Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

ĀteaMay 5, 2022

Story sovereignty: Māori taking back control of our narratives

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Māori authors looking to bring their taonga into te ao mārama are fighting hard to hold sovereignty over their stories. Many are choosing to publish their own works to ensure they control the narrative from start to finish.

The fibres of our bodies are made of whenua – land, placenta. I think that then, the fibres of our minds are stories – pūrākau. Pū o te rākau, the pith of the tree, where the nutrients are pulled through from the roots to sustain it. And just as tree roots are like the landscape of our lungs, we exist as living stories.

Che Wilson once said that our stories don’t die, they only sleep. Whether 10 years or one hundred years, eventually, they wake again. Stories weaving us into the social fabric of our communities, inspiring us to dream of new realities for ourselves while honouring our old ones.

Follow Nē? on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider. 

We hear a lot about tino rangatiratanga in politics, healthcare, land, governance, but what about sovereignty over our stories: who tells them, edits them, influences their content and where they end up, whether that be online or bookshelves?

For many Māori writers, story sovereignty is the absence of external influence, the ability to thrive independent of colonial power structures built only for our muted participation. Rangatahi Māori writers, like 20-year-old Nadia Hineaorangi-Solomon of Ngāi Te Rangi, are clear on what this looks like.

“Story sovereignty is a landscape where you can bring your mahi into fruition without a Pākehā person touching it. You can bring them in if you want to, but can you get to that point without any Pākehā input. We know they can, but can we?”

Māori Mermaid, aka Jessica Hinerangi Thompson-Carr (Photo: Supplied)

Māori Mermaid (26, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāruahine), aka Jessica Hinerangi Thompson-Carr, suggests that story sovereignty is “writing what you know and creating art inspired by where you come from. It looks like building upon and giving back to your people with your creativity.” 

Intergenerationally, our literary landscape has been transforming as each successive generation furthers our sovereignty of voice and platform. Rapidly catalysed by social media, Hineaorangi-Solomon was able to write a poem illustrated by Māori Mermaid for #ProtectPūtiki that saw the threads of activism, digital publishing and tuakana/teina collaboration woven together. Our efforts for tino rangatiratanga in our storytelling are witnessed in these moments, transforming the ever-shifting face of our literary landscape. 

For non-binary Māori poet essa may ranapiri, 28, of Ngāti Wehi Wehi, Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga, Te Arawa, Waikato-Tainui, Ngāti Pukeko, story sovereignty is the ability to be sovereign in ourselves: “to have control over our lives, power over our resources and an unalienated relationship with our whenua.”

This relationship to whenua is foundational for Indigenous bodies, especially Māori. Sovereignty of place is the bedrock of our identities: whakapapa, to become grounded in the whenua/whakapapa. 

By defining ourselves as autonomous beings, we begin to see the lay of the land and the awa that flow from it in what essa describes as our symbiosis with the natural environment.

“When we told stories, it wasn’t separate from anything else, it was part of our relationship with the world, with each other, with the land. And so the ideal is we have that relationship back in a more fully realised form, and in turn, the stories reflected back to us take on a more realised expression of sovereignty too.”

essa may ranapiri (Photo: Supplied)

From the inception of her multimedia, story-telling project NUKU three years ago, creator Qiane Matata-Sipu of Te Waiohua, Waikato, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Pikiao and Cook Islands was led by story sovereignty.

“It’s speaking your truth unfiltered, uninterrupted, on your own terms, at all times.”

Matata-Sipu wanted to give the 100 Indigenous women profiled in the subsequent book NUKU: Stories of 100 Indigenous Women, power and control over their narrative. So when it came to bringing the book into te ao mārama, self-publishing just made sense, she says. And with NUKU onto its second print run, having almost sold out the first run of 4,300 books, it appears that sovereign stories have an audience. 

“It’s amazing to have absolute control over every single part of the process,” says Matata-Sipu. “There are so many benefits and so many downsides that are almost equally weighted. For NUKU in particular, I just want to get this book into as many homes and hands as possible and so I’m conscious of the profits and the costs, making sure I’m not ever at a loss, but it’s not about making all this money either.”

Patricia Grace (Photo: Supplied)

Of course, we are in this position as Māori writers to create works with autonomy in part because of the groundbreaking, revolutionary works of Patricia Grace (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa and Te Ati Awa). She began writing at a time when there were few published wāhine or Māori writers in Aotearoa, let alone wāhine Māori writers. At the heart of how she approaches her work is accountability, to herself and her iwi, hapū and whānau. 

“I need to be able to write what I want to write, in the way I want to write,” says Grace. “That’s it, really. Not to be influenced, for example, by reviews or other people’s comments, and when it comes to the critiquing, not letting any negatively impact on how I write. That doesn’t mean I won’t listen to advice or examine comment. But ultimately I need to take full responsibility for what I do.”

