May 10, 2015

Book review: Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History

This review was originally published in Your Weekend (December 20, 2014). 

Imagine a country where the history of your people is told twice: once by your family and community, then again by your school and society. The first version recites the stories of innovative seafarers who developed a complex culture at the edge of the world. The second version – more like a revision – tells of accidental migrants who developed a worthless culture in a country meant for better things. For generations of Māori this was more than a thought exercise, it was a reality. There was the Indigenous account – accorded little weight until recently – and the mainstream account – essential parts of which were derogatory, wrong or both.

But with the release of Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, new generations of New Zealanders will not have to rely on non- Māori accounts of Māori history. For that reason alone, Tangata Whenua is a landmark book. Yet it does more than just fulfil a need, it expands the scope of Māori history. The authors weave together knowledge from archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, law, political science and – of course – oral history.

Written by Professor Atholl Anderson, the late Dame Judith Binney and Dr Aroha Harris, Tangata Whenua covers the sweep of Māori history: from ancestral beginnings in the South China Sea to the struggle for Treaty of Waitangi rights. Anderson, an anthropologist and archaeologist of international repute, takes the reader from Asia to 1830. Dame Judith Binney, almost certainly New Zealand’s finest historian, guides the reader from the heady days of the 1830s to the dark decades of rural poverty and population decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Harris –the lesser known of the three authors, but someone who’s quickly becoming a distinguished historian – charts the Māori revival and political collisions with the post-colonial state.

The book dedicates most of its space to the contact period, the colonial period and then the post-colonial period. Yet the most interesting insights are found in the discussion of ancient Māori history. Anderson takes a dialectical approach, surveying the research and then staking a position. One idea – which I believe is new – is the theory that a change in climatic conditions meant voyaging from New Zealand back to East Polynesia was no longer possible. Polynesian technology at the time prevented waka from sailing into the wind.

Māori, then, were left to develop a “South Polynesian” society in isolation from their East Polynesian origins. Yet that isolation didn’t lead to insularity. Almost from the point of first contact Māori were, as Binney explains, keen to adopt European technology and commodities. The early missionaries, many of whom appreciated how quickly Māori adapted to European mercantile culture, thought that if they could “create artificial wants” then Māori would be ripe for conversion to Christianity. Yet the missionaries overestimated their abilities and underestimated how “Māori were culturally self-assured and secure in their own beliefs”.

Such cultural assurance helps explain, as Harris shows, how Māori resisted assimilation strategies well into the 20th century. Tangata Whenua itself is a work of Māori self-assurance, but it’s also a testament to Māori endurance. It’s a book of both art and scholarship and a tribute to the intellectual skill of its authors and the tenacity of its publisher, Bridget Williams. This is a taonga for all New Zealanders


  1. "Imagine a country where the history of your people is told twice: once by your family and community, then again by your school and society."

    As a working class pakeha, this is the country I live in.

    My family and community tells a struggle of resistance against capitalism and working class solidarity. My school and society tells a story of lazy bludgers who deserve to be poor.



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