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A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand

Two: Aversion to print? Māori resistance to the written word

page 17

Two: Aversion to print? Māori resistance to the written word

The title of this essay was originally 'Aversion to print? Māori resistance to the print medium' because, originally, some comments seemed worth making about Māori responses to the development of print in New Zealand. However, reflection has suggested a more useful and narrower focus, which is the impact, not of the print medium, but of the written word, upon Māori last century. It therefore deals with the print medium only indirectly, and instead assesses the influence of writing and the written word.

The growth of Māori writing and literacy last century in New Zealand has generally been considered in positive terms.1 Māori people had much to gain by learning how to read and write. However, once committed to paper, words acquired status, and power, as Māori were to discover in a range of historical contexts. The purpose here is to describe one such context within which Māori were in fact severely disadvantaged by the developing power and dominance of the written word in New Zealand.

In recent years, a number of histories of Māori writing and literacy have been produced. One of the best known is that written by the late D. F. McKenzie, a professor of English and specialist in bibliographic studies. In 1985 McKenzie published a booklet about the power of the written word early last century and described its impacts on Māori.2 His particular focus was how the written word appeared to be in conflict with oral testimony, then much favoured by Māori, and the great disparities in power that page 18 followed when writing gained an ascendancy over oral alternatives.

McKenzie found an early historical context where, as he saw it, this conflict between the written and spoken word was decisively played out — the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. He suggested that the Treaty signing process provided a critical test case, where the 'binding power of the written word' could be measured against the 'flexible accommodations of oral consensus'.4 And indeed the 1840 Crown Treaty negotiations with Māori certainly brought this conflict — written against oral testimony — squarely into the picture. The outcomes of that treaty contest were undoubtedly important for Māori. Yet, because nothing material was at stake, the Treaty signing process was a secondary context for such a critical contest to occur, and for judgements to be made as to the real power of the written word over the spoken word. As this essay argues, there were later occasions where the conflict was again played out, with a much greater significance for Māori, where the stakes were the highest imaginable: the fate of the land itself.

McKenzie argued that the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840 could be seen as an ideal context for measuring the impact of literacy and the influence of print in the 1830s. According to him, the Treaty was important because it was witness to a 'quite remarkable moment in the contact between representatives of a literate European culture and those of a wholly oral indigenous one'.3 Well, what did Professor McKenzie mean by the phrase 'measuring the impact of literacy'?

In one sense, the answer is very obvious. He was referring to a kind of 'universal impact' of literacy on Māori people, whom he described in broad terms as being of a 'wholly oral indigenous' culture. He was simply referring to their capacity to reacl or write, or to deal with or work with the written or printed word, in a material and conceptual way. In that context, McKenzie presented an argument which was fairly persuasive, though one much contested by a number of historians.5

McKenzie began his argument by questioning just how literate Māori really were when the Treaty was signed. He was sceptical. He argued that the presumed high-level literacy of Māori in the 1830s was 'too readily and optimistically affirmed' by historians. As a result, historians and others had too easily distorted an understanding of the 'different and competitively powerful page 19 realities' of societies whose cultures were still primarily oral.6 However, at another level, McKenzie saw the Treaty signing process as representing a 'remarkable moment'. What we saw at Waitangi, he argued, were European assumptions about the 'comprehension, status and binding power of written statements and written consent' coming up against the 'flexible accommodations of oral consensus'. And, he concluded, the 'flexible accommodations of oral consent' — and Māori people — lost out.7

According to McKenzie, those who prepared the Treaty documents, like Henry Williams and James Busby, 'secured the initiative'. They determined the concepts and chose the linguistic terms by which the initiative — the Treaty — was revealed to attentive Māori. On the other hand, he saw that the collective oral response from Māori was rarely unanimous. There was certainly no agreement about such details as words on paper, much less the weighty concepts presumed to be underpinning them. Also, there was always the prospect of continuing discussions amongst Māori, with a desire for modification, as indeed there was.8 Lacking a documentary form, the oral response from Māori, said McKenzie, was 'weaker in its power', especially once Māori showed signs of dispersing.9

