BooksAugust 10, 2016

The coming of the Māori, and “this long uneasy history of being measured by someone else’s stick”: An essay on the first migration


An essay by Talia Marshall, taken from her readings of two books published by Bridget Williams – the award-winning Tangata Whenua, and the condensed version, The First Migration: Māori Origins 3000BC-AD1450.

800 years ago, give or take a century, Kupe chased the giant octopus Te Wheke o Muturangi across the vast Pacific ocean away from Hawaiki and the realm of Rangiātea. This is one of the first stories. Kupe managed to slay Muturangi’s mokai and pluck out the whekenui’s eyes at the entrance to Tory Channel, the discarded orbs shape-shifting into rocks named Ngā Whatu. Totems so powerful that the strait of water between Te Ika and Te Waka was called Te Moana o Raukawakawa by Kupe’s Kurahaupō descendants as they crossed between the islands with kawakawa leaves as headdress to avoid the gaze of octopus.

But Captain Cook arrives and the body of water is straddled by his name and his legs. The Endeavour floats into the drowned valleys of the Sounds. Leaving radishes, nails and pigs behind but taking off somehow with the script. The dead octopus deeply forgotten and the title Queen Charlotte draped over the whenua by Cook like an antimacassar on an old person’s chair.

Raukawakawa te moana. The sea of 100 kawakawa leaves. Why did Kupe come to Aotearoa? He was chasing a demonic taniwha and in trouble on Rangiātea, the transgressive navigator who knew his astral trigonometry.

Cook Strait. Why did Cook come? Because he was born in Whitby with the sea up his nose, into the age of enlightenment and the thinkers who sent him off to observe the transit of their Venus.

The stories we write over the top of others.


Te-Koko-O-Kupe, the scoop Kupe shoveled away from the eastern tip of Te Wai Pounamu, is now called Cloudy Bay and they make a lot of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris there out of the alluvial soil of the Marlborough plains.

White people making white wine out of white grapes and sending this story overseas like a message in a bottle. 100% pure Pākehā. Marlborough, a place people don’t necessarily think of as Māori.

But Kei puta te Wairau, an older name, refers to the gap in the clouds where the sun pokes through over the whenua, reo talking to what the sky does with light over the water of the bay. The dryness of the land under all that sun.

My father grew up here within his Rangitāne rohe, near Blenheim, in one of the last houses on a thin road beside the river that leads to The Wairau Bar or Te Pokohiwi – one of the first known places Maori settled – the archeological site Atholl Anderson references when describing the historical migrations and occupations of the Māori and Pacific peoples in the multiple and Ockham award winning Tangata Whenua. His chapters are also published as a condensed picture-less version The First Migration: Māori Origins 3000BC-AD1450.

Now that Cloudy Bay is full of arid lifestyle blocks growing olives, the ubiquitous grape vines, small orchards and tall crops, it’s hard to imagine the swamps behind the Wairau Bar teeming with herded moa, with lamprey eels, native black swans and huge eagles hovering above the giant food bowl, as they must have done in the early part of the last millennium. When there is long colonial grass and a desolate water tank in the remnants of my father’s childhood garden.

The same house his mother kept brighter than bleach in the 1960s. Her husband’s many, much younger, sisters and brothers called her Marj when she took them swimming in the Wairau River. An adult willing to play as well as work. Plucky enough to jump in the slow-moving syrup of the water in her knickers.

Her whitebait stand, the house and immaculate garden and the dashing between the two across the metal road, and how when she nervously spilt all the salt on her plate at the dinner table fresh at the Wairau Pa from Halifax in the UK, her new Oncle Dave put her at ease by telling her he had always wondered why Pākehās tasted so salty. The publican’s daughter tested for humour by a man capable of driving with his one arm. I see him hurtling down that thin road trusting his knees.

The beach at the waha of the Wairau humming and crashing at night and my grandmother hearing it from her new bed. Boulder Bank across the estuary riddled with the teeth of sperm whales and dolphins as jewellry, the waka huia of Hawaikii. The moa eggs, mass hakari pits, turtle art and other first signs of peaceful Māori occupation, the tender sleeping arrangements of the kōiwi with their grave offerings, lying looser in the sand than pharaohs. And the strange dents all around the Bar that reveal their presence under the earth. The oldest human bones found here yet, but who knows?

