Matariki Williams is Te Papa’s Mātauranga Māori curator. In an extract from Te Manu Huna A Tāne, she writes about how honouring the kiwi became a lesson in honouring her own heritage.
This essay has been abridged by Williams and its original title is Into the Void.
There is a photo on my sideboard. It is of my great-grandfather. He wears a suit and tie, over the top of which is tied a kākahu. The kākahu has a border of feathers running along the top in a row of white, a row of black, and then white again. The body of the kākahu, from what I can see, has columns of more feathers interspersed with hukahuka of wool. This is a photograph that has held a place on the walls of many of my whānau members. From childhood, I’ve looked in awe at my koroua, who passed before I was born, as he stands in a kākahu I have never seen and holding the tokotoko that maintains a rarefied presence in our whānau.
Today I looked more closely at the kākahu. Informed by recently acquired knowledge from my role as a curator with privileged access to the taonga Māori collection in our national museum, I realised that the kākahu worn by my koroua is not made from muka. It is apparent that the kaupapa of the kākahu is made from canvas, though its golden colouring is evocative of some of the muka that I have seen in the taonga Māori collection. Muka itself, the processed form of certain types of harakeke, has a sheen to it and a silkiness that invites touch – in museum collections it is a touch that is mediated by rubber gloves. Not really a touch at all, and not really muka at all, but there’s no shame in that.
To these arresting photographs. The opening composition is one of tranquility, reminiscent of the late afternoons of a holiday, with a lake or beach in the background, lapping sand softly. To the right of the photograph, the sun beckons to the water, come for your final swim of the day. The water is surrounded by a dense border of native trees, a kāinga for our native species, and a hiding place for their prey. Looking closely again, the house and its external objects have a familiarity that I can recognise, of a home where there is always a seat to sit in. At houses like this, there are projects, objects in varying stages of process. They are the houses that exist on all sides of my whānau. Like the porch of another Koro, Mum’s dad, where rīwai and paukena, the bounty from his garden, would be waiting to be given to visitors, his seeds drying for laying next year’s garden beds. One year there were his kānga drying too. I never did get to try them, and I wonder what has happened to his garden in the five years since he passed.
In this photo, the first of the series, hanging in a plastic bag I make out the silhouette of a kiwi. Lit by this most peaceful of lights, its suspended body is incongruous with the surrounds. When I point it out to my kids they respond with a mix of horror and intrigue: Why is it there? Who hurt it? Is it dead? Are they all dead? This photo, and the others of disembodied kiwi parts in various states of frozen and thawed, conjure yet another memory, this time of the kākā in the freezer at our family home in Tauranga. The body of this bird was recovered from under our house. Dad had found it in a dazed state and contacted DOC, who informed him that the kākā had likely been eating berries that made it a little disorientated so that it had flown into the house and injured itself. If my memory is right, the bird ended up dying.
We are not a family of weavers. Our hands grip knitting needles, not mussel shells. Bonnets, booties, cardigans clothe us, not for us are the kahu kiwi, kahu huruhuru of other whānau. This is true on each side of my whānau, I know no trace of whānau-made, or inherited raranga beyond the putiputi I was taught in a primary school noho marae on Matakana Island.
I must return to the light of the photo. So filled with potential of the night to come. Of the time when the kiwi awaken. The quietness of that potential belies the brutality of the images to come, yet it is not brutality that exists without care. The hands that cradle the head as other hands employ large shears to remove it, they work in concert and it is with manaakitanga of the bird, its life and the future use of pelts. They cradle the potential for what the bird’s role will now be. It is no coincidence that Te Pō in which the kiwi awakens, the big night, the long night, the dark night, is synonymous with potential.
As the skinning of the birds takes place, butcher’s paper is laid on a table and spread with newspapers. Cups of tea and drinks of water for everyone. The familiarity of the paper and cups of tea is comforting, their ubiquity in Māori settings, on wharekai tables, out the back of wharekai where pigs are hung and carved, and vegetables peeled and chopped. But this isn’t anywhere, this is the Far North. When my Nan prepared to leave for Queen Victoria Māori Girls’ School, her uncles told her to befriend girls from the North because they would have the ‘old reo’.
“Kiwi who looks after” reads a truncated newspaper headline as six hands reach in to work on the body of a kiwi. By an accident of arrangement, a hand sits at the end of a newspaper advertisement featuring a coiled cord, giving the impression that the kiwi is being operated on.
And so this kiwi will continue to live in the taonga its feathers will adorn.
As the kiwi is worked on, the images change. Colour is removed as blood runs out. I’ve never seen a bird pelt before, and this is not what I imagined. Many times I’ve seen pigs, cows, deer hanging from the strut of a garage or outside a wharekai, their innards removed onto the concrete floor – easier for their blood to be hosed away. Yet there is something in the body of the kiwi, denuded of its feathers, that feels so vulnerable. So inviting for me to cloak in my arms.
My mother was not a weaver. Nor was her mother. Beyond that, I don’t know. What my mother was, was a knitter, what she gave us was her love manifest in wool. What she passed down was her knowledge of knitting, teaching her right-handed daughters to knit in her left-handed style. Wanting to learn raranga and whatu is not a reclamation as we didn’t have the skills in the first place. The kākahu in our family are machine-made, the whenua are cotton and the dyes synthetic; this is what most whānau have access to these days. Where the making knowledge is missing, these newer kākahu have filled the void of potential.
A recent stay near the kiwi habitat in the Ōrongorongo valley led to a night of hearing kiwi call. At one point we saw possums climbing the tree near the hut we were staying in, and the ingrained response to protect the kiwi kicked in, as somewhat of a birthright. Armed with the spears that our kids had whittled that day, we attempted to knock the possum from the tree. Our friends, Australian as it happens – from the land of the protected possum – were surprised to see us so “bloodthirsty”, as they put it. We were driven by sheer shock that a predator was in such proximity to our beloved national bird.
And so I come to think of this bird and its status as a national symbol of the underdog who can overcome adversity and punch above its weight. It is not the bird I think of when I think of home. Instead, I think of the tītī that Mihi-ki-te-Kapua sang of, I think of the kererū that my whānau recall eating, and more latterly I think of the myna birds – introduced yet uninvited – thriving in the paddocks surrounding Nan and Koro’s. It has more of a presence in the whārua than the kiwi.
Inspired by these photos, and other things, I have signed up to an online weaving course. Well, I did so a couple of months ago and haven’t woven anything yet. It’s easier to watch videos than it is to get up and cut harakeke. There feels to be an invisible barrier between the watching and the doing, something stopping me. I recall the words of an Aboriginal friend who once said to me that trying to learn your language can be more painful than never having had it in the first place. This is what my barrier is, a familiarity with a knitting needle that I don’t have with harakeke. It’s a barrier that feels like a failure.
On a recent drive between Rotorua and Rūātoki, Dad reminded me of another connection that our people have to the Far North: te waka Mātaatua. Our whānau took a haerenga to the Far North at the invitation of one of our Nanny’s husbands. We visited Cape Reinga, the Bay of Islands, heard of the hāpuku that were so plentiful that boats would be weighed down by their day’s catch. We stopped at a school, where the koroua hosting us pointed to the harbour and showed where Mātaatua lay. He quipped that if we knew the right karakia to uplift the waka, we could have it back, adding, “If anyone is to know the right karakia, it would be Tūhoe.” We swelled with pride.
I do not know the karakia.
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.
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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