Te Reo Kotahitanga (The Voice of Unity): Cultural Conflict, Native Identity, and Unity in Māori Literature
Ma te kotahitanga e whai kaha ai tātau.
In unity, we have strength.
Colonialism often robs the colonized of valued possessions; political power, social prowess, land, and livelihood are only a few of them. Though often downplayed, one particular possession taken from the colonized is that of a voice in literature, whether this occurs through the suppression of literature or of language. In a contemporary setting, if the colonized maintain a form of literature, that form is often belittled in the academy, leaving them with few opportunities to assert themselves in that branch of academia. This effect of colonization is particularly apparent in New Zealand; authors descending from the native Maori of New Zealand only regained a voice in literature towards the end of the 20th century. Some of their texts, including Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, Patricia Grace’s Potiki, and Witi Ihimaera’s Woman Far Walking, provide insight into Maori civilization by displaying cultural conflict between Maori and Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent), the importance of sustaining native culture and identity, and unity as a means to rise up from oppression and overcome social and personal hardship. These texts are vital because they provide an opportunity for Maori to assert their feelings and opinions, to make themselves known, to have a voice. This voice emerges from beneath the burden of colonialism and demands to be heard.
Maori literature symbolizes both Maoris’ growing social stature and a resurgence of their ethnic and cultural pride. Prior to European contact, written Maori literature simply did not exist; traditional stories survived through the powerful practice of oral history, but there were no written stories, Maori authors, or Maori characters. They were truly "invisible" in the literary world (Bardolph 132). A character in one text even refers to Maori as "a bookless society" and declares that such a society "didn’t stand a show in [the] modern world" (Duff 4). Then slowly, Maori began to emerge in texts written by westerners, but only to fulfill stereotypical roles: bloodthirsty cannibals, exotic natives, members of "a noble and dying race" (Bardolph 132). As an ethnic group, "Maori functioned as the objects rather than the subjects of representation"—a reflection, through literature, of the consequences of colonialism (Orr 77). The turn of the twentieth century saw the exploitation of New Zealand’s exotic appeal by Pakeha writers, and Westerners, not New Zealanders, read these texts (Orr 78). In the midst of the twentieth century, Maori characters appeared in literature as romantic or comical figures (Williams 78), recipients of derision and malevolence, and even personifications of the qualities Pakeha lacked (Pearson 21; Hanson qtd. in Williams 90).
A study of a New Zealand newspaper in the 1950s revealed public opinion about Maori. Positive qualities attributed to them included magnanimity, hospitality, athletic ability in rugby, musical and artistic talent, and military prowess; negative qualities included indolence, shiftlessness, contentedness to live in poor housing conditions, superstition, naīveté, and tendencies to take advantage of political opportunities and to own considerable portions of land incautiously (Pearson 21). The 1970s brought about significant changes in New Zealand’s literary trends. The "relatively homogenous literary scene" transformed with the first Maori writers, who, with their published poems and short stories, began an ethnic and academic revival that gradually gained momentum and support (Orr 78). Witi Tame Ihimaera published Tangi, the first novel written by a Maori, in 1973 (Orr 73). This literary rebirth, dubbed the Maori Renaissance (Orr 77), "created an audience, both Maori and Pakeha, and assisted in halting New Zealand’s monocultural perception of itself" (Bardolph 133). New Zealanders began to recognize, understand, and appreciate Maori and their culture.
The initial work published by Maori writers proved groundbreaking, for fellow Maori as well as fellow New Zealanders. The first poems, short stories, and novels "present the full dignity of a culture from the inside" as books written by outsiders could never do (Bardolph 133). The early Maori authors and their literature provided Maori with a sense of pride and encouraged others to follow in their stead. Literature also provided a means through which Maori authors could voice their political views—and many took advantage of this opportunity in their writing (Arvidson 119). By the 1990s, authors including Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme, Heretaunga Pat Baker, and Alan Duff had received both national and international recognition for their texts (Orr 73). Author Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who wrote a groundbreaking novel addressing the many ethnicities in Hawaiʻi, declares, "until you see yourself in literature, you don’t exist" (qtd. in Fujikane 9). After several decades of Pakeha writers immortalizing Maori inaccurately in literature, Maori themselves began to assert their own literary identity with a new era of storytelling. They expanded the oral tradition to include some narrative conventions and styles of Western writers, but they flavored their work with themes, symbols, values, and language that were all distinctly Maori. Though they had long been overshadowed by foreigners, Maori began their existence afresh with the Maori Renaissance; Once Were Warriors, Potiki, and Woman Far Walking perpetuate this new existence by portraying Maori thoughts, feelings, struggles, and triumphs. As Roimata, protagonist of Potiki, remarks, "It is rare for us to find ourselves in books, but in our own books we were able to find and define our lives" (Grace 104). By penning their own stories, Maori repossessed the ability to interpret and define their values, lifestyle, and culture.
This triumph in literature is not without its downfalls; some Maori, both academics and members of the general public, feel that the language in which Maori literature is written influences the literature’s potential affect and message. In his essay "Whare Whakairo: Maori ‘Literary’ Traditions," Hirini Melbourne asserts that Maori literature is incomplete because it is written primarily in English in a number of non-traditional forms, and that:
So long as Maori can only assert the values and attitudes of their culture in English, they necessarily remain victims of the colonial legacy. Only when Maori writers can rely upon there being a sizeable body of readers in the Maori language will Maori culture truly be able to assert its independence. If we as Maori are to ‘exist in our own terms’[. . .]then we must turn to the language which will allow us to be not merely ‘a product of a Pakeha imagination.’ (Melbourne 129)
While this declaration of independence may be true, Maori literature will lack an audience of outsiders if Maori writers publish texts wholly in the language Maori (Simms 101). This may not seem too significant a cost, but considering the political nature and goals of many Maori texts and the rather pointed messages they voice to outsiders—both Pakeha and others—writing in English is the most effective way of allowing a broader span of readers to hear their ideas. The texts of Duff, Grace, and Ihimaera tackle this issue by writing in English and including some words, phrases, songs, and even brief paragraphs in Maori, some of which the authors choose not to translate (Allen 154, 156). In this way, the native language remains as a part of the texts and is accessible to those who understand it, but the prevalent messages of texts—since they are conveyed in English—still reach readers unfamiliar with Maori language.
