An image from the book Te Manu Huna A Tāne (Photo: Jenny Gillam)

What the kiwi can teach us: A review of the brutal, radiant Te Manu Huna A Tāne

This powerful collection of photographs and essays catalogues three generations of Ngāti Torehina ki Matakā learning to pelt North Island kiwi. 

Nāu, nā te Pākehā te kurī me te ngeru nāna i huna ngā kai o te motu nei, te weka, te kiwi, te kākāpō, te piopio, me te tini o ngā manu o te motu nei. 

It was you, the Pākehā that introduced the dog and the cat which destroyed the food of this country, the weka, kiwi, kākāpō, the piopio and the many endemic birds. 

– Hapurona Tohikura, Waka Maori, Volume 9, Issue 6, 23 April 1873

I begin with this quote because I feel it is the challenge at the heart of this book. Te Manu Huna A Tāne is a celebration of one of our most precious taonga, the kiwi, but it is also a white-hot criticism of colonisation and the changes brought about by it that have put kiwi at such high risk. As the pūrākau at the end of the pukapuka describes, the kiwi sacrificed their wings so that they may look after the forest floor and become kaitiaki of Tāne’s ngahere. But how much more have they been expected to give up since? 

Te Manu Huna A Tāne as a pukapuka is made up of six essays tied together by Jenny Gillam’s rich and harrowing images. I will keep my description of the kaupapa brief as it is described beautifully in the first essay ‘Huruhuru Manu’ by Raewyn Ormsby-Rihari (Maniapoto, Ngāti Torehina ki Matakā by marriage) and Tiwai Rihari-Rawiri (Ngāti Torehina ki Matakā, Ngāti Pare, Ngāti Mau). A wānanga was held for the converting of kiwi fathers into kahu kiwi, to retain the mana of the bird, and teach a new generation something that our ancestors were intimately familiar with. It is incredible to have this occasion rendered in this form, a beautiful book to hold and look at. Beautiful, and painful.

Te Manu Huna A Tāne and its editors, Jennifer Gillam and Eugene Hansen. (Photos: Supplied)

I cried many times reading this book. The first was from the raw intensity of the photography – this is a book you look at before reading. I’m captured by the stark intensity of the kiwi, their dead bodies laid across the pages. It feels like a tangihanga for ngā manu. I’m sitting in the small hours with their bodies weighing on my mind, in plastic bags, on newspapers, so still and flattened by the page. There is one image described by Cassandra Barnett in the book itself: “Two feet. One severed head. So very small in proportion to its beak – not to mention its lost body. An answer. My eyes cry.” Same here Cassandra, same here.

In Cinzia Vestena’s essay ‘The Northland Brown Kiwi’, the biodiversity assets ranger lays out the statistics, lays out the reasons for kiwi death. The findings are dire, and many are preventable if we understood the impact introduced species have on native birds. “Dogs were responsible for 135 (70 percent) of the reported kiwi deaths in Northland between 1990 and 1995.” If we all knew this, would we be so keen to keep kurī and ngeru around in such numbers? Is it once again the Pākehā world being privileged over te ao Māori? 

The final two essays respond to the wānanga itself and the pikitia throughout the pukapuka. I am right at home with Matariki Williams’ ‘Into the Void’. There is that familiar mist that shrouds all of us Māori that grew up separated from te ao Māori in whatever way. Williams writes about growing up in Tauranga, and the shadow of Mauao looms in my mind’s eye, she writes of the difficulty and the pain that comes with learning something that was stolen from us; be it language, or weaving. I finger through my worn copy of Māori Made Easy and shudder. My wairua trembles as I’m sitting in my study in the early morning, the cold white light of the sun through clouds mingles with the yolk yellow glow of the lamp, there are always two worlds here in conflict with each other. I read “I do not know the karakia. I do not hold a mussel shell. I do not wear a kākahu of kiwi feathers. I have our kōrero. I have my whānau. I have our whakapapa. I have our songs. These are my feathers,” and I let my ancestors cry out through me. There are things that need to change, and this pukapuka gives me hope for that change. It is a small hope but it is there.

(Photo: Jennifer Gillam)

The hope is also in the coming together of manawhenua – Māori from within the hapū, to Māori from outside, to Pākehā working in their own fields – for this project. It gives us a glimpse at what a Te Tiriti-based partnership might look like in the near future, something already happening now.

You will have to read Cassandra Barnett’s essay yourself. ‘A Mantle for Our Shoulders’, the final essay of the pukapuka, is a loving and challenging piece of writing that speaks to the intimacy of these images, speaks to the closeness that is required to take care of something, and the sacrifices we must make. She leaves us with a challenge: to participate, to literally take part in the maintenance of this precious ecosystem. “I’m thinking about kiwi. Not kiwi, symbolic, emotive, generic abstract, emptied, flat. But kiwi, these kiwi, kiwi that once lived and are now dead.” I am moved again.

Will Te Manu Huna A Tāne be enough to get people acting, to move people to movement? Probably not. But this is an important book I think everyone needs to read. Colonisation is an ongoing process, one that takes active participants, passively responding to its whims. There are ways we can move against it. Recognising that this is a land of manu, not of mammal, is perhaps the most important first step to figuring out where our future lies. The kiwi, that little protector, that small and important guardian of the forest has sacrificed so much for Tāne’s world. I think it’s time we acknowledged that maybe some of our privileges aren’t things we should be holding onto.

The final image. (Photo: Jennifer Gillam)

I will leave you with the final image. This is what is at stake.

In the frame is a kiwi with its eyes closed, with what could be described as a smile curling at the start of its long beak. It is somehow a soothing image. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. There is nothing settling about an ongoing invasion. Look at this dead bird and feel the sight of it catch in your craw, claw at your throat, feel it spill from your eyes, this book should make you feel uncomfortable, this book should make you want things to be different, this book should make you move. 

Te Manu Huna A Tāne, edited by Jennifer Gillam and Eugene Hansen (Massey University Press, $45) is available from Unity Books.



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