The Wairau Bar. Photo: Talia


In The First Migration Anderson traces our linguistic, genetic and cultural histories across South East-Asia, Taiwan and the Pacific. What our pottery (a hobby we abandoned for wood), DNA, and linguistic development tells us about the origin of Polynesian peoples. The second chapter deals with aligning disparate origin narratives; whakapapa vs mainstream scientific, archaeological and anthropological methodologies.

Anderson also points to the surprising ways of knowing our past manage to collide in temporal agreement. That the science aligns with whakapapa and the oral accounts of lineage earlier dismissed as unreliable. But these are also ideas that Anderson admits change as much as the wind, as new mostly scientific discoveries absorb or alter old origin and migration theories.

Māori, a people both pigeon-holed and self-identifying as a communal culture, are historicised as having migrated to Aotearoa as a homogenised mass, led by a few mythic navigators. But weren’t they also individuals, with tastes as specific and definitive as settlers aboard the John Wickliffe and the Philip Laing? Or as particular as my grandmother Marj with her affinity for succulents and the skills in the kitchen that her husband’s Māori whanau eventually absorbed into their generous manaakitanga.

Anderson also writes in The First Migration that Māori were as complex intellectually as their European counterparts. The problem is that historians and the larger academic community even have to make such claims. That we can’t just assume intellectual equality, the still wretched ideas we carry about being civilised and civilisation, and that even those with Māori whakapapa like Atholl Anderson (Kāi Tahu) position themselves in defence of our cultural and intellectual parity with Europeans when they write our histories into the canon. Because our whare weren’t so fancy and filled with stuff, and we had intricately carved waka instead of the wheel, because we have this long uneasy history of being measured by someone else’s stick.

The inherently Eurocentric pedagogies and epistemologies of historical scholarship, and the anthropological and archeological traditions that Anderson subscribes to, are tainted by the age of enlightenment’s agenda. An age in which the original occupying peoples were there to be pinned and classified like flora and fauna, the early sketches of Māori that are as fanciful and delicate as a botanist’s renderings of the spine of an exotic leaf.

Anderson writes that Māori have a history of having no history as they were first discussed by nosy manuhiri. That our modes of preserving the past were initially seen as suspect, that whakapaka was dismissed as fairy stories or contemporary political manipulations at best. That because we barely remembered hunting the moa to extinction we were primitive ninnies….Whereas I wonder if we missed that time of epic plenty so much that an agreement was made never to talk about it again.

And to consider also how supernatural these giant birds must have seemed to early tangata whenua. The manaia or cosmic bird person motif prevalent in Māori art inspired by the Moa and the attendant, looming menace of the giant Haast Eagle, Pouakai-its wingspan wide enough to block out the sun. A bird nation of bird folk.

Because there are pits down at the Wairau stacked with feast bones 10 feet deep. The blessed epoch before we turned on each other for protein and tied this practice up in tapu and retribution. How even Te Rauparaha is named for the leaf he was going to be eaten off as an infant if his enemies got their ringaringa on him.

I have never had a dream I was being chased from above by a huge flesh eating predator or a distant cousin with a patu as my tīpuna likely were, but I have no doubt that level of generalized anxiety is locked down in my genes.

And if the Chinese arrived in New Zealand first, the Spanish, the Celtics, the UFOs, it’s not like they stuck around. Why even engage with those people who rave on about earlier visitors to Aotearoa? They are quite clearly off their heads. Valiant bloggers attempt to engage with them but so often these online arenas are full of Pākehā men talking down to other Pākehā men. Out-knowing each other. What fun! How useful to contemporary Māori living in cars!

Like we know nothing about ourselves until the trainspotters tell us. Or Jim Eyles finds a moa egg, as he did scampering over the rocks at the Wairau bar in 1939. And the legacy of this schoolboy act of stealing that archeologists and geneticists have used to floodlight these first migrations, the results taken from blood tests that point to a common tipuna or Aunty, as well as enough matrilineal diversity buried at the bar to suggest quite a few women came here in the first migrations.