Due to the unique historical and cultural roots of Maori literature, many Western methods of literary analysis are unsuitable or entirely irrelevant. From a Maori standpoint, "predominantly formal and ethical modes of analysis have proved largely ill equipped to address the broader cultural and political import of these texts" (Orr 74). Some Maori perceive that Pakeha feel uneasy when analyzing Maori texts because those texts often challenge the legitimacy of colonialism and thus the presence of Pakeha in New Zealand. That the literature "[asserts] the values of a ‘different,’ but local and authoritative, cosmology and epistemology" also causes Pakeha discomfort (Orr 74). In her examination of Maori fiction and proper modes of analysis for it, Bridget Orr declares that Western literary criticism is purely monocultural, and attempting to apply that monocultural criticism to writing that stems from entirely different cultural origins is a mistake. Subjecting Maori texts to Eurocentric literary criticism is equivalent to cultural assimilation—and assimilating this literature only dilutes its true meaning (Orr 74). Some Maori authors object vehemently to non-Western analysis of their writing, declaring that any other method will "archaize their work, denying them modernity"; other Maori authors assert with equal decisiveness that non-Western analysis is essential to understanding their texts (Hubbard and Craw qtd. in Orr 82). Legitimating institutions of literature with a Eurocentric emphasis hardly befit a culture so far removed from Europe. Due to the uniqueness that characterizes Maori literature, it is necessary to abandon many of the customary methods of analysis and to gain a basic understanding of Maori as an ethnic group.
Western culture contrasts Maori culture in many ways; however, in terms of literature, one of the most prominent points of dissent is that of chronology. Many Western texts encompass a linear chronology. Western writers sometimes use flashbacks or other devices that break the chronological line, but many tend to utilize a fairly straightforward chronology. Maori literature, on the other hand, does not approach time so simply; it "positions its subjects . . . so that they back forward into the future, facing a past populated by a multitude of ancestral figures" (Walker qtd. in Orr 85). Time exists not on a single continuum but on multiple intertwined strands, like a rope woven of many fibers. Roimata, the protagonist in Potiki, explains this idea as she recalls the stories her family members tell one another:
there was no past or future, all time is a now-time, centred in the being . . . the centred being in this now-time simply reaches out in any direction towards the outer circles, these outer circles named ‘past’ and ‘future’ only for our convenience . . . So the ‘now’ is a giving and a receiving between the inner and the outer reaches. (Grace 39)
For Maori, time simply cannot be linear because their perception of time contains the idea that all events affect each other. Ranginui Walker, a professor of Maori studies at the University of Auckland, asserts, "On a genealogical time-scale extending to the mythological time of the gods, historic events in Maori thought are as fresh in the memory as if they happened only yesterday" (Walker qtd. in Allen 127). This unique style of intertwined chronology reflects the way the past, present, and future are all inherently connected for Maori, how none can be separated from the others, and how each has the power to influence an individual simultaneously.
Maori texts, particularly the three to be examined in this study, offer readers the idea of collectivism, which emphasizes the importance of the group, as opposed to that of the individual. Bearing in mind that Maori value collectivism, the unique narrative structure of their writing makes sense—many different voices and perspectives often emerge. This multi-voice narrative, dubbed polyvocality, affords a vast array of characters a chance to narrate the text from their own perspective (Orr 80). Most important in both collectivism and polyvocality is the idea that all voices in the group, no matter who the speaker, are equal. Perhaps this is why the Maori Renaissance and the literature that emerged from it are so valuable: they bind Maori together as a people even more tightly. The literature becomes a communal possession that represents the entire ethnic group because the group provides the cultural context from which the literature arises (Ramsden qtd. in Orr 82). Some of the specific occurrences of polyvocal narrative and collectivism are explored in the discussions of the three main texts that follow: Once Were Warriors, Potiki, and Woman Far Walking.
Alan Duff, part Maori and part Pakeha (New Zealander of European descent), penned Once Were Warriors, a story dredged in some of the most antagonistic feelings Maori express toward Pakeha. Its stark realism provides an intense and harrowing depiction of a group of destitute Maori. The Heke family lives in shabby, decrepit government housing called Pine Block, inhabited solely by people like them—poor and Maori. In this neighborhood, alcoholism, drug use, and domestic abuse run rampant, and children and adults alike dream of a better life but lack the plans or motivation to pursue their goals. Jake Heke, neglectful father, dedicated beer drinker, and self-proclaimed lover of violence, wreaks havoc on his wife Beth and his six kids. Boogie, the second eldest boy, is sent to a juvenile facility when he rebels out of frustration at not living up to his father’s overtly masculine standards. Nig, the eldest boy, longs so desperately to emulate his belligerent father that he joins a local gang. He sees that the most promising possibilities for his future in a society primarily dominated by Pakeha lie in asserting himself through dominance and violence. Grace, the eldest girl, is raped several times by a drunken Jake—and she commits suicide as a result. It is this last tragedy in the family that causes Beth, the protagonist, to take control of her life, as well as that of her family and the other Pine Block Maoris, in an effort to save them and their culture from spiraling slowly downward towards extinction.
This text is significant for several reasons: first, its narrative style includes descriptions, inner monologues, and dialogues intertwined in unified prose. This prose tells the story from the viewpoints of many characters, and those characters’ portions are narrated in a combination of first- and third-person narrative, similar to the technique often used by James Joyce. The unique narrative style reveals the Maori value in collectivism; to Maori, each person is significant to the group as a whole, and no voice is neglected or belittled. Second, it reveals with brutal honesty the grim reality of the poverty-stricken lifestyle to which some Maori have been reduced. While socioeconomic status holds little importance to characters in the texts to follow, it seems to be the prime cause of the animosity many of Duff’s characters feel. Third, it contains numerous examples of Maoris’ intensely antagonistic and jealous feelings towards Pakeha. Fourth, it places especial emphasis on how Beth’s efforts to reinvigorate Pine Block’s cultural pride help to reinvigorate a group of severely marginalized people as well.
