Book Review: Ngāti Kahu, Portrait of a Sovereign Nation, by Margaret Mutu et al.

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_ngati_kahu.pngThe summit of Rangikāpiti Pā in the Far North town of Mangōnui overlooks the wide expanse of Tokerau Moana (dubbed Doubtless Bay by a quickly convinced Cook) and a vast swathe of Ngāti Kahu’s rohe (territory). Similarly, Ngāti Kahu, Portrait of a Sovereign Nation, sure to become an equally imposing landmark on the northern landscape, is a sweeping overview of this iwi’s physical and emotional topography – its memories and heartaches, struggles and victories.

Just as Ngāti Kahu draws its strength from its many different hapū, so the Portrait is made richer by its wide range of sources. These include irreplaceable oral histories gathered by the project’s historians, documentary evidence of wrongful land purchases, maps, quotations from an extensive bibliography of other works, excerpts from letters, and testimonies presented during the settlement process. Each of these constituent parts come together to trace a remarkable hakapapa of resistance.

True to its title, the Portrait is a nation building exercise. In scope and reach, covering the long haerenga (journey) from distant beginnings to the challenges of the present, it is not unlike Ranginui Walker’s Ka whawhai tonu matou, Struggle without end. Similarly illustrating events with first-hand experience, and steeped in Ngāti Kahu’s understanding of itself and its place in the world, this work is a pou (a marking post), carved with pepehā (identifying sayings) and hakataukī (proverbs), and kōrero o mua (traditions).

This journey cannot be understood without an awareness of the values that have guided and sustained Ngāti Kahu along the way. The Portrait immerses the reader in this iwi’s worldview with a concise yet complete introduction to its stories of origin and to its unique understanding of principles such as mana, tikanga and rangatiratanga.

An aspect of this work I appreciate as a descendent of a northern iwi is its faithful reflection of the spoken language of the North, for example using hakapapa rather than whakapapa. This small choice makes the Portrait a waka huia (a carved box for the huia feather, a prized possession) for our northern language and an expression of our identity for the rest of the motu (nation).

The Portrait does not overlook the heke (rafters) that sustain the roof, the hapū that form Ngāti Kahu. The inhabitants of kāinga (settlements) nestled in valleys or dotted along the coast all have their time on the paepae (speakers bench). With the deep love of place that comes from generations of continuous occupation, stories of back country rivers and hills and the riches within are told, as only those who have kept the ahi kā (home fires) burning for so long can.

However, what of the stories told by others? The Portrait can at times seem dismissive of claims by neighbouring iwi over lands and resources Ngāti Kahu considers its own. However, it also acknowledges the long-standing kinship among the iwi of Muriwhenua before the borders and labels demanded by the settlement process were laid down. It considers these disputes part of a strategy by government to exacerbate and manipulate the minor quarrels that inevitably arise between close neighbours. How these will be resolved remains to be seen, but if other iwi in the North (including my own) replicate this Portrait to make their case, the compilation and the preservation of these stories will make us all the richer.

The Portrait’s collaborators include Margaret Mutu, leader and professor of Māori political practice, history and tikanga at Auckland University. Her influence can be felt not only in the text, but also in her photos of significant sites for the iwi. While these whakaahua (images) are stunning, in conjunction with the text they enable the reader to appreciate the true meaning of these places for the local people. In this way, we learn that the blindingly white sands of Karikari Peninsula are not just inviting beaches, but they are also wāhi tapu – resting places for the kōiwi (remains) of ancestors, we understand why the peaks along the backbone of Ngāti Kahu’s lands are known as Maungataniwha, and we discover that the dense bush on the slopes of these hills is in fact a veritable apothecary of rongoā Māori (Māori medicine).

These are timely reminders of what comes of short-sighted exploitation of these resources. The realm of Tangaroa has been emptied of its bountiful kaimoana – scallops, mussels, and fish; the realm of Tāne can no longer sustain the fat kukupa (kererū) in numbers able to sustain great feasts; and the realm of Tūmatauenga has been cleared of the fruit of human labour, the massive gardens that once fed the North with a rich variety of foods. As one kaumātua ruefully observes: “There were many gardens back in the day, but since the Pākehā came we now have PAK’n’SAVE instead.”

The portrait offers a tangata whenua perspective on the arrival of “our guests from England”. In a tone which would be bemused exasperation if not for the injustices that followed, the Portrait observes the difficulties of the first Pākehā in “living according to the laws of this land”. Despite its dispossession, Ngāti Kahu tells of the arrival of these guests not with anger, but with sadness at how the generous hospitality that was shown to the new arrivals was repaid.

Treaty settlements are generally accompanied by a Deed of Settlement, which sets out an official version of events and of the injustices that are partially remedied. In the absence of an agreed path towards settlement with government, Ngāti Kahu’s Portrait pre-empts this and presents its truth on its own terms. This act of self-determination denounces the failings of the settlement process in Muriwhenua, the flaws of an approach that seeks tidy outcomes within arbitrary deadlines, and the return of divide-and-rule tactics.

This Portrait is more than a testimony to Ngāti Kahu’s tenacious struggle to hold on to its home, it is also a defiant cry of independence, identity and love for the people and land, founded in a deep awareness of the past and hope for the future. It is a rewarding read for anyone with an interest in history, identity, and how memory shapes not only our sense of self, the landscape we live in and the way we imagine our future.

Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd (Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Pāoa, Te Ātiawa)

Ngāti Kahu, Portrait of a Sovereign Nation
by Margaret Mutu, Lloyd Pōpata, Te Kani Williams, Ānahera Herbert-Graves, Reremoana Rēnata, JudyAnn Cooze, Zarrah Pineaha, Tania Thomas, Te Ikanui Kingi-Waiaua
Published by Huia Publishers
ISBN  9781775503040

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.