Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 136-140
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Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki
Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki. By Judith Binney. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997. Pp. 666. $55 (cloth); $34 (paper).
Te Kooti Arikirangi was a leader of armed resistance to the colonial government of New Zealand and later the founder of the Ringatu Church, to which approximately 8,000 New Zealand Maori (2%) nominally belong. The imposing length and large format of Redemption Songs (a crown octavo of 666 pages) indicates Te Kooti's uniqueness as a biographical subject. Most nineteenth-century Maori lives were undocumented (outside their dealings with officialdom). Te Kooti, by contrast, lived in the glare of both Maori and pakeha (European) publicity. From his celebrated escape from exile on the Chatham Islands in 1868 until his death in 1893, he was chronicled by officials, reporters, and "secretaries"; his own writings also survive. For this reason Redemption Songs is able to draw on an unusual wealth of sources. The size of the book is in large part due to its extensive quotation of Maori text (with English translation) on almost every page. Here one can find the seminal narratives of Te Kooti's teachings, restored, for the first time, to a usable chronology. These narratives are interwoven with the later interpretations of the faithful, who still believe in prophecy, miracles, and hidden words of power.
Judith Binney's access to informants and privately held manuscripts suggests that she has built an impressive rapport with the morehu (believing remnant). In a historiographical field strained by modern politics of indigeneity and an old legacy of intercultural suspicion, Binney's unique access to the Ringatu culture has previously resulted in a convincing oeuvre. Her achievement is strengthened by the addition of this quasi-historical book. Redemption Songs is also an achievement of the book's principal translator of prose, Jane McRae, even though this is inadequately recognized in the preface. Without McRae's work the book would lack much of its value. The texts are the heart and the weight of its substance.
Binney's act of homage to Ringatu people keeps faith with the present, [End Page 136] but limits her success as a historical biographer. The difficulties begin with the name of her subject. "Arikirangi," the name by which Te Kooti is called formally in the title and throughout the book, is a name he himself never used; it is a believers' name for him, and the adoption of the believers' viewpoint in the book imposes polemical constraints on the analysis. Names were signposts of the development of Te Kooti's religious thought, but Redemption Songs is silent on his theological and ritual debt to the Hauhau movement, in which words were invested with a compelling spiritual power. By contrast, there is comment on less tangible matters. For example, it is stated that Io, the modern Polynesian high god, was part of a "conjoined" Maori/biblical belief that "crystallized" among Te Kooti's followers on the Chatham Islands. It is a pity that such speculation has taken space that would have been more usefully employed discussing Te Kooti's more concrete Maori associations. Of course, a figure called Io did exist in Maori tradition in another context, but there is no contemporary evidence for an 1860s Io who was a creator god. Binney's strategy here is typical of the book: conflation of oral tradition and academic history is found everywhere.
Binney sets out to "juxtapose the different histories of Te Kooti so that each retains its integrity, purpose, and autonomy." This produces, in practice, parallel narratives that do not interact, even within their own imaginary universes. Often summary judgments substitute for discussion, as in the treatment of Te Kooti's executions. In justifying these, Binney argues that because some land belonging to Te Kooti's tribe had been confiscated, "he had been truly dispossessed of all a man could value." However, this is insufficient. Many Maori suffered the...