Proof that there was no escaping the aunties, they were there rattling their jewels in the waka the whole way. The bone necklaces they brought here from Hawaiki, and the way their dolphin teeth got stuck in the flesh of the Ngāti Kuia/Rangitāne pepeha.

What Māori have embedded in our tuku iho and tikanga as whakapapa. That interminable length when a person describes their connection through blood to the whenua to the toto of the whenua. The iwis’ stories that join up and break away in between.

But also in this story the archaeologist brushing away dust from bones to unlock their secrets, that such people care enough to go digging around making an ancient woman’s jewelry matter, the domestic revelations of the stuff of her life, the woman called Aunty by Rangitāne O Wairau, my hapu, when they repatriated her to Te Pokohiwi in 2009.

Anderson argues that the idea of coherent return visits to Hawaiki are fanciful given our technological means. His chief controversy seems to be that we did not have the sail technology to make planned trips back to East Polynesia, he seems to think we drifted around the Pacific using the changing currents of the El Nino weather pattern to reach Aotearoa, Norfolk Island and New South Wales but not home. There was in fact a lot of discussion of sail technology in this book which I will cheerfully admit went right over my Kurahaupō head.

Because aren’t mysteries and secrets preferable to the bald empirical facts? To data and graphs. To sheets of DNA finding their pattern match in a lab. The human story they reveal is more interesting than the process they use to make these vital connections.

The flights of imagination that enable people to make these knowledgeable leaps. The gleaning of a life from a piece of bone takes more than just measuring it. There is, I hate to say it, a necessary missing, spiritual element that whakapapa has at its marrow- all the back to way to the carbon clasp of Rangi and Papatūānuku, to Ngā Uepohatu, to Io and Whiro and Kupe, to Rākaihautū carving up the Alps and Uenuku jolly jumping rainbows over Kaikoura. To Māui, the superhero who had the nerve to enter an old, molested dead woman. The place those bones at Pokohiwi have been repatriated to, Hawaiki via Hine-nui-te-pō. The place I and all Māori, including Rēkohu  come from in part.


I found the pocket edition difficult, and yet I pored over the same extended version in Tangata Whenua. Why? Because of the pictures. (Plus the graphs and maps were actually helpful in explaining what he meant by routes and sails!) The pictures all the way through this huge, heavy book are glorious. Not just the museum artefacts in the Anderson chapters but the photographs of actual Māori that begin to take over the latter parts. I felt that the visual records of our tīpuna’s things, their bones and their faces told better stories than the text, fine writing aside.

Also I kept bumping into people I knew in Tangata Whenua. A photograph of my friend’s great grandfather Morehu Downs giving a whaikōrero outside a marae for a wedding around Lake Taupo in the 1930s. The record of the cross-cultural flux between his stance on the paepae and the ethereal wedding wear of the bridal party. But I had to take an image of the photo and send it to her so she could show her dad because he doesn’t have a copy. And I paused then at the way the images of so many of our tīpuna end up in the hands of academics to distribute instead of amongst the scattered members of extended whānau – while we comically and impotently wring our hands over their fried food and giant televisions. Morehu, my friend’s tipuna married into the Te heu heu line that signed Te Tiriti but she never went to a private school, there is no empire at her back door or fountain out the front.

The still rarefied and privileged positions realms of knowledge like museums and other institutions have as curators of public histories and tastes. Why do we still seem to care so much what Pākehā think of us?

But also how significant and fortunate it is that two of the writers of Tangata Whenua are Māori and have a mandate to tell our stories that is profoundly different from Binney’s, whatever their iwi affiliation.