There are a number of interesting points here. An immediate issue arises if we look more closely at the assumptions that McKenzie is making about the 'meaning and binding power of written statements', as opposed to the 'assumed flexibility of oral accommodations'. In other words, the written word was binding and more powerful, whilst the spoken work was flexible and therefore weaker. The question is, was that really the case? The answer is no — and yes. It is no small thing to assert that the spoken words of Māori were 'flexible' and therefore 'weaker'. In fact, though, oral cultures were seldom recognised as possessing the certitude of the written or printed word, either in the 1840s or in more recent times. For example, in the 1920s Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Buck) had some thoughts on this subject. The eye of the 'civilised man', he wrote, depended on notes and books. By way of contrast, the ear of the 'uncivilised man' had to depend on memory. It was thus difficult for 'civilised man' to credit the vast amount of information that the 'uncivilised man' handed down to posterity unwritten. Te Rangi Hīroa had great faith in the ear of the 'uncivilised man', and in the capacity of the human memory. For 'human' perhaps read 'Mīori'.10 Pei Te Hurinui page 20 Jones was another Māori scholar who later defended the capacity of the Māori memory. In 1958, he observed that the study of Māori traditions, based on genealogies, appeared to be giving Europeans trouble. 'To my mind', he wrote, 'the difficulty stems from the fact that the non-Polynesian is confronted by complex oral accounts comprising strange names, unfamiliar constructs and unexplained variations of genealogies.'11

Such assumptions, then — that the Māori oral response was 'flexible' and therefore 'weaker' — beg the question: was the Treaty signing process such an important test of literacy against orality? The short answer is — probably not, partly because the specific.material stakes of that Treaty signing process were not high. Though much was at stake pertaining to notions of the overall governance of New Zealand, no land or livelihoods were directly at stake. Perhaps, in looking at how things turned out, the oral responses of Māori may well have been 'weaker' in their sustaining power to influence the Crown because they were lacking in a documentary form. This is the point that McKenzie is making.

Māori leaders present at the Treaty discussions on the day, however, were hardly weak. Of course, McKenzie is not saying they were. The discussions were lengthy and at times passionate. But, looking at the directions that the Māori-Crown relationship subsequently took, the point is well made that, despite the power of Māori oratory on the day, the written words on the Treaty document had the greater binding power. In the end, then, we might look more closely at the binding power of writing, as opposed to oral flexibility, because these were indeed opposites, and they were about to enter into a long-lasting and defining tension between Māori and Pākehā.

The Treaty signing process placed Crown officials against Māori in a contest over written documents and oral responses. McKenzie doubts that Māori were sufficiently literate to adequately decipher the documents, much less to appreciate their weighty presumptions. A literate population, he argued, took decades or more to produce. Yet, it was claimed, this had been accomplished in New Zealand, in a mere 25 years. Equally, Māori could hardly be said to have so quickly surrendered their relativities of time, place and person (inherent in the oral process) to the presumed fixities of the written or printed word. Therefore literacy and print had not yet taken such a hold on Māori that the binding written status of the Treaty could continue to be sustained page 21 as the sole record of the agreement. This was clearly evident because, for Māori, the Māori text was the product of consensus arrived at through oral discussions, discussions more comprehensive and open than that revealed by a reading of the Treaty documents.12

Therefore, if the Treaty signing process is significant for anything in the context of the conflict between literacy and orality, then what is it? It is a common thing, and not a bad thing, for scholars to intensely examine the Treaty of Waitangi signing, in all its complexity, for indicators of 'significance'. Without a doubt, whether one's interest is literature, history, politics, law or jurisprudence, the Treaty has assumed a major significance over time, though it did have its low points last century. Where the issue of the written word against words spoken is concerned, the actual signing of the Treaty of Waitangi by Māori was important. But it was important only to the extent that it demonstrated a willingness by Māori to acknowledge that writing and print now had a place within the new scheme of things, without allowing it to override the intellectual imperatives of Māori 'flexible accommodations of oral consensus and construction'.13

That was why we might say that the Treaty was, in effect — as far as conflict between literacy and orality was concerned — a secondary context. It does not loom as large enough an event to test written words in sharp contest with spoken words. This is because, for Māori, oral responses were in essence a local matter. Tino rangatiratanga,14 certainly as asserted in Waitangi, would have drawn its authority from local hapū contexts. Māori people speak from their own paepae. Thus we should look elsewhere, into local tribal and hapu histories of this era, to see how the local defence of tino rangatiratanga or mana whenua, mounted from the paepae, came up against the binding power of the written word. For, if the Māori-Pākehā history of the 19th century is about anything — and it is actually about everything — then it is a history of inherent oral processes, contexts and meanings coming up against the 'culture of the written word', with a vigorous contest ensuing. Consequently, there are better places to look, I think, than to the Treaty signing process to see this contest being waged between Māori and Pākehā, ultimately for the highest stakes possible.

