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Te Kāhui Kura Māori, Volume 0, Issue 2

Grand Narratives, Counter Narratives

Grand Narratives, Counter Narratives

Part of the postcolonial response is the critique of the way that history has been told from the perspective of the colonizer (Smith 1999; Pere 1991). The writing of nineteenth century non-Māori historians was influenced by a view of Māori as primitive savages, whose indigenous history traditions were inaccurate, perhaps even irrelevant. Joe Anaru Hetekia Tekani Pere has noted that these writers “were arrogant in their belief that they had a better understanding of things Maori than the Maori himself” (Pere 1991:29). This dismissal of indigenous history comes partly from a belief in the inferiorities of such history and partly because these histories challenge the grand narrative of the imperialist mission of colonization. Because of the Western preoccupation with notions of ‘race’, early non-Māori historians disregarded the importance of tribal history and attempted to create an overall picture of ‘the Māori race’ out of the various local traditions. This focus saw localized traditions as contradictory, needing correction by the Western historian. Smith identifies this trend as history as a “totalizing discourse”: which assume it is possible and desirable to contain all knowledge within one coherent, chronological, universal narrative (Smith 1999:30-31).

However, Māori historians are increasingly challenging this grand narrative and reconsidering New Zealand historiography (Keenan 1999). Pere, for example, argues that we should really focus on tribal history, since until recently many Māori did not see themselves as forming a separate nation but rather based their loyalty and identity on iwi organization and the eponymous ancestor (Pere 1991). Similarly, Sir Tipene O’Regan has pointed out the importance of whakapapa as the authenticator of the historical tradition (O’Regan 2001). However, by contrast, Ranginui Walker’s work focuses on the ‘macro-view’ of Māori history, as a counter-narrative to the grand narrative of New Zealand history based on European perspectives (Walker 2004). On the macro, or ‘pan-Māori’ level, Māori clearly share a history under colonial domination, and this provides a context for many tribal histories.

Recently, the Waitangi Tribunal has led to the inclusion of these counter narratives into the wider public consciousness. Keith Sorrenson argued in 1989 that the Tribunal offered a forum for a “radical reinterpretation of New Zealand history” (Sorrenson 1989) and it certainly has helped expose some devastating colonial injustices. It has also allowed for dialogue between professional historians and iwi that would have been impossible otherwise. However, as Michael Belgrave has pointed out, the burden of litigation with its restricted concept of what is reliable evidence has confined the development of Māori historiography. For example, “rarely is oral history the site for debate. The key debates before the Tribunal have been more about the Māori interpretation of documents created by the Crown” (Belgrave 2005:46). It also locks Māori and iwi history into the history of race relations. In response to this, Aroha Harris has attempted to produce what she calls “concurrent narratives” - modern Māori histories that show the continuing independence of Māori traditions (Harris 2008). Similarly, Danny Keenan argues for the need “to describe Māori historical frameworks that incorporate a certain range of Māori processes, principles and controlling devices” (Keenan 1999:29).

While I am not a historian, this discussion of grand, counter and concurrent narratives has a strong bearing on my research into biculturalism in New Zealand. I would argue that for most Pākehā, at least, the grand narrative of the nation still underlies our thinking and allows for the perpetuation of white privilege. Put crudely, our society is based on a lie, which allows for the continuation of the status quo. In keeping with the “colonial family romance”, this seems like our big, dirty family secret that everyone can feel but no one wants to talk about. I believe the only way forward is to confront it directly.