In Tangata Whenua there is a picture of my great grandfather Manny Macdonald (miscaptioned as Maniapoto Macdonald) sitting in one of the Wairau excavation pits. There has been some debate about his response to Eyles’ “discovery” of the site, that he said “those people have nothing to with us”, or instead, that he strongly resisted them taking the kōiwi and other taonga away. Hoani, his father, who is likely descended from the Kereopa line that is said to have fled Kupe when he made landfall in Te Tau Ihu, was both furious and upset at the theft. My grandfather Mugwi met Roger Duff, head of the dig at the Wairau, in England, and told him that the bones should be reburied, that his grandfather’s generation had always known they were there, but there to be left alone. A scientific and anthropological discovery of great import or a curious 13-year-old following the sound of a chant, the old people who are said to have placed stones on a can at Pokohiwi, and Eyles watching?

Māori have had to rattle the bones of their whakapapa on the dais of the Waitangi Tribunal as proof of connection to the whenua. For settlements, that will always be pitiful if one accounts for the actual, incalculable loss. But it is the living descendants who should benefit most from the holding and developing of these emergent migration and iwi narratives, especially when so many Māori are urban like myself and their way of being at home consists of talking about it.

The migration stories and other taonga entombed in Tangata Whenua are rich cultural capital, but who does this capital feed, who has real possession of these stories and access to them? The historians, archaeologists and geneticists uncovering their evidence, or the tangata from my whanau getting their very toto tested for connection to the migration story? When they’ve been at the Wairau long enough for it not to matter in skin. When we followed the shimmering whoppers of Kupe blindfolded with kawakawa leaves.

Dad's house (Photo: supplied)
Talia’s dad’s house. Photo: Talia

Hauā Detoma Macdonald, or Mugwi, my grandfather died just before Christmas in 2013. After his burial the Ngāti Rārua speaker from his mother’s taha invited us to step over the threshold into te ao mārama, over the inky crack and back into the world of light. I heard my uncle behind me asking what the darker man from up north was saying about his father. An ironic thing for my extended whanau and hapū to have that connection to the whenua of Wairau Pa but not necessarily to the reo.

Mugwi’s grandparents spoke Māori to each other but not to him, not that this really matters so much when he is buried at their feet. And the younger generation have learnt haka to see him out the marae gate. Straightening out the kinks in the umbilical cord between the people and the whenua because reo insists one holds the other to its navel.

Whenua. A word that speaks with the split tongue of a Tui in double sense and double time. All that yucky but crucial talk of placenta. The thing that feeds.

Back in the world of light at the hakari there was mint in the salad, new potatoes and white tables laden with crayfish and the other usual kaimoana suspects. Crayfish though, there must be trays of these in paradise. I sat under the shade of the trees that surround the old school/marae of the Pa, and got sunburnt and a bit pissed on wine called Mugwi, named after man who rarely drank but knew how to put people at ease without it. There were so many relatives there that I’d never met and I avoided kissing most of them, a phobic’s quiet victory in a sea of kin.

I will never forget how alive with birds the silver birch behind his casket was during the ceremony or how deft the mint was in the salad the women had made for their brother.

In 1957, when Marj, his wife, arrived at the house that sits over the old Rangitāne O Wairau settlement of Kōwhai Pa, Mugwi would get up much earlier than her to milk the cows. Left alone in her short pyjamas she’d wander out to the beach, the bobby calves trailing after the animal lover with their knocking sounds, out onto the uneasiness of the stones and the rising heat.

Empty and beautiful all at once she wondered how she had ever arrived at such a lonely place. The way the massive basin of the bay managed to both magnify and shatter the self, this new, oddly grand locus for her love. Here then, a whole new life.

A city girl from Bradford who’d been told by Mugwi’s family and felt enough on her own to realise the queer depressions in the earth behind the house would need layers and layers of topsoil and compost, so as not to disturb anything deep.

The extra feet Mugwi is buried in the sand of the urupā so that when she’s returned to him they can take off from the first cape at Farewell Spit, back through ngā ringaringa o ngā atua, creaking on as bird people to Hawaiki, Hawaiki nui, Hawaiki roa, Hawaiki pamamao, dancing like they did in Halifax but under the palms.

Tangata Whenua by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris (Bridget Williams Books, $99.99)  and  The First Migration: Maori Origins 3000BC-AD1450 (Bridget William, $14.00) by Atholl Anderson are available at Unity Books.

Keep going!