Like Once Were Warriors, the narrative style of Potiki tells the story from different characters’ points of view and with a combination of first- and third-person narrative, again reflecting Maori emphasis on collectivism. Potiki’s part Maori and part Pakeha author Patricia Grace says of her writing, "I want to explain to people who we are. I hope the stories show aspects of a way of life that is essentially Maori and they give some insight into what it is to be a Maori" (qtd. in Arvidson 118). Potiki tells the story of both the Tamihanas, a Maori family, and the village in which they live. Roimata Tamihana and her adopted disabled son Toko serve as the primary narrators and tell of the events occurring in the village. The local slaughterhouse shuts down, leaving many families without income. Hemi Tamihana, Roimata’s husband, decides to use his knowledge of traditional farming methods as a means of providing sustenance for his family and any others who would contribute. As their garden flourishes, however, Pakeha businessmen plan to build a massive resort for marine-related recreation. The resort’s investors seek to use the land on which the village wharenui (meeting house) and urupa (cemetery) stand. The villagers refuse, but Pakeha businessmen will stop at nothing—even to the point of destroying the wharenui, the literal and metaphorical heart of the village—to get what they want. In spite of the daunting force that counters their efforts, the villagers are determined to stand firm on the ground that belongs to them and to those who respect and love it.
Potiki’s significance as a text stems from its unique characteristics, including its deviation from Grace’s previously written texts and its display of cultural conflict. Critic Eva Rask Knudsen calls this text "overtly political and explicitly traditional" (185); its subject matter does seem to corroborate this assertion, particularly because of its insinuations about the owner ship of land. Some critics claim Potiki serves as an allegory of 1970s Maori land disputes, and the text itself has been called "probably the most vehement political statement made in literary form by a Maori writer to date, with its undisguised antagonism towards the Pakeha" (Arvidson 127). This text displays Maori and Pakeha cultures clashing head-on, particularly in the sections where Pakeha businessmen arrive at the village to strike a bargain with the villagers, whose values differ exceedingly from theirs.
Unlike Duff and Grace’s texts, which highlight Maori collectivism in their narrative styles, Witi Ihimaera’s Woman Far Walking, the only play of the three texts discussed here, portrays the life of a single Maori woman, 160-year-old Tiri Mahana. However, Tiri herself represents all Maori and their struggles; her nickname, Te Wahine Haere Roa, means "Woman Far Walking" (Ihimaera Act II Scene IV 50). Her life represents a long journey that emulates the journey Maori have taken in their history. In the play’s introduction, Ihimaera reinforces this idea of Tiri herself as a metaphor, explaining that the play shows "the survival, struggles and resilience of the Maori people, as shown through the life of one woman" (Ihimaera Introduction 3). The length of Tiri’s life approximately corresponds to the amount of time passed since Europeans first colonized New Zealand. Witi Ihimaera says of his work, "The basic purpose for writing had been to establish and describe the emotional landscape of the Maori people" (qtd. Arvidson 118). By highlighting colonization with Tiri’s age, Ihimaera establishes the play as a commentary on the effects of colonialism on Maori.
Throughout the play, only one other character, the mysterious young Maori woman named Tilly, appears onstage. Other characters emerge as voices alone, without any physical presence, or when Tiri and Tilly pretend to be other characters and reenact past events. Readers learn about Tiri and her people in these reenactments, which include her childhood as the caretaker of sacred weavers, her participation in a war against Pakeha, her survival of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, her confrontation with a racist rugby league, and her rebellion against Pakeha plans to develop her childhood home. Constant references are made to a secret—a secret Tiri strives to conceal but Tilly longs to reveal. Tilly urges Tiri to recollect some of the most painful moments in her life. Most important is Tiri’s role as the weavers’ caretaker, during which she was responsible for keeping the fire alight—a task which metaphorically proves vital to the continued existence of herself and her people. According to Ihimaera, "The events of Tiri’s life are . . . more appropriately seen as happening in a continuum in which past and present exist as one and at the same time in a single continuous dramatic reality" (Ihimaera Introduction 4). In this way, the play’s intertwined chronology mirrors the way New Zealand’s history ultimately affects the lives and interactions of its modern-day inhabitants. This text not only reflects the intensely antagonistic feelings of one Maori woman toward all Pakeha, but also presents the idea of sustaining native culture and identity symbolically through the emblem of Tiri’s fire-keeping responsibilities.
Each text contributes a slightly different perspective—and therefore a slightly different attitude—concerning cultural conflict between Maori and Pakeha, the importance of sustaining native culture and identity, and unity as a means to rise up from oppression and overcome social and personal hardship. Juxtaposed as they will be, these texts help to formulate a well-rounded view of Maori literature and the truths they reflect from the Maori perspective. Each text also provides a distinct lens through which readers can view different aspects of Maori culture. Though the characters in the three texts endeavor to overcome obstacles and often suffer in the process, bear in mind that the most daunting barrier they encounter is that of oppression. Reading and understanding these texts would be a poor substitute for taking courses about Maori history and sociology, but the texts provide an opportunity for readers to explore the historical, political, and personal aspects of the lives of characters who literally and metaphorically represent the Maori struggle.
All three texts express the idea of conflicting cultures—Maori, the native, and Pakeha, the foreign—and the repercussions of the relationships among people from those disparate cultures. Definite boundaries between these groups manifest themselves in the texts because each group views the other as strange, foreign, and usually unwelcome. In this sense, there exists a perpetual cycle of xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Each group is guilty of stereotyping and scapegoating the other; thus, communication and mutual understanding prove difficult, if not impossible. The feelings that emerge from the cultural conflicts that ensue in the texts all bear a negative denotation: loathing, suspicion, hostility, envy, deprivation, misunderstanding, unfamiliarity, and violence.
