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Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania by Alice Te Punga Somerville (review)

From: The Contemporary Pacific
Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 207-210 | 10.1353/cp.2013.0008

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The study of indigenous Pacific literatures tends to reflect the oceanic vastness of its scope. Alice Te Punga Somerville's Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania combines the oceanic sweep of contemporary anglophone Pacific literary studies with a focused study of Māori cultural articulations of Pacific identity, calling attention to the critical intersections of Oceanic and indigenous identification. By tracing out the ways in which Māori "once were" (and still are) Pacific, the author draws critical attention to the many unspoken disjunctures and unexpected connections between what is understood as "Māori" and what is considered "Pacific," ultimately presenting an elegant and flexible analysis of the discourses surrounding indigeneity, migration, and diaspora in the contemporary Pacific.

In one of its most crucial interventions, Once Were Pacific illustrates the way that Māori articulations of indigeneity—"We were always here"—and Oceanic affiliation— "We arrived here"— are mediated through the triangulation of the colonial nation-state (Aotearoa/New Zealand), the historically and genealogically linked Polynesian Pacific region (Oceania), and indigenous cultural heritage (Māoritanga). The resulting relationships highlight three key metaphors: tapa (cloth), koura (crayfish), and the paintbrush, which Te Punga Somerville uses to organize her book. These key metaphors are drawn from the author's reading of a famous early painting created by Tupaia (a navigator from Ra'iatea who traveled with Captain James Cook on his first voyage to Aotearoa) that depicts an exchange between English naturalist Joseph Banks and a Māori chieftain. While the painting has often been taken as a relatively straightforward representation of Māori-European contact, Te Punga Somerville's introduction notes that Tupaia's implied presence behind the paintbrush, as well as the items being traded—a koura for a piece of tapa cloth—reframes this encounter not only as a moment of first contact between Māori and the West, but also, and more crucially, as a moment of reconnection to a remembered Pacific past. She points out that the "extraordinary fondness" that Cook noted the Māori held for the tapa cloth (xv) —which exceeded Māori interest in any of the Western goods the Europeans could provide—testified to the ongoing affinity between Māori and other Pacific cultures whose technology they shared. By reframing this moment of first contact as a moment of remembered connection, Te Punga Somerville shifts the terms of the discourse to decenter the primacy of European culture and technology and focuses instead on the intra-Pacific dynamics that have shaped Māori culture, literature, and identity.

The first section of the book, covering the "realm of tapa" (4), analyzes a variety of works, performances, and individuals that have attempted to articulate what it means to be Māori living in the diaspora. Chapter 1, "Māori People in Pacific Spaces," analyzes a range of historical and cultural events testifying to Māori peoples' ongoing investment in a broader Pacific world. Te Punga Somerville draws examples from the life of Te Rangihiroa/Sir Peter Buck, a Māori scholar-politician who spent twenty years in Hawai'i as the director of Bishop Museum; from the development of the Māori village in the Polynesian Cultural Center on the north shore of O'ahu; and from the ambivalent inclusion (or non-inclusion) of Māori work in a variety of Pacific and New Zealand literary anthologies. The second and third chapters focus more specifically on literary work, with close analyses of texts by Māori writers from the diaspora (Vernice Wineera, Evelyn Pathuawa-Nathan, and Robert Sullivan) as well as by selected Māori writers in Aotearoa whose works engage directly with Pacific regional politics (Witi Ihimaera, Hinewirangi).

The book's second section is framed by the metaphor of the koura, referring to the many ways that articulations of Māori and Pacific identities converge and diverge in Aotearoa. Chapter 4 focuses on collaborations between Māori and Pacific Islander (Pasifika) artists and communities, including the Auckland-based hip-hop group Nesian Mystik and the performance poetry collective Polynation. The next chapter turns to depictions of Māori-Pacific collaboration in short fiction by Māori authors Apirana Taylor, Patricia Grace, and Briar...

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