For example, we might look at Taranaki in the mid-186os. Here, after the land wars years, in the wake of land confiscations, page 22 the contest was between the Compensation Court and local hapu, and the return of confiscated land was resolved by the use of long and detailed written documents. Unlike the Treaty signing process, almost no provision was made for substantive oral testimony. And the prize, at the end of the day, was the land itself. Even before the land wars in Taranaki were over, substantial Māori land alienation had occurred, primarily though confiscations. These were later vindicated as a 'justified penalty for unjustified actions'; they were to serve as a deterrent against future armed 'rebellion' by Māori. The confiscations were also seen as providing for the needs of settlers, especially military settlers, and the government. They would supply the means of 'introducing numbers of white settlers ... and for recouping the government in part for the huge financial burden on the colony by the rebellion'.15

The exercise of tino rangatiratanga or mana whenua by the tribes and hapu of Taranaki had once turned on their occupying and owning the lands. However, once the tribes had been dispossessed, the exercise of mana whenua changed. Once occupation had ceased it increasingly derived from a knowledge or a memory of the land sustained within the tribe. Thereafter, once possession had passed, Māori customary law concepts of tribal title as a basis of occupancy, like ahi kā roa, were superseded.16 This was a legacy of the changes to the nature of land tenure brought about by large-scale British settlement in New Plymouth after 1841. At that time, new concepts of ownership were introduced and were 'encouraged by the government until at length [they] received the sanction of written law'.17

The legislative intention seemed always to recast customary tenure in the interests of ready settler access to land and title. This was certainly the intention of legislation like the Native Lands Acts of 1862 and 1865. There, it was declared expedient to 'amend and consolidate all laws relating to land holdings remaining under tribal proprietary customs'. The Acts were also intended to provide for the determining of Māori who 'according to such customs' were the owners. In the end, the Acts sought to encourage the eventual extinction of these Māori proprietary customs, providing instead for their conversion into tides derived from the Crown.18

Māori people have recently viewed these measures extremely negatively, especially focusing on the colonial supplanting of customary tenure by a different tenure system, one structured to deny continued tribal retention of mana whenua.19 Not without page 23 good reason, then, did McKenzie rhetorically ask, what was it that the chiefs at Waitangi thought they were surrendering, in agreeing to the first article of the Treaty? By way of reply, he reminded us that the form of Māori public discourse and decision-making on the fateful day was oral, and was confirmed in the consensus, not the document, with many chiefs adding complementary oral conditions. Therefore, in the end, we can never know for sure.20

For all this, the tribes and hapū in Taranaki continued to maintain and assert their mana whenua after 1860. Mana whenua remained as the essence of their collective identity, based on the complex continuum of descent that provided the critical link into the landscape over which that identity obtained its mana. These assertions were focused primarily through the agency of hapu, in whatever forum that presented itself as appropriate. And oral processes of knowledge retention and mediation remained integral to such continuing assertions in Taranaki, as had occurred in Waitangi 20 years earlier.

A primary forum of contest for land in Taranaki after 1863 was the Compensation Court, followed thereafter by many commissions of enquiry, even to the present day. These forums were all of a judicial nature, and involved conflicts between giving effect to new law (statutory and documentary) and giving effect to customary law reposing in oral history and tradition. Here was a significant difference of perception, prosecuted for half a century, originating from a time when the actual tide for that land substantially changed from one party to the other. On 23 March 1866 the Stafford Government advised that the Compensation Court hearings would commence at New Plymouth, on Friday 1 June. Its purpose was to hear and determine claims for compensation from Māori, following the taking of their lands by the Grown under the authority of the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 in the province of Taranaki.21

The Compensation Courts were essentially extensions of the Native Land Court, established in 1862 under the Native Land Act. Their declared purpose was to define customary Māori land rights and to translate these into titles consistent with British law. The key personnel of the courts came from the Native Land Court, and Native Land Court precedence and experience were drawn upon in Compensation Court deliberations. So, the stage was set. On the one hand there were a range of Māori certainties: perceptions and constructions of identity, history and authority, page 24 maintained within hapū, anchored into the land, all asserted through the 'flexible accommodations of oral consensus', as McKenzie had observed of oral testimonies during the Treaty signing process of 1840. Now, however, the context was different.