The introductory contact between Pakeha and Maori left an enduring impression on both groups, as Tiri in Ihimaera’s Woman Far Walking demonstrates. Her description of Pakeha is perhaps the most detailed in terms of physical description of Pakeha. Evoking a story related by her grandmother, Tiri tells of the arrival of the first Pakeha, calling him:
White as a ghost . . . [my grandmother said] that Captain Cook . . . and his sailors looked like goblins . . . My grandmother told me that they welcomed this new goblin but—he killed them with his musket. Ever since, I have been at war with him. (Ihimaera Prologue 10)
The beings to which Tiri compares Pakeha—ghosts and goblins—convey the negative way Maori initially interpreted Pakeha: evil and less than human. Tiri constantly refers to Captain Cook as if he is the personification of the stereotypical Pakeha. Not every Pakeha approaches a Maori with the intention to harm or kill, but Tiri’s vast array of negative experiences with Pakeha cause her to connect a prevailing image of brutality to all Pakeha she encounters. Captain Cook’s harsh treatment of Maori reinforces the feelings of invasion and violation felt in the midst and aftermath of colonialism. Tiri later says, "Wherever he goes he murders people. The Americas. The Africas. Polynesia. He murders even his own. What kind of goblin does that? Now he murders the land and the sea. We must not let him" (Ihimaera Act IV Scene III 76). Captain Cook represents all Pakeha to Tiri. The initial meeting between Pakeha and Maori left a lasting imprint on both groups. Captain Cook’s reputation for murdering, manipulating, and destroying survives because of the perpetuation of these practices on the part of some Pakeha. Each war, each transgression, each instance of abuse only corroborates this view, reinforcing the stereotype of destruction in the minds and hearts of many Maori.
While Maori tend to view Pakeha as murderous, manipulative, pernicious, and superficial, Pakeha maintain their own stereotypes about Maori. Tiri’s experience with the horror of Spanish Influenza proves telling. When her son and other soldiers return from fighting in World War I, they bring the flu with them. The government urges citizens "to limit all congress with the Maori population," as if Maori alone induced the spread of the deadly disease and mere contact with them would cause the flu to break out afresh (Ihimaera Act III Scene III 66–67). Pakeha treat Maori like they are a disease unto themselves. When Maori try to take their sick ones to the hospital, Pakeha thwart their efforts with roadblocks. An enraged and distressed Tiri exclaims in anger, "You, Pakeha, you have always wanted us to die, haven’t you, and this was your way how to do it . . . Wherever we went . . . you trapped us and kept us imprisoned . . . in the end you said it was us who had caused the flu" (Ihimaera Act III Scene III 68). Maori become convenient scapegoats on which Pakeha place blame. Many Maori lie near the bottom of New Zealand’s socioeconomic totem pole, and this only makes the scapegoating easier to effect—it seems sensible to blame the spread of a disease on poor people who live in unsanitary conditions and cannot afford medical care. Many Maori are far from destitute; however, just as the Maori Tiri regards all Pakeha as murderous, some Pakeha are often blind to all but those Maori who fit the stereotype. As a result, Tiri harbors an intense hostility toward Pakeha.
Tiri’s hostility stems from transgressions beyond Pakeha treatment of the Spanish Influenza scourge. In her eyes, Pakeha’s most unforgivable sin is one commemorated in her name: Te Tiriti o Waitangi, or the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty’s relatively young history dates back to 1840, when the Treaty was created to establish the "legality" of British settlement in New Zealand. Obligations of the Treaty included "recognition, partnership, and resource sharing" between Maori and Pakeha; much of the debate over the Treaty stems from Pakeha failure to fulfill those obligations or to recognize the Treaty as a "legally binding document" (West-Newman 28, 29; Kawharu x; Metge 31; Salmond 468). The Treaty supposedly offered an equal alliance, but this turned out to be only a myth, a façade in the scheme of greedy Pakeha. Some modern-day Pakeha feel that giving Maori certain privileges outlined in the Treaty constitutes preferential treatment, while other believe Maori created the Treaty as a "legal and social fraud" to manipulate the government’s resources and the general public’s sympathy (West-Newman 28, 36). Thus, Tiri regards what her name commemorates with deep disgust and loathing: "And what a namesake. A fraud. Full of lies and Pakeha promises. How would you like to carry the name of the document which took Maori land?" (Ihimaera Act I Scene I 18). The Treaty was a deception that effectively duped Maori into signing away their land, and with it, their livelihood. Throughout her life, Tiri bore the burden of carrying a name commemorating an unbearably malicious transgression on her people. Later in the play, Tiri pretends to lecture the queen of England, saying, "I was named after the Treaty which your forefathers signed to guarantee our ownership. You have failed us. You have dishonourned my name. You have broken the Treaty" (Ihimaera Act IV Scene III 89). By imagining herself addressing the political representative of those westerners who colonized New Zealand, Tiri also addresses everyone in the British nation. The queen and her subjects prove deficient, dishonest, and dishonorable; Tiri and her people still feel the repercussions of this centuries-old betrayal.
Though Tiri and other Maori view the Treaty of Waitangi as a betrayal of all Maori, Tiri experiences a personal betrayal in the course of her 160-year life, a betrayal so detrimental that she suppresses it in the hope that she can forget. However, Tilly refers to the secret treachery throughout the entire play, finally forcing Tiri to relive this tormenting memory. Pretending to be Tiri, Tilly runs around the stage in terror as male voices emerge from the speakers, saying Tiri’s husband is out, implying that they perceive her as vulnerable without a man to protect her. Tilly cowers fearfully as the stage directions indicate, "the soundtrack graphically conveys the sounds of four men breaking into Tiri’s house and raping her" (Ihimaera Act IV Scene IV 94). These Pakeha strangers violate Tiri’s body, injure her spirit, deepen her distrust of Pakeha, and leave her with an unwanted token of their crime: a child, Tiri’s pale son Pirimia. Since he reminds her of the most emotionally painful experience of her life, Tiri always looks at Pirimia with distaste. Later, Tiri says, "When those men did that to me, I should have fought harder" (Ihimaera Act IV Scene IV 96). Though the Pakeha men victimized Tiri, she partially blames herself for the rape. Symbolically, Tiri’s rape represents the rape of all Maori; a rape is a violation, a crime that leaves permanent scars on the bodies, hearts, and minds of victims. Robbing a people of their land, livelihood, and cultural pride is a metaphorical rape that Pakeha committed. In addition to this crime, they also infuse their Maori victims like Tiri with a sense that they, not Pakeha, are responsible and must bear the weight of the guilt.
