Dame Anne Salmond has spent her academic life building bridges between Māori and Pākehā ways of thinking. She also works on literal bridges in the eco-sanctuary she and her husband have created at Waikereru, north of Gisborne. (Photo Jeremy Salmond)

Dame Anne Salmond has been shaping our understanding of human history in Aotearoa and the Pacific for 50 years. A former New Zealander of the Year, she has a long list of awards and honours. The latest is the Caird Medal, awarded this year by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, for her work in Māori history, the history of Pacific voyaging, and cross-cultural exchange. 

A new series of Artefact, in which she explores the stories of taonga, is scheduled to air on Prime on Tuesdays from September 15. 

Kennedy Warne met with her at the Māori Studies department at the University of Auckland to talk about the current political landscape, contested histories, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the proposed overhaul of our environmental legislation.


Kennedy Warne: George Orwell wrote that whoever controls the past controls the future, and whoever controls the present controls the past. 

It seems to me we’re in a period where groups within society are jostling for control of the past — or rather for control of narratives about the past. There’s something of a power struggle over history between dominant cultures and minority cultures, between oppressors and oppressed, between colonisers and colonised. 

What troubles me is the tailoring of historical narratives to suit the needs of the present — a kind of pick-and-mix history in the service of modern political and cultural agendas. Is this a new thing, or has it always been this way?

Anne Salmond: Power and history intersect, and they always have done. If you look at histories of the Treaty of Waitangi that were written in the 20th century, they often read as triumphalist. Their authors don’t understand a great deal about the Māori side of the transactions, and speak about the English text rather than the Māori text, which was the text that was negotiated and signed. 

You could regard what’s going on now as a binary struggle between different ideological camps, but that’s not something I’m particularly interested in. For me, the linear narrative, the idea of an arrow of time that leads inexorably to a better and better future, the colonial narrative, is an idea I abandoned long ago. 

I had my ideas rearranged by a deep exposure to oral histories, iwi histories, and they don’t have this linear view. Time is more like a spiral than an arrow. You dive back into the ancestral past and, next minute, you’re spinning out into the future. 

That’s the way those stories are told. The structure is based on whakapapa. Eruera Stirling, who was my mentor for many years when I was young, was schooled in the whakapapa tradition, in which learning starts with the beginning of the cosmos and spirals outward from there. 

Apirana Ngata, whom I greatly admire, argued a long time ago for New Zealand to adopt a whakapapa approach to our history. He called it the “genealogical method.” 

If you start with the beginnings of the cosmos, as whakapapa does, then human beings emerge very late in the piece, and are linked by kinship with all other life forms. Rangi, Papa, Tangaroa, Tāwhirimātea, Tāne-mahuta — all these life forces have their own independent lives before humans start interacting with them. 

That’s a great way of thinking about the history of this country, because we were the last land mass of any size to be found and settled by people. It suits our landscapes, and it suits our peoples, giving them all a place to stand. 

James Baldwin, the African American writer, said that “the great force of history is that we carry it within ourselves.” That strikes me as a very Indigenous way of thinking: history not as a mental construct, but as a lived reality. 

The problem I see is that polarisation has become normal in modern society, where communication tools such as social media provide an ever thickening wedge to divide people. I fear that a pick-and-choose historical narrative could swing us into entrenched antagonism. 

How do you stop the pendulum swinging from that earlier Pākehā-dominated triumphalist view of the Treaty to a Māori-dominated anti-colonial view? Can there be an awakening without it turning into a polarisation? Is that a legitimate fear?

Yes, it’s a fear, and it’s one of the trajectories that might happen. You can see it around the world, where siloed, fractured, divisive habits of mind prevail. You see it in Britain, in America. If you take hatred and fear and project it back on itself, you end up with an escalation, you end up with a firestorm. Why would we replicate that when we’ve got a chance to do something else?

How do you avoid it?

One of the interesting things about Black Lives Matter is that if you translate that movement into a Pacific context, one of implications is that lives need to matter in a Māori way and they need to matter in a Pasifika way. 

If that’s the case, how do we think about the past? Do we have to keep thinking in terms of linear narratives and Cartesian binaries of either/or, black/white, good/bad — morality plays that come out of an ancient trajectory from the west?

