Double vision, 38% pure river powder.

Whenever I drive out of town (and sometimes, in town) I get a sort of double vision. The first is all the usuals: speedo, road markings, cops. The second is less obvious, but more significant. Simply, it’s all the stuff that’s not obvious. It’s the stuff which has been obscured by successive waves of colonists, and also, the stuff they brought with them.

There’s nothing much to catch your attention as you fly past Rangiriri on State Highway One south of Auckland. But if you pull off the main road, get out, and look around, you’ll see a monument, listing the names of Pakeha soldiers who died there, helping Governor Grey forcibly obtain the land of Waikato Maori.


“Rangiriri” Photo by Daniel Beere, 1864. Kindly made available by Te Papa Tongarewa.

A little way off you might notice a grassy mound, in which lie the Maori who died there. It’s a quiet, still monument, silently asserting its wairua to anyone who’s prepared to reflect for a moment.

A little further south at the maunga Taupiri is the well known burial ground of Turangawaewae Marae, and the Kingi Movement. What I didn’t know was this:

Taupiri was once the sister of Tongariro. She grew up and married Pirongia, who today can be seen as another range a little way off to the west. Taupiri grew ill, and – after consulting her people – Pirongia dispatched a messenger to Taupiri’s homeland to obtain a cure from her brother, Tongariro. When the messenger arrived, Tongariro escorted him up a great mountain, and – at a special place – struck the ground to release a spring of the purest water.

The messenger filled two calabashes, and set out back to Taupiri, to cure her. As he began his descent and his long journey home, Tongariro instructed the stream to follow him, so that Taupiri would always have a supply of pure, healing water. Eventually (I’m skipping chapters here, and a couple of extra rivers, and a lake) the stream became the mighty Waikato, and to this day stands as a treasured gift from the people of Tuwharatoa to the people of Waikato.

My version here is a clumsy paraphrase of a telling by Sir Tumu Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, as documented in Marama’s book.

I studied history at high school. Not very well. A few of the parliamentary acts enabling apartheid. Something about the north Atlantic in the 2nd quarter of the 20th century. If I learned anything about New Zealand, it certainly wasn’t which mountain range married which.

And so it was with both pleasure and a degree of cultural affirmation that I recently epxlored Tupuna Awa: People and Politics of the Waikato by anthropologist Marama Muru-Lanning. Her ethnography of the Waikato starts in this deep history. It wends its way forward through the navigators of the waka Te Arawa, and how they came to populate the upper-central stretch of Te Ika a Maui. From there, it works quickly through the wars of the 19th century, and then into 20th century treaty negotiations and more complex arrangements between tangata whenua and Mighty River Power. For this, she draws on the work of French structural theorist, Michel Foucault, among others. It’s a big read. I’ve probably missed something crucial in my summary, already, for which I humbly apologise.

When I say it’s culturally affirming, I mean it’s useful – and humbling, again – to know how this land was imagined before a few hundred thousand of my ethnic peers turned up to claim it all as theirs, as if it had not even existed previously. It brings that double vision I mentioned into much clearer focus.

Historians like King, Orange and Salmond have illuminated so much vital history. But Marama Muru-Lanning has excelled at bringing her historical subject vividly to life. That’s not just in the sense that she’s written something relevant. But also, her river lives, almost a thing of flesh and blood, certainly of wairua. It’s human. Tupuna Awa: River Ancestor. It’s not ancestral. It’s an ancestor.

This is no spoiler: her point is far too complex and subtle for that. But in summary, people in power can manipulate language to retain their power, and re-frame the very identity of those whose power they would usurp. Marama has provided a compelling, detailed case study of precisely this process, and how it has played out between hapu, iwi, Government and SOE.

We’d be hard pressed to find someone better to do it. Marama belongs to Turangawaewae. She works within the largely western paradigm of cultural anthropology. She also worked as a social researcher and historian for Mighty River Power. And so she has a commanding view of her subject, and an unusually impartial one, easily incorporating oral traditions and social science methods.

The result is an unusual degree of even handedness. It’s not that the previous histories are partial. But often, kaupapa dictates language. Marama’s book is free of this. It flows easily between the language of academia, popular history, and what has too often been classified as “Maori myths and legends.” This category heading too easily confines its contents to the childrens’ shelves, as if a modern, worldly audience could only regard it as entertainment and nothing more.

But I like the old, old stories. Not just for their drama, but because they tell us how the people who lived here before us made sense of this place. And that helps me make sense of this place, and of myself. So now, when I drive through the Waikato, my double vision will be a little bit clearer.

I’ll be talking with Marama this weekend at Going West. There are already events going on, but the Books and Writers Weekend kicks of Friday night up at the Titirangi War Memorial Hall. I’m up with Marama on Saturday, just before lunch at 11 am.

PLUS! We’ll be joined by Mike Joy, who’s written a concise, informative and provocative summary of the state of our rivers: Polluted Inheritance: New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis. In just a few pages it gives you all the science and economics you need to know why you haven’t swum in a stream lately. And – just maybe – what we can do to fix it.

This session really couldn’t be better timed, what with our explosive freshwater health problems of late. We need to clean our water. That’s going to take more than political will. It’s going to take cultural shift, maybe even a new take on national identity. At least, it’ll require a stronger sense of purpose than simply shipping milk powder over the horizon.

I’m looking forward to a lively, friendly and productive discussion. Mike and Marama bring different types of expertise to the question: what do we do for the rivers? But I reckon they’ll agree on one thing: if we’re going to make a better future for our rivers, we’ll probably need to replace economic discourse which currently dominates their governance, with something else. The question is: what? I’m mighty keen to explore that, and more.



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