Unlike Tiri, Grace, the eldest girl in the Heke family of Once Were Warriors, regards Pakeha not with hostility but with envy. She takes to spying on the Tramberts, a wealthy Pakeha family, and she longs for a taste of a lifestyle so radically different from her own, both materially and psychologically. She recognizes how far removed her life is from theirs when she refers to their property, located just over the fence from her house, as "another planet" (Duff 78). On seeing the Tramberts’ daughter, a girl her own age, playing the piano and wearing beautiful clothes, Grace feels "more and more crushed . . .[and m]assively deprived" (Duff 80). Grace knows she can never hope to live a life half as luxurious as the Tramberts’; "crushed" indicates her progressively sinking realization of that truth. In fact, she feels so extremely bereft that she is not only deprived, but "massively" so. Her mind wanders to a magazine article about people realizing their potential; in this moment, she feels bereft of any potential she is "supposed" to possess. The void Grace suffers is expansive and all-consuming—it is the knowledge that she is a "poor brown girl" longing for the unattainable "rich white world". Encumbered by this smothering sense of deprival and bewildered about her father raping her regularly, Grace commits suicide, hanging herself from a tree on Trambert’s tidy lawn. For this poverty-stricken, heart-hungry Maori girl, the only escape from a life full of insurmountable obstacles is death.
Though the Hekes view Grace’s death as a tragedy, her suicide—when interpreted symbolically—has political undertones as well. Many uncontrollable aspects of Grace herself make her underprivileged: she is Maori, female, young, dark-skinned, and poor. She had thoughts and feelings, but because of her disadvantaged status, no one would listen if she tried to voice them. Her suicide becomes an order for people to heed her message; her hanging body becomes the substitute for her voice. By committing such a shocking act in the yard of a Pakeha family, Grace commands attention, defies the barriers that smothered her voice, and assaults the tidy, comfortable lives of the Tramberts. Though she was ignored in life, in death, she demands to be heard.
Beth Heke, Grace’s mother and the protagonist of Once Were Warriors, describes her village of Pine Block as "neglected, run-down, abused. And, you know (a woman’d have to think hard to find the right word), prideless" (Duff 5). In sharp contrast to this poverty-stricken government development, the home of the Tramberts, a wealthy Pakeha family, lies just over the fence. Duff’s text opens with Beth gazing at the Tramberts’ property and yearning for everything Trambert possesses: "Bastard, she’d think . . . Lucky white bastard, at that glimpse of two-storey house through its surround of big old trees and its oh so secure greater surround of rolling green pastureland" (Duff 1). In this brief passage, Duff’s word choice is telling. "White" automatically becomes one of the many reasons for Trambert’s felicitous existence. "Secure" implies the fact that Trambert need never panic over the problems that plague Beth: lack of money, lack of beer, and lack of love. In his sprawling estate, he sits assured of and pleased with his place in the world. Beth, on the other hand, struggles daily to keep her family, her life, and her dignity intact. In her mind, she will always be unfortunate because she will never be white.
Grace, Beth, and indeed many of the Maori characters suffer from a sense of defeat. One of Beth’s most powerful sections reflects on the detrimental nature of colonialism and its ultimate negative effect on Maori:
And we used to war all the time, us Maoris. Against each other . . . Tribe against tribe. Savages . . . But warrior, eh. It’s very important to remember that. Warriors. Because, you see, it was what we lost when you, the white audience out there, defeated us. Conquered us. Took our land, our mana, left us with nothing. (Duff 41)
Europe’s "discovery" of New Zealand eventually led Pakeha to subjugate Maori, robbing them of land, material possessions, and even pride. For Maori, land equals power, prestige, and life force, and without it, they are debilitated. Their dearest possession after years of western influence was the thought that their ancestors, and them as well, were warriors—hence Duff’s choice in titling his text Once Were Warriors. In time past, these people were fighters; now they are defeated and broken, with a touch of the old bellicose spirit appearing in the form of domestic abuse and deep-seated resentment toward Pakeha.
On the night of her suicide, Grace wonders what might happen if the Tramberts and their sophisticated friends met her own family and neighbors—and she recognizes the probable reality of such contact. Pretending to address these posh Pakeha, she concludes Maori, particularly Pine Blockers, would "punch the shit out of you, kick the hell out of you, spit on you, scream abuse on your bloodied head. Then they’ll party on, inspired, spurred by the beating they have given you. For they know it is the only taste of victory they get from life" (Duff 112). Despite the fact that her thoughts are merely speculative, this utterly violent description provides a physical manifestation of the intense animosity that Maori of Pine Block feel toward privileged Pakeha. Though many interethnic contacts never result in any kind of actual violence, Grace knows how much her people would relish the merest taste of payback; this opportunity, if it presented itself to the Pine Blockers, would be astoundingly significant to them. In a life of many lost battles, the chance to administer a thorough beating is the sole occasion when they, the undermined, emerge triumphant.
Although not all Maori-Pakeha interactions are hostile, they are sometimes fraught with unfamiliarity and discomposure. Mr. Trambert attends Grace’s funeral, and he stands uncomfortably by himself, unsure of what to do or say. His inner monologue indicates, "these people are sticklers, I’m told, for protocol" (Duff 127). Not understanding much about Maori and their traditions, he must base his actions on the limited and potentially inaccurate secondhand knowledge he possesses. As Trambert’s inner monologue continues, he provides more insight on Maori from a Pakeha perspective: "[the kids] imparted this rather patent air to the visitor (one can’t help it) of laziness, slothfulness; as if all their drive was channeled elsewhere, perhaps bottled up for ill-directioned expression" (Duff 127). The parenthesized aside proves particularly telling; Trambert feels no one can help perceiving Maori in a negative way, as if Pakeha simply lack control over their thoughts and feelings. To Trambert, Maori are and probably always will be indolent, only expending their effort into endeavors that society would deem amoral or criminal. The social stigma tied to Maori people prevails so powerfully that it permanently alters Pakeha attitudes, as Trambert’s inner monologue reveals.