Or do we dive back into ways of thinking about the past that are informed by whakapapa? Because the way that black lives or brown lives matter is pivotal. If you’re still valuing lives in ways that are shaped and engineered by colonial habits of mind, then you’re still entrapped. 

What I see is that, when people get immersed in the reo and in Māori and Pasifika habits of mind, they start thinking relationally. The other important thing is that there are also strands of thinking like this that come out of the west. It’s not just something that comes from Indigenous traditions. 

I’ve been working on Alexander Humboldt and his idea of the web of life, of interconnected realities and the way people fit in with wider living systems. Humboldt was the first European scientist to talk about climate change. 

Way back in the 18th century, he realised that if people interact with ecosystems in ways that are destructive — with extensive deforestation, for instance — they themselves are harmed. Humboldt knew Georg Forster, who was on James Cook’s second Pacific voyage, and ideas of ecology and complex networks have been around since those first European arrivals. 

So you don’t have to be Māori or Pasifika to be able to think in these terms. 

Whakapapa thinking, relational thinking about complex systems, works a lot better than a linear narrative. It works better than splitting ourselves into left and right, Māori and Pākehā, two warring camps forever. You don’t have to think like that.

I suppose the beauty of a whakapapa approach to history is that it’s relationship-based, not event-based.

It’s woven. Events are studded on to the weave . . .

. . . and the crucial part is not the events but the relationship lattice that lies beneath. The other thing that strikes me is that because whakapapa goes so far back, we’re not just dealing with a narrow slice of time, say from European settlement or the Treaty onward. 

By pushing back so far, does that give a better sense of proportion to contemporary issues that might seem enormous when looked at on their own, but perhaps not quite so daunting when you consider the entire sweep of time?

When you think about whakapapa, the way it’s taught in the wānanga, the ancestral schools of learning, it’s place-based. 

Imagine teaching children history and taking them to the places where particular events happened and having the stories told there by people who are deeply immersed in them. The stories come alive because the places and the stories vivify each other. 

When I started studying our early contact history, going to the places and talking to the descendants was a natural thing to do because I had spent so long in the company of Eruera and Amiria Stirling. We were close for 20 years, and, early on, I spent two years driving them around the country, from marae to marae, in my little blue VW. 

That’s the way I experienced history. Eruera would tell a story when there was a prompt in the landscape. Or you would go to a hui for a particular kaupapa and out would come the story. 

The stories are always doing work in the world. Stories aren’t just told out of some esoteric interest. They emerge because they’re doing work.

What work do they do? Is it a weaving work, a relationship-building work? To bind us to those events and people and place? 

We’d go to a place like Waiomatatini, Apirana Ngata’s home marae, and things would happen there that would only happen because you were in that particular place. You’d be watching the whakapapa being woven in real time through the karanga, the whaikōrero, or at night when people were yarning or debating. 

We’d go up north and every bay has its own stories, shaped by the landscape, even its own kawa on the marae. You get used to thinking that there’s not just one master narrative. 

The whakapapa approach seems to favour synthesis and building community, while the polarised ideological approach pushes people into silos of self-interest and is a fragmenting force. How do you oppose that force, which seems to be in the ascendancy today?

It’s not that a whakapapa view sheds a golden glow over everything. On the marae, debate is the stuff of life. Ko te kai a te rangatira he kōrero — talk is the food of chiefs. I’ve watched people get up and have incredible rows. 

But it’s in a controlled environment. You come on to the marae as a guest, a manuhiri, with the elders controlling much of what goes on. If someone gets really outrageous, the kuia can get up and start singing their waiata for them, and cut them off in mid flow. There’s a way of pulling back someone who is clearly going over the edge. 

What I’d like to see in Kiwi politics is the recognition that we’re still whānau. You can have a hell of a fight but the relationship stays intact. Sure, there are individuals who are trying to smash relationships — we’ve got politicians today who think that’s a smart way to operate — but I don’t think Kiwis like it that much. I don’t know how it’s going to play out in the election, but at the moment playing that card isn’t going down well. 

Still, I’m concerned that there’s a sector that wants nothing better than to watch a stoush.

The media like it. Sometimes they set it up.

Is there a tikanga that can hold people together when social media has a propulsion that seeks to push them apart?

That force is real, but it’s easy to overestimate its power. 

It was really interesting watching what happened during Tuia 250, the commemoration last year of the first land-based meetings between Māori and Europeans. 

