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Reviewed by:
  • Paerau Warbrick
Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History
By Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2014.

This book is about Maori history from their origins in Asia and the Pacific islands right up to their place in modern day New Zealand. The phrase “Tangata Whenua” is a particular phrase known amongst all the traditional Maori tribal and kin groups as meaning: the Maori people of the land. It is still in use today and it refers to the inextricable link that Maori had with the land in their cosmology and world-views which is also prevalent amongst other Indigenous populations of the world.

The book is not a grand narrative on Maori history. It is lots of narratives in both the written and visual forms; hence the reference to it being an “illustrated history.” It is loud and busy with all the narratives coming at you from all sides and competing for your attention. Its physical dimensions are challenging with it being just under three kilograms in weight and twenty-five centimetres in length and thirty centimetres in breath and over five hundred pages long. With references at the back of the book, it can be physically demanding of the reader in turning back and forth to the chapters that are being read. This is of particular relevance to the non–New Zealand audience who will have to use the glossary for a number of Maori words that are used in the book (498). This book is therefore not for the faint-hearted. It is an assault on the senses physically, mentally and visually. Not in a bad way though; just in a different way.

Its overall literary structure is organised into three parts. Each part is labelled with other well-known Maori phrases along with their literal translations. These are “Part One: Te Ao Tawhito: The Old World”; “Part Two: Te Ao Hou: The New World” and “Part Three: Te Ao Hurihuri: The Changing World.” Part One covers the time of the ancient origins of Maori in 3000 BCE up to the 1830s. This part’s sole author is Australian-based Professor Atholl Anderson. He is part Maori and is well known in New Zealand. Writing in the style of Pacific and Australasian anthropologists and geographers, Anderson covers such topics as the ancient Asian origins of the Maori ancestors, through to migration into the Pacific and then onwards to New Zealand and on to the formation of early Maori social structures. Anderson then covers Maori societies around the time of first contact with Europeans such as the Dutch and English explorers Abel Tasman and James Cook in the mid-seventeenth and later eighteenth centuries. All in all, it is a fascinating part. Like anthropologists and geographers, Anderson devotes a lot of the narrative to population trends, migration and material items such as pottery, weapons and tools and canoe types. The only comment that I would make relates to some speculative mention about how monarchical social structures could have developed if European contact had taken place later than the eighteenth century (127–28). The reality is that we simply do not know what would have emerged except that Maori population increases would have placed incredible strains on natural and physical resources.

Part Two is organised into five chapters covering the period 1820s to 1920. The main author of this part is the University of Auckland Emeritus Professor Judith Binney. Binney, although not Maori herself, was well known amongst certain Northern Maori tribes. In the 1970s she began researching and working alongside Maori people with the focus on Maori-centric subjects. She challenged New Zealand historiography in the 1970s into accepting oral histories especially pertaining to ordinary Maori women and their world views. The issue with this part is that Binney died during the production of the book so most of the chapters are labelled as being co-authored with the late New Zealand historian Emeritus Professor Alan Ward (died December 2014) and well-known Wellington-based professional historian Dr. Vincent O’Malley. There is some overlap in the writing from Part One covering the 1820s and 1830s but this is to be expected when...

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