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

Māori oral traditions in print

Māori oral traditions in print

The history of publication of Māori oral traditions, of the narratives, songs, sayings, and genealogies handed down over generations is, as some historians of literacy might expect, marked by length and quality of experience of literacy. The transition of the oral traditions to print would make a fascinating history. There is ample material for such research, as Williams's Bibliography, C.R.H. Taylor's excellent Bibliography of Publications on the New Zealand Maori (1972) and Jane McRae's 'Māori literature: a survey' (1991) attest. It would be important to an examination of Māori response to writing and print, and might support McKenzie's contention that the nature of Māori literacy needs reassessment (1985). At least with regard to traditional knowledge, Māori have retained many customs of an oral tradition.

When the oral traditions have come to print there have been mediators between the very different repositories of the Māori memory and literature. Pākehā published the first books of oral traditions in the 19th century from manuscripts written by Māori. They encouraged Māori into print as contributors to serials in the 19th century, and as authors of books and journals in the 20th century. By that time Māori were encouraging Māori into print. In the 19th century one motive for publication by Pākehā was to preserve the traditional knowledge which must have seemed dangerously ephemeral, not only oral but of a dying race. But there was also intelligent pleasure in the artistic compositions and some, like the typographer Coupland Harding who made it the subject of an article in Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute (1892), appreciated the comparison between Māori, Greek and Roman oral literature.

Sir George Grey was the first mediator. In the 1850s he produced four books of songs, narratives and sayings, all in Māori. The sayings also had English translations and the narratives a separate English edition. He was therefore the first to decide how the oral texts, the form of songs, sayings and genealogies, should be laid out in print. (Some scholars of oral traditions suggest that the way in which narratives are printed may alter how they are understood.) Grey was also a source of printed oral texts, the reason for speeches and songs in Maori Mementos (Davis, 1855) which were composed when he left the country in 1853. The relationship between newly literate Māori and Pākehā publishers and Māori opinion on this exercise are exemplified in Jenifer Curnow's 'Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikaheke: his life and work' (1985) about one of Grey's principal writers, and Michael Reilly's articles (1989) concerning John White's collecting for his six-volume bilingual Ancient History of the Maori (1887-90).

The complexities of the shift to print can be envisaged from the history of S. Percy Smith's bilingual The Lore of the Whare-wananga (1913, 1915) of edited versions of manuscripts believed to be transcripts of teachings by Wairarapa elders in the 1860s made to preserve their knowledge. The provenance of these manuscripts and the scribal role in copying them are explored in Biggs and Simmons's 'The sources of "The Lore of the Whare-wananga"' (1970), and will be further elaborated by Agathe Thornton in a forthcoming book with interesting comparison with a similar transition in Greek oral traditions. These studies, along with evidence from unpublished manuscripts, also raise questions about the work of Māori scribes apprenticed to elders or Pākehā publishers.

If bibliographers are correct in saying that form affects meaning, then there is reason to examine the impact of print on the oral traditions. A little of this has been done. Close comparison of Grey's published narratives with the Māori manuscripts reveals him as an intrusive editor by late 20th-century standards. Perhaps to please readers unfamiliar with oral style, he changed words, names, grammar, the order of events. Editing for a reader shifts the emphasis from the ear to the eye, and the isolated reader requires an explicitness unusual to the oral texts which were typically, although comprehensibly to tribal kin, oblique and elliptical. The public purpose of print pressed changes on that style. Print also brought translation to the oral traditions; it is rare for the oral literature to be only in Māori. Grey started that way, although he wrote prefaces in English. Almost all subsequent work has been bilingual, or a new literature retold in English. This rewriting began at the turn of the century and attracted Pākehā enthusiasts of Māori culture (A.W. Reed was a prolific writer), but little has been done since the 1970s. For most publishing an English rather than Māori readership has been expected.

Publication also saw a shift from a tribal to a consolidated Māori content, and therefore fragmentation of the unified local tradition. As Simmons has shown (1966), Grey began what was to become a common practice of knitting together tribal versions of stories into a printed Māori whole. As the alphabet obscured dialect, so print masked tribal identity in the oral traditions and this prevailed until later this century when Māori began their own publishing. The literary practice of subject studies also saw intricately interconnected tribal knowledge excerpted, in Māori or English, to illustrate ethnographic and other literature about Māori society. Tribal control over traditional knowledge was relinquished with its transition to the very accessible medium of print.

