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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa


The many interests of the meeting between Māori oral society and literacy are reflected in the range of those who write about it: literary historians, linguists, historians, enthusiasts of print and Māori culture. But theirs have been small studies which amount to a partial knowledge of this encounter, generating a sense of potential. Three issues are pertinent to a review of this literature and contemplation of future study.

First, the fact that Māori acquired literacy at a time of colonisation by the British is a critical determinant, but one balanced by the autonomy of Māori tribal society. Secondly, and a direct result of colonisation, is the fact that Māori use of writing and print is complicated by two languages. English displaced Māori as a first language, and Māori literature is in large part of both languages, in small part in Māori. The third issue arises from this dual language heritage, for at the time of their first encounter Māori and English were respectively of oral and literate traditions. Māori therefore came to experience those two traditions across both languages.

The assumption of literacy by Māori is not a straightforward, predictable history, although it compares with other oral peoples' response to literacy. What remains to be known is the situational detail of Māori literacy, which in turn could assist language survival, would acknowledge the singularity of Māori literature, and contribute to international scholarship on orality and literacy.