You’d have thought from the media and social media that we were going to have cataclysmic clashes between white supremacists and Māori advocates, that it was going to be war in one community after another. 

But that didn’t happen. I saw real dialogue. For instance, our community in Gisborne ran a series called “Awkward Conversations,” where people talked truth about what they’d seen in their lives and what they thought about racism and what is going on between Māori and the state, what they hoped for the country. 

I would say that was far closer to where our community was at, than the more extreme scenario that was playing out on social media. I have a lot of faith in the ability of Kiwi communities to pull together when they’re up against it. 

And we’re dealing with hard history. Genuinely painful, hurtful, harmful history, where the triumphalist story was the only one that had been told for a long time, and Pākehā were being challenged about that. By and large, people said in response: “Fair enough. You’ve got a point.”

Part of the national conversation we’ve been having about history has been the question of public monuments and statues. Have you developed any criteria for evaluating whether a memorial should stay or go? 

In the TV series Artefact, we’ve been going out and sitting in places and having the stories told in those places by people whose history it was and is. As we’ve been travelling and filming, I’ve realised that our landscape is full of places that have stories embedded in them. 

Some of those stories are inspiring and glorious and some are really harsh. That’s also true for our precolonial history. There are places of healing but also places of misery and bloodshed. 

What happened in Tūranga was that some of those stories came out and became memorials — Te Maro’s, for instance. The Māori side of the story was always there, but it emerged as a counterpoint to the memorials of Cook, and that was the way people at home tended to deal with it.

Instead of taking down Cook, they surrounded him.

They’re putting Cook in a wānanga context. They’re saying: “Cook didn’t discover Aotearoa. We were already here.” 

The voyaging community has been amazing, because they’ve helped us see it’s not just about New Zealand, but about the Pacific. You start out in the ocean. It’s not just a cramped, confined New Zealand story, it’s a global narrative. A third of the Earth’s surface is already in our story. 

The voyaging community learned the stories in the places they come from — they’ve been to Hawai’i, Rapa Nui, Taputapuātea. Expansiveness makes you inclusive, and they said: “We’ll bring Cook into the flotilla because he was a sailor, too, even though we invented blue-water sailing, by the way.” 

They’re not happy about Cook’s men killing their ancestors, and if his descendants start glorifying themselves above the tāngata whenua and don’t tell the whole story, then that’s a real mamae, a patu wairua (blow to the spirit). 

So what they did was surface the history, bring it to life, put the Endeavour into the flotilla, basically giving everyone a lesson in how to do history that is balanced and fair. 

Can every community do that? What about the statue of Hamilton that was removed. Would it have been better to leave Hamilton standing, and balance him the way that Tūranga did it? 

The contentious statue of Marmaduke Nixon, in Ōtāhuhu, would be a case in point. We have an episode of Artefact with Tom Roa of Ngāti Apakura talking about that history (the raid of Rangiaōwhia and the villagers who were killed). 

You shouldn’t have a statue up of someone who was responsible for that terrible event. Once they knew the story, I think most Kiwis would say: “It’s time for him to go somewhere else.” Let the stories emerge, and let the community judge.

Wānanga experts like Tom Roa, Wayne Ngata, Walton Walker, and many others have a breadth of view. They’re steeped in history. They know their own stories of exploration and discovery, and they know about homelands. 

If we taught history in schools like that, and gave our children a view of the world that starts with the beginning of the cosmos and celebrates the long period that these islands were inhabited by birds and reptiles and trees and so on, and gave them a sense of kinship with that, and then let them see their own ancestors arriving in successive migrations, you bind them in to that story. 

And if our ancestors — any of them — did dreadful things, you don’t censor it, you don’t try to make it pretty, you tell the story. The kaumātua I know do that. They don’t varnish the narrative. Then you’re left to make up your mind. It’s not preaching. You don’t tell people what moral position to take. You tell the story. 

And the way it’s told is not on the basis of binary hatred, but rather that this is what happened. The heartbreak of that. We’re still living with that legacy. That history hasn’t emerged and hasn’t been dealt with. In Gisborne, it came to the surface and was aired. 

I think we’re small enough and interconnected enough to do that here and not put ourselves into opposing camps and throw rocks at each other, and think that’s a good way to run our country.

James Baldwin said that people who imagine that history flatters them are “impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.” 