Of the three texts, Potiki rarely dwells on Maori feelings of devastation resulting from colonialism; however, the first chapter focusing on Hemi, Roimata’s husband, most closely focuses on Maori suffering. As his mind wanders to thoughts of the Maori of his generation, Hemi thinks, "Didn’t know what was wrong with them all in his day. They went into everything blind trying to find a pathway to heaven. Believed everything they were told about themselves, accepted every humiliation as though it was good for them" (Grace 65). This sightless fumbling for a pathway to heaven seems to represent not religious salvation but a desperate search for a better life far removed from the disgrace Pakeha heaped upon them. Maori of Hemi’s generation never paused to consider whether what Pakeha said about them was true, and they never fought against the indignity. Maori failure to react indicates their feeling that their actions merited shame. Still mulling over his people’s history, Hemi muses, "Well their ancestors had been rubbished in schools, and in books, and everywhere. So were their customs, so was their language. Still were rubbished too, as far as he could see. Rubbished or ignored. And if those things were being rubbished then it was an attack on you, on a whole people" (Grace 65). Maori were made to feel like trash, something valueless to be disregarded, cast aside, and forgotten. That Hemi repeats this word so many times shows the extent of the degradation of Maori. Aspects of Maori culture were depraved, and this in turn depraved the entire ethnic group. Interestingly enough, Hemi never identifies who "rubbished" their ancestors and their culture: all his sentences appear in the passive voice, without a subject who commits the act of rubbishing. Grace only hints that Pakeha are the perpetrators. This subtlety reflects how it is no longer only Pakeha who disparage Maori. The abuse has become a societal standard.
Potiki contains a similar determination to perpetuate Maori culture that pervades the entire book and strengthens as conflict heightens. The older generations, however, make it clear that pride in and practice of Maori culture did not always exist. Roimata, recalling her childhood, muses, "At school we were given holy pictures and toffees to help us do God’s will . . . It was His will that we pray, that we have clean handkerchiefs, wear aprons, bring pennies for souls, eat our crusts, hold our partner’s hand" (Grace 16). Christianity, the religion brought when westerners first colonized New Zealand, permeated Maori culture and lifestyle, as demonstrated in the way Roimata and her fellow Maori schoolmates were made to behave "properly" because God supposedly willed them to. For Pakeha, religion became another tool with which to control Maori. Hemi, who grew up with Roimata before they married, remembers wrestling with the idea of Maori identity: "In his day they had been expected to hide things, to pretend they weren’t what they were. It was funny how people saw each other. Funny how you came to see yourself in the mould that others put you in, and how you began not to believe in yourself" (Grace 65). In their childhood, Hemi and Roimata had to conceal what and who they were. It simply was not acceptable to be Maori; in fact, this suppression of Maori identity seems to be based partly on shame and partly on the pressure of some greater power—presumably Pakeha. Over time, Maori began to accept Pakeha’s negative perceptions of them. Hemi, while conscious of the overruling Pakeha influence in their self-images, nevertheless falls victim to this prevalent negativity.
The feelings of negativity are brought to a head when the villagers and Pakeha fail to see eye to eye. Toko, Hemi and Roimata’s adopted son, makes cryptic statements about enemies who stole something from the villagers, and his words prove prophetic; a Pakeha businessman arrives to try to persuade the villagers to sell the land on which their wharenui (meetinghouse) and urupa (cemetery) rest. The title of the chapter about this interaction, "Dollarman," indicates the villagers’ thought that the businessman values nothing other than money. As the Dollarman, whose name is actually Mr. Dolman, speaks with the villagers, it becomes increasingly apparent that his perception of what they value is severely skewed. He believes offering more money will convince them to sell the land; he cannot comprehend that no amount of money could buy from the villagers the land on which the heart of their village rests. Though the wharenui and urupa might seem easily replaceable to the Dollarman, they are not. The wharenui, which signifies the past, present, and future of the villagers, represents so many important people that "there was in the meeting-house a warmth . . . It was the warmth of embrace, because the house is a parent" (Grace 88). When the villagers repeatedly refuse the Dollarman’s offer, he says he expected them to be more accommodating, and they reply, "Not so accommodating as to allow the removal of our wharenui, which is our meeting place, our identity, our security. Not so accommodating as to allow the displacement of the dead and the disruption of a sacred site" (Grace 93). To the Dollarman, the wharenui is just a building, and the urupa is just a cemetery; to the villagers, both of those places bind them to their ancestors, to the people who make their lives possible. To destroy or even to relocate those sacred places would be disregard and disrespect their ancestors, and thus, their past. While the Dollarman looks only towards the future and the business opportunities in it, the villagers live in a present that is heavily influenced by the past and the future. They value what they need to survive, not what "extras" would provide them with material possessions they find unnecessary.
In spite of the numerous negative emotions Maori characters feel toward Pakeha, some of the former do interpret Maori-Pakeha relationships in a more positive light. As Jake, the abusive alcoholic father in Once Were Warriors, rides in a car with his drinking buddy Dooly, the two men drive through a primarily Pakeha neighborhood. Jake glowers at them, automatically considering them enemies; Dooly, seeing his friend’s hackles rising, says, "We’re all one and the same underneath" (Duff 52). Socioeconomic inequality is placed aside, and Dooly sees himself as similar to, rather than radically different from, Pakeha. This ephemeral moment is telling because Dooly’s comment regarding interethnic equality is one of the few exceptions among the antagonistic feelings of other characters in all three texts.
Above all, the memory of Pakeha vices prevails in the minds of the Maori characters. Reflecting on the many painful experiences that color her past an ominous black, Tiri muses, "Memories are like those candles. You can blow and blow all you like, but they keep coming back" (Ihimaera Act III Scene II 58). Tiri herself cannot—and will not—forget the Treaty of Waitangi, her rape, the wars, the colonialism, the racism, the hardships, the bitter feelings of hatred, envy, distrust, enmity, jealousy, deprival, misconception, remoteness, and brutality. As much as Maori might try to forget past Pakeha transgressions, the memories prove inextinguishable, as do the intense feelings of animosity and grief. Nothing can quench the steadily burning light of the past.
In the midst of western colonial influences, maintaining a strong sense of native identity and culture becomes vital to Maori. Their struggle to keep their culture alive proves just as arduous as surviving wars and disease. Each text speaks of this vital need to cultivate native identity in a different way. In Woman Far Walking, Tiri toils with her responsibility as the keeper of the fire, which symbolizes Maori culture. She alone must help her people and add kindling to this metaphorical fire so it never burns out. In Potiki, local job cutbacks force the villagers to find other ways to sustain themselves. As they return to traditional methods of farming and a subsistence-based lifestyle, they discover both the value and the utility of those cultural practices. One character, Hemi, also recognizes the differences between generations in regard to pride in being Maori. Beth and the other Pine Blockers in Once Were Warriors hardly know anything about their own culture; however, Grace’s suicide awakens a realization in Beth that she and her people live empty lives not because they lack wealth and material possessions but because Maori culture is so unfamiliar to them. The failure to know who they are stems from the failure to know where they come from. Beth recognizes this, and with a burst of determination, she leads her neighborhood on the path to rediscovering their lost identity.