On the other hand, against the hapū of Taranaki, as against Māori when the Treaty was signed, were European assumptions about the 'comprehension, status and binding power of written statements' as expressed through the Compensation Courts. The Compensation Court process was complex. What interests us here about this court was its reliance upon the comprehensive status and binding power of its written statements, given that its primary function was to aid the process of title transfer from customary law (oral) to English law (statutory documents). Strong assertions of oral consensus there were, from Māori people, before these courts. But these assertions were mediated through written forms and documents which, in the end, compromised the Māori capacity to represent or defend the seamless nature of customary law by which they lived. For example, in seeking to collect and record details of the substance and basis of Māori claims for the return of tribal lands within the confiscated blocks, the court relied heavily on a printed form entitled He pukapuka tono ki Te Kooti Whakawa Maori, kia whakawakia etahi take whenua. This was a 'form of claim' made available through Native Land Courts and native assessors.22

However, in seeking certain land and kinship details, the form and process were problematic. They compelled claimants to write down and declare interests in land to a degree of specificity to which tribes and hapū were unaccustomed. These were lands long regarded as collectively owned, and the source of collective mana. Such lands were the sacred trust and asset of all the people. Here, for instance, complex laws of tapu were established over time, frequently invoked to protect a profusion of areas of land and waterways from human exploitation or defilement. Tapu declarations were of permanent concern to all Māori. Consequently, it was common for every natural feature to bear a name that spanned centuries of occupation.

Thus, on this form, Māori people were asked to declare 'Te whakaaturanga o nga rohe', the general lands in which they believed they might possess an interest. This largely constituted some of the lands over which their tribe or hapū would have exercised mana whenua, however much this posed difficulties to page 25 describe. The need to provide such specific details presented particular problems. Tribal and hapū mana whenua did not necessarily contain an infrastructure of individual allotments that might be easily identified and assigned. Māori customary title was effectively possessed by all kinship members living on the land, commensurate with common understandings concerning group title in that land. It was also, in some circumstances, held by kinship members living away from the land. To express an interest in that land, however, the land needed to be occupied or worked by hunting, fishing or cultivating. All other claimants from other kinship entities had to be resisted. This especially related to those that had moved away without a declared intention to return.

As a consequence, the land claims invariably overlapped. The attendant descriptions of 'o nga rohe' were also general ones. These were customary lands for which there could be no limit to claimants, given the encompassing and secure nature of mana whenua, especially as asserted by local kinship groups through their whakapapa perceptions of descent and connected land interests. This was constituted as certain, in the final analysis, by the reality of occupation and the enduring knowledge of the whole area of land, substantiated by whakapapa, and sustained within the tribal memory.

With no documentation of any kind to certify title to land, tribes and hapu relied heavily on such enduring knowledge. A special responsibility lay with those who retained such knowledge, the administering body of elders who knew every prominent natural feature, and the way each was linked to the other within the boundary area between tribes. The responsibility borne by elders of retaining an intimate knowledge of the limits to title was particularly important. This was especially so when outside groups held title to pieces of land or resources, within the tribal domain, as invariably happened.

Before Compensation Court hearings were convened, details of all claims laboriously collected for all lands were copiously transferred by court officials onto extensive schedules. Names of the listed claimants were listed against lands claimed, in preparation for the hearings. Whole days of court proceedings were set aside for the preparation of these schedules that judges and officials used to call and cross-examine claimants, who were compelled to appear if they wanted any chance of a claim being heard, let alone granted. It is clear that, here, we see changes of some page 26 importance occurring. The Treaty signing process had significantly allowed for Māori public discourse and disagreement. Such discussions were oral and involved debate and consensus with the chiefs adding complementary conditions, as McKenzie noted. Much later, of course, the Treaty was affirmed solely in its documentary form.

Through Crown devices like the Compensation Court, the process had avowedly become a documentary one. There was very little scope for meaningful oral testimony or consensus beyond the preliminary collection of customary details by court officials through the use of specific documents. Yet there was a greater reason to allow for robust Māori oral responses — the future of the land was at stake. The tenuous nature of this process was especially evident later when grant allocations were finally made by the court to Māori. Many hapū disputed the right of neighbours to receive certain land allotments by way of compensation, if it was land over which they themselves claimed a customary title.

In the end, the size and complexity of the task facing the Compensation Court can be seen by the fact that, in Taranaki, for the Oakura hearings alone, the court heard a total of 270 fragmented claims to portions of the Oakura Block. These claims encompassed over 200 sites and provided the basis for reference for up to 30 hapu. Substantiating the claims became an impossible task for the Compensation Court, despite their enormous holdings of written documents. In the end, allocations of land were made that took little account of the original basis of claims to mana whenua, or to the hapū who were specific to those claims.23

Throughout the Compensation Court process, it was possible to discover hapū or other collective groups claiming descent, by using whakapapa, landscape and mana as points of reference. These were stressed as customary and long-standing, despite the new political realities facing Taranaki Māori. Such assertions emerge from the enormous holdings of Court written documents. As a consequence, written statements played a significant part in the proceedings, but no substantive accommodation was made by the Crown for any Māori oral responses, much less oral consensus. The use of documents, compiled by Māori, describing the land in detail as a first manoeuvre to retain it, in the end severely constrained the process for Māori. The comprehension, status and binding power of written statements played a critical part in page 27 this process and it was here, therefore, that the written word, with all its imaginable potential, came so starkly up against the spoken word. And the spoken word lost out.

