- Grounded in Durable Indigenous Biographies
A response to Ngarino Ellis, “ The Ao Hurihuri O Ngā Taonga Tuku Iho: The Evolving Worlds of Our Ancestral Treasures.” Biography 39.3 (Summer 2016): 438–60
Tena koe, Ngarino Ellis. Ngā mihi i te ao kikorangi i runga i te moana nui a Kiwa—greetings from the blue sky-world above the great ocean of Kiwa. I first read your essay in transit, crossing the vast sea that connects the east coast of Australia to the west coast of North America. Although my body-aboard-a-plane was buckled-in yet ungrounded, tethered yet unmoored, my reading experience and my immediate response were nonetheless expansive, and they nonetheless tied me to multiple Indigenous worlds: Aboriginal, Native American, Oceanic. These broad terms are mere conveniences, of course, appropriate for the view from 35,000 feet (quite literal while riding those streams of air) but unable to indicate the complex tribal, band, iwi, hapū, clan, skin, country, or national affiliations, genealogies, and biographies of our ancestors or members of our contemporary communities. In the weeks since landing, I’ve been trying to decide whether reading and writing notes while moving within the above-world is a fitting metaphor for what I’ve been calling the trans-Indigenous: thinking, analyzing, and theorizing across, beyond, and through multiple, distinctly grounded cultures, histories, literatures, and arts marked as Indigenous, and, as a result of those multiple and mobile processes, our perspectives and our understandings necessarily changing.
I find much to admire in your essay and much to learn from its analytical itinerary within the specific field perspective of a distinctly Māori art history. I was most immediately struck by your assertion, based in a Māori epistemology, that it is not only the makers of Indigenous taonga/treasured objects that possess genealogies and biographies. No, you argue, the taonga themselves—from small personal adornments and hand-held tools and weapons associated [End Page 465] with individuals to large structures such as whare whakairo/carved meeting houses associated with whānau/extended families and hapū/sub-tribes—they also possess genealogies and biographies, as do the materials and forms from which these taonga are imagined and created. Stone, wood, flax and other fibers harvested from the land, shell harvested from the sea, bone and feathers harvested from animals on land and sea, all these and more possess genealogies and biographies within te ao Māori/the Māori world, but so too do the artistic, construction, and architectural designs through which these materials are shaped and fashioned, the decorative patterns that guide their carving, painting, and weaving. I find these latter ideas especially generative. Your highlighting of Hirini Moko Mead’s emphasis on “taonga tuku iho”—treasures handed down from the ancestors for our safekeeping until we become elders and ancestors ourselves and hand the treasures on down to our own descendants—reminds me, as well, of Mead’s similar emphasis on “he kupu kei runga,” objects invested with interesting talk. More broadly, we might say objects invested with significant discourse, whether spoken, chanted, or sung, or objects encoded with matauranga/knowledge by verbal and perhaps also by other means. I’m interested in how these concepts work together, intergenerational transfer and the obligations of caretaking, on the one hand and, on the other, the investment of treasured objects with discourse, and thus knowledge and meaning.
In my own current work within the specific field perspective of literary and cultural studies, I’m asking questions about how contemporary Native American writers, artists, and communities engage with ancient Indigenous earthworks: the mounds and embankments constructed for thousands of years across the eastern half of North America, many of which endure to this day. The questions are fascinating in the abstract, but they have become especially concrete and meaningful to me personally because of the knowledge that my Chickasaw ancestors were builders of mounds. During my recent trip to Australia to participate in the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference, I taught a master class on place-based aesthetics that was built around the investigation of a contemporary literary representation of earthworks, the Native American poet...