A new book by Rachel Buchanan about the famous Motunui epa tells a known story in a remarkable and beautiful new way, as Connie Buchanan writes.
I imagine there was a point in Rachel Buchanan’s book research when she considered the glittering threads of her story like a spider.
There would’ve been something in the epic story of the Motunui epa to catch each of her eight eyes — Rachel has worked as a journalist, archivist, academic, curator, historian and speech-writer, and her whakapapa Māori is Taranaki and Te Ātiawa.
First, there are the epa themselves. They are a superb set of sinuous figures carved into tōtara panels, most likely for an ancient Te Ātiawa storehouse. Sometime in the early 1800s, to safeguard them from warring tribes, they were sealed away in an airless swamp just north of Waitara.
In 1972, they were rediscovered in the most colonial way possible: by a ditch digger at work clawing farmland from the swamp.
There follow enterprising salesmen, an antiques shop and a deal with a shadowy pair of smugglers. The panels end up, illegally, with an offshore tin dynasty bloated with cash and plundered art. A grandchild in the tin whānau is abducted, and the ransom debt is to be funded through the sale of treasures. But an auction at Sotheby’s is called off when it’s realised the epa catalogue details are fake. The panels enter the courtrooms of international law.
Over the years, a complete boxed set of New Zealand prime ministers, from Robert Muldoon to John Key, gets involved in trying to retrieve them. The epa finally return home in a blaze of publicity after a 20-year negotiation.
Lying beneath these events is the painful history of Taranaki: the disembowelling of land and taonga in the 19th century, Māori lives shattered and scattered, the whakapapa of the panels obliterated along with the rest.
To prepare for her own telling of the saga, Rachel Buchanan dropped deep into the archives and New Zealand government records, as well as interviewing a number of players, including the original British dealer who smuggled the panels out of Taranaki.
“But I didn’t want this to be just a story of my interesting research journey,” Rachel tells me on the phone from her home in Melbourne. Instead, she turned to her Taranaki whakapapa for the way in.
“We always talk about carvings as tūpuna returned, as their living embodiment, and I just thought, what would it be like to take that really seriously?”
She decided to give the panels their own voice and agency.
“The epa let themselves be taken from the swamps, and they gave the signal when they were ready to return. They were in charge,” she writes early on in the book, and then lets them stay in charge until the final chapter, which is written entirely from their perspective.
“I realised the main actor here was absolutely these taonga,” she says. “Not the Crown. Not the smugglers. Not the rich guy that bought them. Once I’d given myself permission to do that, then the story completely changed. I saw all the events that happened in a different way.”
It’s a decision that lifts her book from a fact-sorting and re-packing exercise into something much more grunty and affecting. Several reviewers have described it as “folkloric,” but far from being mythical or airy-fairy, the approach grounds the book in te ao Māori.
“I truly came to believe that these taonga were asleep while they were in the swamp. The carvings embody so much mana, mauri and power from the old world that is just undiminished,” says Rachel.
She writes their journey as a purposeful trip to bring healing and aroha from the old world to the new, using plain, vivid language that captures scenes at a stroke. “The bone-handled knife that Mum used to scrape poo off the nappies”, for example, takes us straight to her own Taranaki childhood.
To land on the right voice and tone for the epa, she repeatedly watched hours of old films made by the late Eruera Nia as he interviewed old people preparing for their Treaty claims, and held long wānanga with Taranaki kaumatua Mahara Okeroa.
“I was careful. I wasn’t reckless with my decisions,” she says. “It’s very unorthodox, from a western history point of view, to imagine a voice for carvings. But I worked hard to push through the doubt and challenges.
“As uri of Taranaki, our beautiful privilege is to create new knowledge. I can’t carve, or weave, or compose, and I don’t speak reo Māori. But I think we’re sold a bit of a lie that you have to be a 360-degree Māori before you can contribute, and I feel like that’s a colonising thing. All of our different voices are important, and we’ve got to encourage each other.”
Handled this way, the epa become architects of their own destiny. They are canny political realists who, waking to find themselves stolen and smuggled overseas, are prepared to work the system to get themselves home. They cook up an angle that’s compelling to the outside world but crafted in their own self-interest.
“Born again in the new world, our ancestors spun the story just right: it was New Zealand that had been robbed, not Māori people, not Māori people from northern Taranaki. New Zealand must set things right,” Rachel writes.
She shows how an array of Pākehā diplomats, ministry officials and lawyers stepped obediently into the trick, dazzled by the glamour of international law and institutions, and no doubt nursing dreams of their own reputation-defining participation.
As she moves through this section of the story, she reminds us how Māori art has often attracted a more sympathetic Pākehā audience than the Māori fight for rangatiratanga, pointing out that the same conservative National government which ordered the army to forcibly remove protestors from Takaparawhau Bastion Point was nonetheless willing to sign a blank cheque to get the epa back to New Zealand.
It was, she writes, a rare and brief moment when the Crown used its money, power, people and networks to act in the interests of its Treaty partner.
Rachel credits the epa with this achievement, for forcing the Pākehā public service to feel a faint trace of the hurt inflicted on Taranaki Māori through land theft and cultural destruction.
“These carvings, and these tūpuna, are radical. They’re radical in their brilliance and ability to spark action,” she says.
As a former journalist, Buchanan will know that the most damning assessment of any piece of writing is that it’s worthy but dull. As an academic, she’ll know that the counter-criticism of popular work is that it’s entertaining but too lightweight.
By letting her ancestors take charge, she’s produced a book that is both substantial and mesmerising.
Te Motunui Epa, by Rachel Buchanan, was published by Bridget Williams Books.
Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.