Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pseudo-history in Onehunga

If you've read my post about the myths of Gavin Menzies, or my recent piece about Moriori art for the Scoop Review of Books, then you'll guess the point I'm trying to make in my usual long-winded way in these e mails.

Kia ora,

I was interested to see this sentence on the 'Town History' page of the Onehunga Rotary Club website:

Tradition also speaks of the presence on the area, now known as Onehunga, of an indigenous race of people known as the Morioris, who had fortified and inhabited the land to a degree which astonished the newcomers.

I'd be curious to get a source for this 'tradition' of Moriori pre-settlement of Onehunga, because I've never heard of such stories. In the nineteenth century some ethnographers regarded Moriori as the original inhabitants of the main islands of our country, and believed they had been driven to the Chathams by Maori. Since the 1920s, though, this theory has been discredited amongst experts, and the Moriori are reckoned to be the descendants of group of Maori who became isolated on the Chathams about 1500 AD. Moriori themselves hold to this belief. A good source on all this is Michael King's Moriori: a People Rediscovered (Viking, 2000).

The text on the 'Town History' page goes on to claim that:

It is unfortunate that the knowledge of these earlier settlers is only now being revealed through the work of the 'pre-history' section of the Department of Anthropology at Auckland University . Such information is still rather scanty but visitors who desire further information should contact the University authorities as the "digs" have revealed some very interesting material about the culture of these brown people.

This passage seems to imply that members of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Auckland believe that Moriori lived at Onehunga, and have carried out excavations of Moriori sites there. I don't understand where such ideas could have come from, as no anthropologist at Auckland or any other university believes Moriori lived in Onehunga, or anywhere except the Chatham Islands . In the 1970s members of the Department of Anthropology carried out extensive excavations of Moriori archaeological sites - but these excavations took place on the Chatham Islands , not in Onehunga.

There is a great deal of information available about the indigenous people of Auckland, some of which has been obtained through archaeological digs. The tangata whenua of the peninsula are Ngati Whatua, Ngati Paoa, and Waiohua. The marae of the Waiohua people is located in Mangere, just over the bridge from Onehunga. Perhaps you ought to acknowledge Waiohua on your website, and seek their advice about what to include on your Town History page.


Dear Scott

Thanks for your email. I took this if I remember rightly from a local publication( Not sure if was a Borough Council one) c1950 regarding local history. I would need to look it out as to who history it was. But history and historians seem to come and go in cycles (like everything else). When I get a bit of time I’ll have a look into it.


Kia ora again,

thanks for your response.

The fact that the text on the Town History was taken from a 1950s publication explains something - the myth of the Moriori as a pre-Maori people was extremely widespread then, although it had already been discredited in academic circles. There are some other rather odd passages on your webpage - the references to Maori having to adjust to modern urban life, for instance - which make a little more sense if they were written back in the '50s. I can't quite see the logic in using such an outdated source on a site which was presumably built sometime in the last decade.

The really bizarre feature of the references to the Moriori on your website are the claims that they built extensive fortifications in Onehunga. The false theory of Moriori origins and history developed in the nineteenth century by Elsdon Best and others always emphasised the supposed backwardness of the Morori, and their lack of the sort of large-scale earthworks and architecture that the Maori created. I'm intrigued as to why the author of the text you have put online would make such an eccentric use of the Moriori myth.

You make the point that interpretations of history change over time, and that what seems outdated today might not always be so. I agree with you, but I think that there is an important difference between interpretation and fact. Why Britain and Germay went to war in September 1939 will always probably be a matter of debate, as different historians bring forward different interpretations. Politics and intellectual fashion will help determine which interpretations are popular and which are not at any given time. But the fact that Britain declared war on Germany will not be questioned by a single serious historian.

In much the same way, there will always be debate about many aspects of New Zealand pre-history and the part of the Moriori in that pre-history. Scholars will interpret all manner of events and artefacts in different ways. But there are certain basic facts which will go unchallenged in the future. The nineteenth century idea that the Moriori were a Melanesian people who settled the main islands of this country before being forced to the Chathams by a wave of Polynesian invaders was discredited amongst scholars after the publication of HD Skinner's classic The Morioris of the Chatham Islands, which revealed the close connection between the Moriori and Maori languages, the Polynesian nature of Moriori anatomy, and the strongly Polynesian nature of Moriori material culture. Moriori oral history backed up Skinner's arguments.

Successive generations of scholars have made it ever clearer that Moriori are descended from a group of Maori who became isolated on the Chatham Islands relatively soon after the settlement of the North and South Islands. Archaeological excavations on the Chathams in the 1970s uncovered artefacts made from obsidian and pounamu, materials which are found nowhere in the South Pacific except Aotearoa. In the last couple of years anthropologists at the University of Auckland have tested the bones of the rats found on the Chathams and found that the creatures can all be traced back to one part of the South Island.

There are still mysteries surrounding the Moriori. It is not known for sure whether the Chathams were settled on purpose. Some scholars believe the first wave of settlers on the islands may have been joined by a small number of settlers who arrived directly from Eastern Polynesia. Opinion is divided about whether or not there were distinct dialects of the Moriori language. Nobody, though, believes in the nineteenth century theory that Moriori were Melanesians who arrived in Aotearoa before the Maori, for the same reason that nobody believes Britain declared war on Germany in September 1938 rather than September 1939.

I'm sorry to make my point at such pedantic length. It might seem to you like I am over-reacting to an isolated passage on an obscure website. The reality, though, is that many Kiwis still believe in the myth of the Moriori as a Melanesian, pre-Maori people.

Since last July I have worked on an information desk in a museum, and I have found that the ubiquity of the Moriori myth is a serious obstacle to public understanding of the story of New Zealand history and pre-history. Many visitors to the museum where I have worked arrive believing that the artefacts the museum displays as Maori are actually Moriori. Some think that the Melanesian masks and spears which are displayed in a nearby room are part of the pre-history of New Zealand. More than a few angrily criticise the Treaty of Waitangi or Maori land claims, on the grounds that the Treaty should have been signed with the Moriori, and that places like Bastion Point should be returned to the imaginary Melanesians who supposedly once owned them. Others have assimilated the old picture of the Moriori as 'shifty-eyed' and grotesquely primitive, and claim that they were an inferior people who are now deservedly extinct. Time and time again, the Moriori myth poisons historical understanding.

I have noticed that your website, with its absurd claim that the Moriori built massive fortifications in prehistoric Onehunga, and its completely unwarranted appeal to academic opinion, has played a part in misinforming some visitors to the museum. The Onehunga Rotary Club talks about serving the community, but the misinformation on your website is a disservice to Aucklanders and New Zealanders in general.



Blogger maps said...

While we're on the subject, check out this 'Moriori mythbusting' podcast by a Canterbury museum ethnologist - very entertaining as well as very informative:

5:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so he/she got it all from an old book but he doesn't know the name or author? sounds fishy

12:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just have a look at this:
Really depressing

3:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liberal communist hippies in the 50'60'70's got into our education system and while John and Jane America were out earning a living, we got America-hating Socialists teaching our kids.

Ayn Rand got it right--it starts with ideas, and these fucked ideas are killing us. Kant is dangerous.

11:42 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You will end up getting an invitation to speak at the Onehunga Rotary!


11:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fake history for fake Kiwis.

Let 'em burn.

4:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's very convenient that history keeps changing for some

10:18 pm  
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