This element of accountability is one that is integral to the task of writing as tangata whenua – we are connected by whakapapa to the stories that have been told, and the ones still to come. So how do we position ourselves along the winding awa of our literary landscape? According to Whaea Patricia, the answer is simple: “As Māori, having whakapapa means that you are your own authenticity.”

Qiane Matata-Sipu (Photo: Supplied)

Each iteration of the above intergenerational haerenga through the landscape of contemporary Māori writing has landed us at the same point; our stories need to be told by us, in our own ways.

Where we are now, in the collective nature of our evolution, is creating a widening macrocosm of inspiration. In witnessing the iterative movements of our peers, we in turn are influenced, inspired. We bring each other up because that is who we are. This is incredibly important to Jessica Hinerangi Thompson-Carr/Māori Mermaid: she wants to see more Māori getting opportunities and access to resources that will enable them to tell their stories without financial, academic or elitist barriers.

In a similar way, essa speaks to the need for more opportunities for more Māori board members, editors and decision makers throughout the wider literary landscape, which “results in Māori not getting published”.

For Nicole Titihuia-Hawkins, 34, of Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa and Ngāti Pāhauwera, the inclusion of a Māori editor on her debut poetry collection was integral to enabling her autonomy to exist in the pages of WHAI (published by We Are Babies Press, 2021). She is also explicit about the role of story sovereignty throughout the literary landscape. 

“Story sovereignty is hugely important for indigenous writers, especially when using traditionally Pākehā-dominated publishing options, because when we are contributing narratives to the literary landscape, we need to ensure that we have a full range of narratives, not just click bait, the same old dusty stereotypes or even what’s trendy at the time in Pākehā publishing.”

Sarah Clare Brown and Matt Brown (Photo: Supplied)

Things have changed drastically from the days of newsprint, paperback and even blogs. The way we engage with storytelling has changed so swiftly that it defines itself in its own unravelling – like the tail of a taniwha, the awa of storytelling within te ao Māori is always twisting, shifting, changing. 

Sarah Clare Brown, 39, of Ngā Puhi/Te Rarawa, is co-author of She Is Not Your Rehab alongside husband Matt Brown. They published through a mainstream publishing house on a 10% royalty rate, and the work took over two years to write, requiring funding grants to produce. Despite its commercial success (four weeks at #1 on the bestseller list), it was still not a financially viable enough product to support their young family on its own.

Circling back to Titihuia-Hawkins, she urges people to consider why they write. “Are you writing to make your nan proud? Are you writing so the younger versions of yourself can read what they need to read to get through? Are you writing with the goal to be Insta famous? Come back to your purpose and audience to help you prioritise what matters most to you.” 

Social media has become the topsoil in the Māori story sovereignty landscape, with this information infrastructure connecting us in a way no other generation in history has experienced. By creating visibility across our indigenous literary landscape, we have more access to each other, our stories and our sovereignty than ever before.  

Audiences that once existed outside of the creation process are now frequently ushered into the intimacies of a writer’s space. Previously, Māori writers incubated their stories under the ceilings of publishing mansions that were rarely populated by our own. Now we see writers co-designing their stories with not only their audiences but also, their own healing.

When Whaea Patricia started her literary journey with Waiariki, she wasn’t cognisant of the parched earth her works were entering – she only knew what stories she wanted to tell and how to tell them in her own unique way. 

“I’ve always felt that I wanted to write about ordinary people living out their ordinary lives. And I’ve always been interested in intergenerational storytelling – it interests me more.”

In te ao Māori, storytellers are never separate from the communities they exist in. With social media connecting the writer-audience relationship so much more intimately, writers now have access to instant feedback from their community. The publisher may be a house, but we have always existed as pā. Hearing the overwhelming resurgence of self-belief in our journey to retain, maintain and reclaim our story sovereignty is so hopeful and so healing. I think of the late Pā Moana Jackson, who said the greatest thing stolen from us by way of colonisation was our belief. Self-belief seems to be the ultimate underpinning of story sovereignty, and as it resurges into the landscape once more, we see the dawning of a new horizon. 

Kai te mihi to everyone who made time to share kōrero with me for this piece: Nadia Hineaorangi-Solomon, Mariwakiterangi Paekau, Jessica Hinerangi Thompson-Carr aka Māori Mermaid, essa may ranapiri, Nicole Titihuia, Qiane Matata-Sipu, Sarah Clare Brown, Nadine Anne Hura and Patricia Grace. 

A big thank you to Rangimarie Sophie Jolley for her contributions and editorial support for this piece.

Follow The Spinoff’s te ao Māori podcast Nē? on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider. 

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox