- Biographies of Marble, Wood, Paint, and Paper
A response to Arini Loader, “‘Kei Wareware’: Remembering Te Rauparaha.” Biography 39.3 (Summer 2016): 339–65
It has been wonderful—and somewhat intimidating—to read your essay “‘Kei Wareware’: Remembering Te Rauparaha” with a conversation with you in mind. Your essay was a joy to read from the start, and it took me back to New Zealand. When I was first given the assignment, I assumed I would not have met the author, but the world simply isn’t that big for us, eh! When I googled you (and of course I did that right away, as I have a special interest in biographies of Indigenous historians), I knew we had probably met before. I first visited NZ over ten years ago, to attend the British World Conference, of all things. There, I met Aroha Harris, and we have since visited each other several times. On one of those trips, I visited the Te Herenga Waka Marae with a small group of Indigenous scholars from Canada. It was a fantastic visit, and included an unforgettable trip to Matiu Island with one of this issue’s editors, Alice Te Punga Somerville. We were treated splendidly while we were there, and I was happy to do whatever Alice asked. Alice’s approach was to give us a fairly open assignment but on a short deadline, and so I decided to respond in a letter to you.
On the first read-through, your essay struck me because it is so different from what I usually review, and this is not only because I too often read biography of individuals in Canada and the US only. First, its setting is the nineteenth century, and I tend to focus on the twentieth. Second, it profiles someone who has been and is remembered in “History,” as opposed to people who [End Page 366] have been forgotten or who never made it into the written record. In doing such work, you are necessarily already in a high-level, multigenerational conversation about biography in New Zealand. This requires a profound knowledge of not just the details of a person’s life, work, and reputation, but also when, where, and how this life has been interpreted and discussed over 140 years. Third, as you mention, there are very few Indigenous writers of biography. Here in Canada, a lot of Indigenous biography exists in as-told-to style. In addition to this, our biography too often exists as thin, one-dimensional profiles or collections of profiles of Indigenous individuals and their contributions, mainly to non-Indigenous society. How incredible that Te Rauparaha’s son Tāmihana wrote a biography of his father shortly after his death—a time, as you state, when “the survival of Māori was less than certain” (342). This context of implicit decline has made an enormous impact on how we remember and frame the past in North America as well. I wonder what it would be like to read Indigenous biography and history written in a context when our decline was not taken for granted. What would have been written with a radically different “future in mind” (348)?
Te Rauparaha’s biographies were made of marble, wood, paint, and paper in contexts influenced by concerns about if and how Māori Land Wars and Māori history more generally would be remembered. The portrait by William Beetham commissioned by Tāmihana vividly contrasts with the ones that followed it. Those images of a blanketed subject seem deliberately to depict him in ways that undermine not only his claims to political authority, but also his place in the present and the future. Victorian conceptions of the civilization process—so aptly portrayed in Angus’s images—are similar to the imagery used by Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs to promote its boarding and residential schools. The associated biographical narrative—of a one-time, one-directional transition or assimilation—is also familiar to me, most recently from my work on rehabilitation specialists at Indian hospitals, who assumed (perhaps hoped) that recovery from long hospitalizations and medical treatment would be, for Indigenous people...