Only hearing one story makes you narrow and rigid and incapable of change. Perhaps Tuia 250 was a prototype of how this approach of holding multiple histories together may work in the 21st century. How do we get access to these other histories, ones we may not have heard before?

It’s important that ancestral stories should be told by the people whose stories they are. By the inheritors. And there are people who’ve been trained for that very role. 

We’re fortunate in Aotearoa and in the Pacific that we have the wānanga tradition. People like Eruera were taught almost from the time they were babies. They were taken to the sites and told the stories. They understood the land, knew where the ancestral landmarks are. We’ve still got those people. They’re custodians of history. 

What we did in Artefact was let some of those people surface their own stories. We couldn’t script them in advance. We didn’t know what stories would be told when we got to Wairau Bar, or standing outside Rangiaōwhia. People have to have the freedom to speak in their own way about their own kaupapa and their own ancestors. 

This must have been quite a risk. Television normally wants everything buttoned down and controlled.

It was a risk, but one worth taking. There’s an episode in Artefact called “The Threads that Bind,” about clothing, and Tame Iti is one of the speakers. Who’s going to tell Tame Iti what to say? 

He decided to dress in the costumes he wore during his “terrorism” trial as a dramatic performance, putting them on and explaining why he chose each garment. Who could have scripted that? 

We need to take this approach for the history curriculum. We don’t need a master narrative. This is what people don’t realise. As soon as you’ve got a master narrative, knowledge and power interlock in the flow of events, in the stories that are told and those that are silenced. 

Yet it works so well not to do that, and to have fundamental respect for diverse histories, and let the stories emerge from the land. That’s what a whakapapa approach is about.

I believe you’ve been involved in the review of the Resource Management Act. There seems to be an important shift in thinking about how we interact with the environment in the recently released report recommending changes to that crucial legislation. Can you speak about that?

I was invited to be part of the Te Ao Māori group for the RMA review, a real privilege. And here is another reason why I’m hopeful. The review panel has put te mana o te taiao front and centre of the draft Act to replace the RMA. The thinking was that we’ve already got te mana o te wai, so why not just expand it and put it at the heart of the new legislation. 

And, have you noticed, it hasn’t been controversial? A lot of people have looked at it and said: “That makes sense.” 

For the same reason, I think you could put whakapapa in the heart of teaching history in schools and it wouldn’t be controversial. You could put ora (wellbeing, health, prosperity) at the heart of our budgetary process and it wouldn’t be controversial. 

Ora enables you to talk not just about human wellbeing but the wellbeing of living systems as well, which is much better than dividing up the living world into financial capital, human capital, social capital, natural capital, and so on. Those divisions create silos. 

If you talk inclusively about living systems with human beings at their heart, you can focus on whether they’re in a state of ora or not. You don’t have to speak separately about human capital in such a framework, because, as the saying goes: “I am the river, the river is me. If the river’s dying, so am I.”

I liked what Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society said about the Randerson report on the RMA, that there’s a shift from managing effects to achieving positive outcomes. That’s a huge shift. 

Putting te mana o te taiao at the heart of the new legislation fits in with a whakapapa view of our history. It enables you to deal with complex systems and networks in an integrated way. Complexity is the way the world works, and that’s where our most wicked problems arise. 

The lovely thing about whakapapa is that it makes you humble. Humans are only a small part of the story. It deals with the problem of human exceptionalism, that material possessions are the measure of status. 

In a whakapapa view, it’s what you give, not what you hold on to, that makes you wealthy. And being in a state where your relationships are in some form of balance.

So the idea is that we take out the word “management” and just use the first four letters: mana. Who’s going to argue about mana? We all want that. 

I think people have a gut feeling that this is the right direction to go. In lockdown, it was obvious. People walked, they heard the birds, the place they were in became their heartland.

Maybe the timing of the report, coming soon after an awakening to what matters, to a re-evaluation of priorities that happened with Covid — maybe there’s something providential about that. They’re suggesting the new legislation could be called The Living and Built Environment Act. What are your thoughts on a name?

Tiaki Taiao might be an option — the idea of looking after the living system, because taiao includes people. So, again, a whakapapa approach. When I see things like this happening in legislation, I’m optimistic. 


(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. Kennedy has written extensively about the connections between people and place, past and present, both in Aotearoa, the Pacific and elsewhere.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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