The most crucial symbol in Woman Far Walking is that of fire, which represents the idea of sustaining native culture and identity. In addition to providing warmth and comfort, fire also serves as necessity without which life would be more difficult and painful. To Maori, culture is just as vital. As a young girl, Tiri’s mother sent her to live with a group of weavers, whose work was so sacred that they could not touch food. Tiri, pretending to be her mother, instructs Tilly, who acts as the young Tiri, "You have to be the keeper of the fire" (Ihimaera Act I Scene II 21). This is not a request or plea but an authoritative command; someone needs to keep the fire alight, and that someone must be Tiri. From this point on, Tiri and her ability—and at one point, her neglect—to keep the fire burning play a crucial role in the text. As soon as she arrives at the weavers’ valley home, Tiri immediately begins her responsibilities as their caretaker and fire-keeper. She fixes a broken window and mends a hole in the roof so no rain will drip in and douse her fire. Each day, she kneels by the fire pit where she buried the remains of the fire in ashes. No matter what, Tiri must keep the fire burning.
Tiri eventually tires of performing her duties, and she wonders when her mother will return and take her home. Impatient from waiting and thinking her mother has forgotten her, Tiri decides to leave and return to her family. After many years, a marriage, and several children, she says, "one day . . . I thought of those old weavers. I wondered, Who is keeping the fire?" (Ihimaera Act II Scene IV 47). She feels a strong desire to see the place she called home for so many years. On revisiting the weavers’ valley, Tiri hears from a local man that the weavers all passed away because the girl who cooked and tended the fire left them. When they were found, "they were all hugging each other, dead, as if they were trying to keep warm" (Ihimaera Act II Scene V 52). Stunned, Tiri realizes the consequences of her selfish act: the weavers are dead and so is their knowledge. The fire—part of the Maori culture—passes away when the weavers do. Ashamed of herself, she knows that keeping the fire must still be her responsibility even though the weavers pass away. The weavers leave word that they wanted her to inherit all the land in valley, and Tiri says regretfully, "Oh how I learnt my lesson—I made a vow to those old people—For as long as I breathe, and as long as I live, this valley and this land is ours and I will fight to keep it forever and ever" (Ihimaera Act II Scene V 53). She is determined to atone for her neglect by fiercely protecting the weavers’ legacy—and thereby her people.
Though she strives to perpetuate the weavers’ legacy and protect her people, the influx of Spanish Influenza annihilates many Maori. Gazing with despair at the mounds of Maori corpses, Tiri cries out, "Must I always be the keeper of the fire? Is this my punishment for letting it go out when those old weavers died? . . . Always leaving me to clean up after you!" (Ihimaera Act III Scene III 73). She wonders if a lifetime of hardship serves the penalty for abandoning the fire and the weavers. After the devastation of the epidemic, only a few Maori remain in Tiri’s valley. She vows to rebuild the valley with the help of the survivors and their future children. As she makes this vow, the stage directions indicate the lighting must mimic dancing flames that grow larger and stronger as she speaks, accompanied by the sound of a crackling fire becoming progressively louder. The fire, the life of the Maori nation, is reinvigorated with Tiri’s promise and new determination.
In Potiki, although Hemi and Roimata’s generation felt they needed to hide their heritage, their children feel otherwise: "Kids were different these days. They wanted knowledge of their own things, their own things first. They were proud and didn’t hide their culture" (Grace 65). The new generation longs to learn about where and who they descend from and the cultural practices of their ancestors. Above all, these kids are proud: they possess a self-respect that the previous generation lacked. To them, cultural practices should be shared and perpetuated. They cast aside the cumbersome burden of self-reproach and pursue cultural learning anew. Being Maori is no longer a mark of shame but a reason for dignity.
Hemi’s personal experiences display the importance of sustaining cultural practices, which help reinforce self-respect, dignity, and pride in his fellow villagers. As a young man, he dropped out of school to learn to farm so he could help support his family:
His own apprenticeship, his own education, had been on the land . . . He’d been taught about the weather and seasons, the moon phases and the rituals to do with growing. At the same time he was made aware that he was being given knowledge on behalf of a people, and that they all trusted him with that knowledge. It wasn’t only for him but for the family. (Grace 59)
His grandfather taught him everything he knows about Maori agricultural practices. With so many villagers losing their jobs, Hemi’s knowledge about living off the land proves more important than ever, and since people have very little money to contribute, the simple Maori farming practices become vital. The garden the villagers create together provides food to sustain them all; later, when they grow enough to sell the surplus, they use the extra to purchase items for communal—rather than personal—well-being. Yet more important than the food and profit the garden supplies is its function as a way to teach all villagers traditional farming practices. Finding value and utility in culture practices thus becomes just as important as taking pride in those practices.
For the villagers, the garden becomes a communal project and a tool of unification. The Pakeha businessmen begin building their resort, but the villagers, according to Roimata, were preoccupied with their own activities: "We were busy with our gardens and our nets, and busy learning all that could be learned about the land and the sea. We were busy telling and retelling the stories and histories of a people and a place, and learning or relearning a language which was our own, so that we could truly call it our own again" (107). The unity and reinvigoration of cultural practices that Hemi starts with the garden blossom into a far more extensive cultural revival involving fishing, storytelling, and speaking Maori. These acts transcend the pride that the younger generations feel in their culture; members of all generations participate in working, sharing, learning, and living together. The villagers make this decisive move to reclaim their culture and its valuable practices as a single unified group.
Unlike Potiki, Woman Far Walking focuses primarily on Tiri’s life and the history of the Maori people and does not emphasize native identity; however, Tiri does highlight the importance of haka (a dance and chant that express the identity of Maori people), particularly one called "Ka Panapana," which she chants several times throughout the course of the play (Karetu in Orr 83). When her great-granddaughter Jessica asks to learn "Ka Panapana," Tiri tells her, "Sing out loud. The whole world must hear you, moko, everyone in the world" (Ihimaera Act III Scene I). Not only does Tiri gladly instruct Jessica, she also wants Jessica’s voice, and indeed all voices of future generations of Maori, to be heard far and wide. Of particular importance is the translation of "Ka Panapana," which means "beat" or "throb." This haka—including the practice of it—thus symbolizes the heartbeat and therefore the life of the Maori people. It is the practice and perpetuation of their traditional culture that is the life force of Maori people.
