka and his 'Universal Peace Nation' have been characterised as fraudsters by authorities on Maori history like Tipene O'Regan and Keri Hulme.
Hilliam's raids on grave sites, his connections to white racists like Martin Doutre, and his claims that Kiwi scholars of the past are engaged in a massive, politically-motivated conspiracy have long caused concern in the Kaipara region and beyond. David Williams, a Queens Counsel, University of Auckland professor of law and long-time legal advisor to the Te Uri o Hau iwi of the northern Kaipara, has said that iwi elders were already aware of and disturbed by Hilliam's grave robbing in the
1990s. Williams has compared Hilliam to Andreas Reishchek, an Austrian taxidermist who pillaged burial caves in the Kaipara during the nineteenth century.
The longstanding unease at Hilliam's activities led to a controversy last year when it was discovered that the Dargaville museum, a private institution with which Hilliam has had a long association, was displaying an ancient Maori artefact in an insulting way and misrepresenting it as an example of a pre-Maori 'Waitaha' civilisation. Hilliam was identified as the creator of the exhibit, and the museum was deluged with complaints from across the country. In one widely-circulated complaint, the respected Kai Tahu blogger Marty Mars called Dargaville museum's exhibit 'a complete and utter lie' and denounced the institution as 'a disgrace'.
In a statement issued in response to the complaints, museum administrators said that the exhibit had already been under review, because of concerns of local iwi, and that it would be removed. The museum also disassociated itself from Hilliam, saying that he no longer occupied any official position at the institution and that his views on New Zealand history were not accepted there. In the aftermath of the controversy at Dargaville museum, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust decided to open an investigation into Hilliam's activities at Maori burial sites.
Even before last year's controversy, Hilliam had been facing public ridicule over a series of strange claims he had made in the national media about other aspects of New Zealand history. In 2007, for instance, Hilliam announced that he had discovered the wreck of a German U boat off the west coast of Northland. According to Hilliam, the U boat had left Germany in the last years of World War Two, and was full of Nazi gold. Hilliam's claims were widely reported in the media, but he was mocked when he failed to make good his promise to provide the location of his 'discovery' to the public.
In a statement he made late last year, David Williams said that he hoped that the controversy at Dargaville's museum and the investigation into grave-robbing by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust would mean that Hilliam would finally be comprehensively publically discredited, and would thus find it unable to continue his raids on ancient grave sites. With its decision to give Hilliam the New Zealand Senior of the Year Award, though, Kiwibank has risked giving credibility to the man's bizarre views and his criminal methods of 'research'.
Archaeologist Edward Ashby, who himself hails from Dargaville, has described Kiwibank's decision to give Hilliam an award as a 'slap in the face'. Ashby said that many archaeologists were upset that the work of an 'unethical amateur' who has made 'unfounded accusations against serious scholars' was being celebrated by Kiwibank. University of Auckland lecturer in philosophy Matthew Dentith, who specialises in studying bizarre and irrational ideas, has described Kiwibank's decision to recognise Hilliam as a 'travesty'. 'It isn't a good look for such an award to go to someone who promotes a distorted view of our indigenous history', Dentith said.
If the Senior of the Year Award is supposed to recognise 'incredible achievement' which creates 'national pride', then it is hard to see how Hilliam deserves the prize. For scholars of New Zealand's past and many other Kiwis, Hilliam's grave- robbing and conspiracy theories are sources of embarrassment, not pride.