Publishing of the oral traditions ensued from another practice of literacy, analysis and commentary. By this kind of work linguists and literary historians such as Bruce Biggs, Margaret Orbell and Agathe Thornton have accorded these texts the interest given to classics of European literature, but few Māori have taken up such analysis. Some have objected to it, claiming that it exploits and misrepresents the oral traditions. Government agencies such as the Māori Land Court have been said to have forced written and printed recording of the oral evidence of tribal history. But that record in turn has been used by Māori for their own publications—Karanga Hokianga (1986) is the Motuti community's edited version of court-related committee minute books.

How Māori regarded, if they purchased, whether they read, early printed works of oral traditions remains to be known. Many provided material for books but were selective about what they offered. For some there were symbolic and practical aspects to publication—pride, preservation. Māori first published their traditional texts in 19th-century Māori newspapers and journals. At the turn of the century both Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute and the Journal of the Polynesian Society had Māori contributors, often in partnership with Pākehā translators such as S. Percy Smith and Elsdon Best who were instrumental in this publishing. In the 1920s the Board of Māori Ethnological Research started a journal, Te Wananga, with the express intention of printing traditions, although it ran only two issues.

The production of books by Māori has been limited and invariably the work of Māori scholars, knowledgeable elders or those whose professions—in the church, university, government—required literate scholarship. This raises interesting questions about the nature of Māori literacy, of the kind explored in Norman Simms's Points of Contact (1991). Early in the century Apirana Ngata of Ngāti Porou made an exceptional contribution to the oral literature. Maybe it was, as Johannes Andersen put it, his 'scientific mind and literary spirit', as well as his desire to revive the oral arts, that led him to collect hundreds of songs and chants for publication. Ngata tested out his enterprise by publishing first in instalments in Te Toa Takitini and the Journal of the Polynesian Society between 1924 and 1951. The three volumes of translated and annotated songs, Nga Moteatea (1959-70), resulted after another scholar, Pei Te Hurinui Jones of Ngāti Maniapoto, carried on the work after Ngata's death. Of all the oral traditions the songs are most visible in writing and print. There are hundreds in manuscripts, typescripts assist groups learning them; books record and analyse them; oral archives keep them. Yet as Mervyn McLean notes in his study Maori Music (1996), songs are commonly learned from individuals, and for some there are rituals to follow in the copying and use of song books. However, some composers have refused to have their compositions published.

Since Grey's 1857 collection, there has been regular publication of lists of sayings by Māori and Pākehā, a major bilingual collection being published in parts by Neil Grove and Hirini Moko Mead (1994). Narratives published by Māori have usually been from their own tribes: Anaru Reedy's annotated transcription and translation of ancestral writing Ngā Kōrero a Mohi Ruatapu (1993), Jones and Biggs's Nga Iwi o Tainui (1995). These printed reproductions of the ancient texts recall the repetition of an oral tradition, but do not have the creative reworking that characterised oral performance. There is a little such innovation, as in the rewriting of the Tāwhaki legend (in Māori and English) by Hirini Moko Mead (1996). For this kind of publishing a primary consideration has been to support language learning, a secondary one to preserve the knowledge, a third to attract general interest.

There is no way of knowing whether, the circumstances being different, Māori would have printed more or less of their traditional knowledge. There is still adherence to the thinking and ways of an oral tradition. Few Māori have sought to publish their manuscript histories, perhaps because print serves a public who has long been indifferent to Māori culture, perhaps because they are family histories. There is sentimental attachment to the voice and face-to-face communication, a point made by Ngata in 'The Maori and printed matter' (1940). As the marae exemplifies, there is a preference for company, exchange of talk and performance, over the silent, solitary occupation of reading about traditions. Print cannot equal the warmth and intimacy of the human voice or the association of words on the breath which come from and link to the gods and ancestral world. But literacy combines with that tradition: elders use books to supplement their knowledge, quotations from the Bible and other literature are heard in songs and speeches. A danger in this interaction is that, as much of the oral literature are out of print, and the language and oral tradition are not sufficiently habitual to maintain the texts, they may disappear in the gap between orality and literacy.

Māori react variously to publication. The most conservative refuse. Others value it as a means of preservation, a voice to future generations, a way of communicating world wide. More research could identify the scope and aspirations of Māori publishing, and discover whether the relatively limited publishing is a consequence of a recent history of literacy, colonisation, language loss, or religious views about the traditional knowledge, and whether use of print is essentially response to a crisis, to save this knowledge for the next generations of Māori. If this is the motive, it is quite different from an active choice of print to publish for common knowledge.