Tiri repeatedly declares that such unity is the way Maori can and will survive. Her moving pledge to reclaim her role as the caretaker of the fire, discussed previously, attests to this. In relation to the haka Jessica chants, the play concludes with stage directions that indicate "Jessica’s voice sounds as if it is coming out of the future. Her voice is joined by other young children’s voices" (Ihimaera Act IV Scene V 100). This implies that other Maori children will join Jessica to ensure the survival of Maori language, culture, and people. Although Woman Far Walking never reveals whether or not the necessary unity among Maori actually occurs as a result of perpetuating practices like haka, Ihimaera invests hope for the future in the generations of young Maori.
For the characters in Once Were Warriors, it takes Grace’s suicide to awaken them to the urgent need to improve their lives and discover the culture about which they know so little: their own, Maori. Early in the text, Beth asks a group of Pine Block men, "Maoris, eh? Can any of us in this room speak the language? No reply. What do we know of our culture?" (Duff 22). Somewhere along the difficult lives they and their predecessors led, their culture went missing or was pushed aside. Prior to her death, Grace even called her own people "The Lost Tribe" (Duff 25). They lost their culture, and they themselves are lost because they hardly know how to cope with life, much less how to elevate it. However, Beth seems to find herself after Grace’s funeral. The traditional practices involved in ceremonies for the dead produce a creeping realization on Beth’s part. A Maori elder gives a speech in their native language, which she does not know. She thinks, "And yet he is part of me, my heritage; probably related to me. Yet he speaks his tongue and I understand only another" (Duff 114). Perhaps those foreign-sounding words the old man utters are words of comfort, advice, reproach, or warning, but Beth realizes she will never know—and feels deprived, even lost, because of this. The climax of the ceremony arrives when the elders perform a haka: "And a woman feeling, you know, her heart just racing, and proud . . . Inspired . . . At the sight. This sight of what (she) they all must have been . . . Filled that she was with this, this sense of . . . STRENGTH" (Duff 122). These elders remind Beth that her culture, their culture, is not yet lost; however, without quick and decisive action to save the culture, it will perish with the elders.
This knowledge of cultural disengagement and the funeral ceremony awaken an understanding in Beth, and she resolves to change her own life, that of her family, and that of all Pine Blockers as well. In addition to throwing a predictably intoxicated Jake out of the house, she opens her arms and home to the underprivileged kids of Pine Block, offering them food, kind words, and—a true rarity—hugs. Perhaps more important than her philanthropy is her decisive move to infuse Pine Block with Maori culture. She asks the chief of her own family’s tribe to teach at her home once a week. The chief’s songs, dances, stories, and powerful oration in English and Maori bring hoards of Pine Blockers swarming, first out of curiosity, later out of a pure desire to learn. Slowly, they begin to take pride in a culture that had once seemed mythological and far away; the culture that used to be utterly foreign becomes personal. Knowing who they are and where they come from instills in them a true sense of dignity and self-identity.
Beth best expresses the need for unity amongst Maori: "It’s all of us; we need to get together—talk and try and sort ourselves out. Before it’s too late. If we haven’t already missed the bus" (Duff 8). She realizes how essential this unity is in preventing Maori from meeting an untimely end as a people. Although "Before it’s too late" seems somewhat vague, it conveys Beth’s recognition that her people’s lack of action will result in unknown but dire consequences. Despite the fact that time is the past, present, and future simultaneously, Beth knows that without valuing their past in the present, their future as a people is in jeopardy.
As these texts demonstrate, Maori experienced several centuries’ worth of domination and abuse; however, many characters in the three texts long to rally against their tormentors and surmount their social obstacles. Some studies relate Maori expressions of anger to the Maori value of kotahitanga, or unity; Maori often display their discontent by making statements and requests as a group. One of their whakatauki (exemplary sayings) is as follows: "Ma te kotahitanga e whai kaha ai tātau," meaning "In unity, we have strength." This feeling of group solidarity lends them courage and fortitude. When a mysterious flood destroys the urupa (cemetery) and a fire badly damages the wharenui (meetinghouse), the villagers in Potiki unite to save these cultural treasures. It is this cooperation that restores the urupa, rebuilds a new wharenui, and revitalizes the villagers and their sense of collective strength. After Grace’s death, the Pine Blockers of Once Were Warriors, led by a determined Beth, begin learning about their cultural origins. Though Woman Far Walking never reveals whether or not the necessary unity among Maori occurs, Tiri repeatedly declares that such unity will ensure Maori survival. In the face of incredible adversity, the Maori characters in all three texts use unity as a means to rise up from oppression and overcome social and personal hardship.
Since the Maori Renaissance in the 1970s, Maori continue to rise in New Zealand society. They succeed in increasing their socioeconomic status, lessening the number of destitute government housing areas like the fictional Pine Block. In relation to the Treaty of Waitangi, the government of New Zealand has formed a group called the Waitangi Tribunal which reviews claims and complaints about land rights in connection to the Treaty. With many claims already reviewed, the success of the Tribunal in beginning to rectify some past injustices seems promising. One of the most auspicious signs of the growing social status of Maori is the growth of Maori authors and literature. Some established Maori authors have received international critical acclaim—a symbol of progress and success. The Maori Renaissance and these modern texts and authors show promise for Maori to continue to better themselves; however, it is still unrealistic to gain a sense of false hope that these texts will help to enact rapid and positive social change. When it does come about, social change takes time to occur—from a single generation to several centuries. Change is possible, but patience, resilience, and determination are necessary in the meantime. If Maori can continue to take pride in themselves and stay united, they may eventually see Maori gain equal footing with Pakeha and others in New Zealand society; texts like Once Were Warriors, Potiki, and Woman Far Walking will provide kindling for the fire of Maori pride. That these texts portray Maori people, culture, language, struggles, and triumphs from a distinctly Maori point of view shows how literature can truly empower these unique people.
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