The signs were there, says McKenzie, at the very beginning. When Samuel Marsden bought 200 acres of land at Rangihoua in 1814 for the first mission station, he drew up a deed of conveyance. Solemnly he asked the local Māori chief to 'sign it' by drawing a copy of his moko on the document. The price was twelve axes, perhaps a potent symbol of the changes to come. Iron axes constituted an intrusive technology and the impacts of such technologies would soon be seen on the land. But the subtler, much more elusive and indeterminate technology was the signing of the document — literacy, and the binding power of the written word.24

1 There is a huge literature dealing with print, literacy and Māori. A good recent chapter is: Jane McRae, 'Māori literature: A survey', in The Oxford history of New Zealand literature in English , 2nd ed., ed. by Terry Sturm (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.1-30.

2 D. F. McKenzie, Oral culture, literacy if print in early New Zealand: The Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington: Victoria University Press with the Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust, 1985).

4 Ibid.

3 McKenzie, Oral Culture, p.9.

5 For example, Judith Binney, review of McKenzie in Political science, 38 (1986), 185-8; Buddy Mikaere and Lindsay Head, 'Was nineteenth-century Maori society literate?' in Archifacts, 2 (1988), 17-20; and Claudia Orange, review of McKenzie in the New Zealand Listener , 1 August 1987, 60-2.

6 McKenzie, Oral Culture, p.32.

7 McKenzie, Oral Culture, p.40. According to McKenzie, in signing the Treaty, many of the chiefs would have set oral qualifications and conditions upon their signing. However, in the end, 'the ability to sign one's name was a trap'.

8 This paragraph paraphrases McKenzie, Oral Culture, p.40, with the inclusion of specific historical participants.

9 For a detailed account of the Treaty negotiations between Māori and officials, see Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington: Allen & Unwin; Port Nicholson Press, 1987), pp.32-59. If anything, Orange plays down the conflict between Māori seen during these preliminary Treaty discussions. For example, some participants observed Hone Heke to be violent in his opposition to the Treaty, rather more than does Orange.

12 McKenzie, Oral Culture, p.10

13 I have discussed some of the issues relating to Māori oral testimony/sources and history elsewhere. See Danny Keenan, 'By word of mouth ... the past from the paepae', in Historical News (October 1994), 4-7-

14 The meaning of terms like 'tino rangatiratanga' and 'mana whenua' are much debated, even by Māori. For the purposes of this chapter, 'tino rangatiratanga' asserts the customary, long-standing sovereignty of Māori. 'Mana whenua' anchors that sense of sovereignty into a specific landscape, and renders a certain -geographic and historic specificity to the more generic term 'tino rangatiratanga'. Mr Lou MacDonald, kaumātua, Ngāti Mutunga, North Taranaki, personal communication, 25 November 1998.

15 Minutes of Evidence, Royal Commission to Enquire into Confiscations (Sim Commission), 1927, Maori Affairs, File 85/2, National Archives of New Zealand,. Head Office, Wellington.

16 'Ahi karoa' means 'long burning fires'. This was the right established under Māori customary law where certain Māori groups could remain in continuous occupation of certain lands by virtue of their 'long burning fires', i.e. the length of their occupation.

17 Papers Relating to the Sitting of the Compensation Court at New Plymouth, Appendix to the Journal of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1866, A.3, p.3.

18 Quoted from Native Lands Act 1865, Preamble.

19 'The confiscation of tribal interests by imposed tenure reform was probably the most destructive and demoralising of the forms of expropriation': Waitangi Tribunal, The Taranaki report, kaupapa tuatahi (Wai 143) , (Wellington: GP Publications, 1996), p.3.

20 McKenzie, Oral Culture, p.41.

22 Pukapuka rarangi ingoa form, Applications to Compensation Court, Taranaki Confiscated Lands, Box 2A, Land Information New Zealand, New Plymouth.

23 List of claimants, Owners of the Oakura Confiscated Block, Proceedings of the Compensation Court, 1/11, Land Information New Zealand, New Plymouth.

24 McKenzie, Oral Culture, p.10.