Giving voice to early Māori writing

Features, Research — By on May 4, 2011 12:07 pm

What were the first educational encounters between Pākehā and Māori like? Answering this question has taken two University alumna on a unique academic journey. Rose Yukich tells their story.

For Kuni Jenkins (Ngāti Porou) and Alison Jones (Pākehā) creating the exhibition Ngā Taonga Tuhituhi represents a dramatic departure from the usual academic research outputs of article and book writing. The exhibition comprises 18 archival images from their research into the earliest Māori use of ink and paper and its significance for understanding the dynamics of the two-way teaching and learning relationship that existed historically between Māori and Pākehā.

Digitally reproduced and enlarged, the images date from 1769 to 1826. They include surviving textual material such as copybooks from one of the earliest schools, and the fascinating letters and drawings of Tuai and Titeri, two young men from the Bay of Islands who visited Australia and England in 1818, and became important teachers of English missionaries headed for New Zealand.

Supported by a Marsden Fund grant, Kuni and Alison’s main goal initially was to present their research only in book and article form, but the idea of an exhibition soon took on a life of its own. While the book is due out later this year through Huia Publishers, the exhibition is already up and running with the help of sponsorship from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga (the National Institute of Research Excellence for Māori Development and Advancement, based at The University of Auckland).

Safely transported inside three custom built crates, the exhibition had its first public showing last October at the week-long Ngapuhi Waitangi Tribunal hearings in the coastal community of Te Tii. Hundreds of people (mainly Māori) from school children to kaumatua were able to get up close, touch and interact with the images.

“For Kuni and me, it was a priority to take these images out of the archives and back to the descendants, to the people of the hapu whose stories they represent, but who don’t usually have access to them,” says Alison. Requests have since flowed in and Alison and Kuni have travelled with the images to Northland marae and other venues. The collection has also been hosted by the University’s Waipapa Marae, Auckland City Library and Te Whare Wananga o Aotearoa in Mangere. It has proved a powerful vehicle through which to tell the Māori side of the story about the first educational encounters with Pākehā.

“What was in the mind of Māori in this early period, that they kept on trusting these people who couldn’t speak very much Māori, and when they couldn’t speak much English?” asks Kuni. “Genuine communication must have gone on. The exhibition helps put Māori back in the picture as active participants in the relationship. The images are a starting point for inserting a Māori presence into the gaps of the historical records,” she says, arguing that a critical re-reading of historical moments in this way has direct relevance to contemporary educational issues.

“So often we think about Māori educational success in terms of what teachers, governments and schools should do, and the idea of relationships seems somehow banal or common sense,” elaborates Alison. “But it’s actually quite profound, and quite difficult to articulate. What we have done by trying to tease out some of those first Māori- Pākehā educational relationships historically — and how Māori might have understood and engaged with them — I think has huge resonance today, by suggesting the elements required to make educational relationships successful.”

Kuni and Alison’s own relationship stretches back to the 1980s when Kuni was an undergraduate at The University of Auckland, and Alison her tutor and lecturer. Both are now professors — Alison at the University’s Faculty of Education, and Kuni at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, dividing her time between the Tamaki and Whakatane campuses. The inspiration to pursue their current research began with Kuni’s doctorate, completed in 2000, which Alison supervised.

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2 Comments

  1. Maria Jackman says:

    Refreshed by studying some of the material as a BEd student I am really looking forward to the book. It has been empowering and like sorbet, cleansing.

    Maria Jackman
    Te Rarawa

  2. Joan Cassidy-Natano says:

    Aunty Kuni,
    You continue to inspire us through your lifetime of achievements and again leading our Ngati Porou women to academic excellence. We humbly thankyou.
    We pray you and Alison enjoy the success of an outstanding exhibition.
    With warm regards
    Joan