Sunday, July 18, 2010

A medievalist meets Maori history

It’s Sunday evening, and I’ve just returned from one of the periodic two-day intensive courses on historical methodology I’m being put through this year. Today’s session was on Maori historical methodology - whether there is such a thing, and if so, what it is and how, and by whom, it should be applied. As someone steeped in medieval European history, you might think this would be completely irrelevant for me - and that’s what I thought, too, at first - but that didn’t turn out to be the case. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it was quite a revelatory session.

The crux of the matter we discussed was the question of who ‘owns’ history, and there was much conversation about contemporary debates over whether or not Pakeha (New Zealanders of white European descent) can write Maori history, and if so, how they should go about it. For historians trained in the western tradition of academic history, where documents and archives are often considered the authoritative starting point, it must be something of a mind shift to be told that they cannot even access those archives until they have talked to the kaumatua (tribal elders) and established a relationship of trust. Often, too, the written archives - which are most frequently, though not always, ‘outsider’ views of Maori history and cultural traditions - are considered inferior to the oral traditions maintained on the marae.

I’m a complete neophyte in this area, so I hope any tangata whenua who may read this will not be offended by my naivety, but the aspect of Maori historical epistemology that really entranced me was that Maori do not view time as linear, but as cyclical, where past, present and future all co-exist. It’s not just that Maori have enormous respect for their ancestors, but that they are their ancestors and their ancestors are (in) them. Sir Tipene O’Regan, an historian and Maori ‘elder statesman’, put it this way:

“I and my tribe are the present expression of our tupuna [ancestors] and the source of our uri, our descendants. We are both past and future, as well as ourselves…To inquire into my history or that of my people, you must inquire into my whakapapa. My tupuna may be dead but they are also in me and I am alive. To know them, you must know me! In order to deal with them, you must deal with me!”

For me, the most compelling aspect is whakapapa, which is genealogy but also so much more than genealogy. It is tracing a relationship back to its beginning, to the elemental forces that formed the sea and the land, human life and all that sustained it. As I observed at one point today, during a (rather heated) debate about Pakeha doing Maori history, and about the ‘ownership’ of histories which involve both Maori and Pakeha ancestors, it seems to me that at some point, all Maori history is also ‘family’ history, with all the fraught emotional baggage and byzantine politics that can entail.

I think it was Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie(2) who pointed out that western academic history is utterly wedded to a Judeo-Christian linear view of time, involving a one-way trip from Creation, through Fall and Resurrection/ redemption, to, eventually, an end times/Apocalypse scenario. This linearity is so fundamental to the epistemologies of western societies that I suspect even those of us who are non-believers are probably incapable of ever really escaping it in order to see life on Earth in some other way. Having said that, it seems to me that some of the new work on the ‘post-medieval’ is beginning to challenge and disrupt that linearity from the inside, by consciously interrogating the role a certain idea of the ‘medieval’ past plays in constructing our own ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ worldview.

That’s a topic for another discussion, but in the meantime, can I just say that I am heartily glad I have settled on 14th century England, rather than 19th century New Zealand, as my field of research?

1. Tipene O’Regan, “Who Owns the Past? Change in Maori Perceptions of the Past”, in John Wilson, ed., From the Beginning: The Archaeology of the Maori, Auckland: Penguin Books, 1987, p.142.

2. I could be wrong here. Maybe it was Braudel? I know it was one of those Annales dudes, but it's Sunday night and I'm too lazy to go and dig out my notes...


magistra said...

It's eye opening to be reminded that not all cultures imagine time in the same way as Western ones do, but I think if you abandon ideas of linear time, you also have to give up all standard forms of historical analysis. The study of historical cause and effect relies crucially on the underlying assumption that something cannot be caused by an event subsequent to it. If you reject that, how strong are your surviving academic methods?

Bavardess said...

From my own perspective, I agree with you and I can't even really get my head around something other than a linear time scale. However, some (not all) Maori scholars argue that the search for linear cause-and-effect, and in fact the whole idea of academic method as we know it, is part and parcel of the colonising baggage of the 19th century. I imagine this point is probably being argued in a lot of other former colonies, when dealing with histories of indigenous peoples. As I say, it makes me sincerely glad that my research doesn't require me to enter that minefield!

ZACL said...

Fascinating discussions here in this post. I have long had empathy and sympathy with the cyclical view of history and me in it past and present.

I am interested in the view that Judeo/Christian history is linear; anyone who understands the intimate essence of mortality, and the Judaic dynamic certainly does, will also be empathic to the cyclical principle of the self. Sure there is some denial, which probably would be explained by all sorts of reasons, one being suppression because of prejudice about what is acceptable belief, for example, in a 'civilised' society.

What a challenge you have by-passed. It would certainly be research with a difference. We seem to be terribly entrenched in 'gold standard' research patterns, in particular the written form.

And the answer to the question; who does own history?

Bavardess said...

"Who does own history?" That's the million dollar question! (to which the answer is probably somewhere on the continuum between 'everyone' and 'no one').

ZACL said...

Is this a cyclical or linear continuum?


dr ngo said...

"Who does own history?"

Funny that you should ask. I do.

But now that I'm retired and contemplating downsizing - make me an offer!

ZACL said...

dr ngo,

Not even a downsized offer could be truly contemplated in this scenario. What is the value of nebulous nature and being?

dr ngo said...

Even more worthless items are peddled on the interwub every day.

I thought it was worth a shot.

ZACL said...

...but really dr ngo, worth a shot, for what?

Bavardess said...

Okay, I've lost the thread of this entirely. What have you people been smoking??

ZACL said...

Smoking????? Sorry to disappoint you, I don't touch the stuff in any variety, shape, or form.


dr ngo said...

Neither do I, but I do enjoy a shot every now and then.

("Everyone should believe in something. I believe I'll have another drink." attrib. W.C. Fields)

ZACL said...

Given your joys of life, dr ngo, I wonder if you enjoy life more because of your personal cyclical history and the manner you socially cycle through your present life and times.

dr ngo said...

The last time I tried social cycling I forgot how to apply the brakes and crashed into a tree . . . Next time I walk.