Koroniti, 1921. From left: Puti Ngātaierua (sitting), an unnamed man (standing), Naima Peni, Ngāreta Pokiha, Niko Maihi (standing), Te Hau Potaka (daughter of Naima Peni) with Paeroke on her lap and an unnamed woman, photographed by James McDonald next to Teko Chadwick’s homestead at Koroniti. (Te Papa)

The 1918 flu epidemic had just swept through the country, with catastrophic impact on Māori communities. Māori leaders were gravely concerned over the loss of cultural knowledge that would result from the death of so many elders.

The MP for Eastern Māori, Apirana Ngata, convinced the government that the Dominion Museum should swiftly send staff with expertise in ethnological research, filming, audio recording and photography to work with iwi in key locations to capture tikanga and mātauranga while it was still available.

The resulting expeditions, unique in their time for their collaborative nature, yielded a trove of irreplaceable knowledge and a time capsule of Māori life from a century ago.

Much of what was collected and learned has remained out of sight in the archives of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Now, a splendid new book tells the story of those expeditions, along with a thoughtful analysis of their importance and a rich selection of the photographs that were taken in Gisborne, Rotorua, Tairawhiti and the Whanganui River — the four expedition sites.

As well as recounting the history of each expedition, Hei Taonga mā ngā Uri Whakatipu / Treasures for the Rising Generation: The Dominion Museum Ethnological Expeditions 1919–1923, explores the contemporary importance of the recordings they gathered and includes responses from several descendants of tūpuna who spoke into the expedition’s phonograph or were filmed by the cinematographer, James McDonald.

In the following excerpt, Whanganui kaumātua John Niko Maihi describes his reaction to seeing and hearing his tūpuna when the ethnologists visited He Awa Tupua, as told to Billie Lythberg and Sandra Kahu Nepia (slightly edited for length).


A rangatira woman, Rihipeti Aperaniko photographed by James McDonald as she weaves a basket at Koroniti in 1921. (Te Papa)

We’ve seen the expedition films quite often and they stir amazing memories for our people. Now we get to see the photos, read the written histories and hear their voices on the recordings.

The connections with our tūpuna are very close; they’re direct and they help me recall what our old people used to tell us. Sometimes I’ll look at the photos and documents that Sandy Nepia shares with me, and go away and have a dream, and it all comes back.

Rihipeti Aperaniko is my great-grandmother, my grandfather’s mother. She was called Irihāpeti sometimes but we know her as Rihipeti. Rihipeti is in many of the expedition photos and she was probably directing things a fair bit. In those days, you didn’t just jump in to be photographed — you would have been told who was going to be in the films and photos, and what they would be doing. You would be chosen.

Rihipeti was a rangatira woman. In some of the expedition photos you can see her moko kauae clearly, her sharktooth earrings threaded through her ears on satin ribbon, and the tāniko on her sash and the waistband of her piupiu. She was dressed for the occasion.

You know, you hear the voices of the men in the expedition recordings, but Rihipeti was very significant. She forged a relationship with the expedition and did some weaving for them later, after they’d returned to the Dominion Museum.

When I look at the photo of Rihipeti and my grandfather Niko Maihi and grandmother Mere Te Hau Potaka-Osborne, and maybe even my father Paeroke Aperaniko, under that tree, with samples of their weaving — wow, it gives me shivers. Because I can see all my nieces and nephews in her face, as a young woman. Man, do they look like us! Or rather, we look like them. This is my family, my blood.

Rihipeti had standing at Pūtiki, Kahawai, Parikino, and of course up at Koroniti, Matahiwi. She could probably go anywhere she wanted without too many problems. She stayed most of her life at Paetawa, which is across the river from Parikino marae.

Rihipeti Aperaniko photographed by James McDonald standing in Te Wehi o te Rangi at Koroniti in 1921. This waka is now on display in the Whanganui Regional Museum. (Te Papa)

Another of the photos shows Rihipeti standing in the war canoe Te Wehi o te Rangi, the largest of the Whanganui River waka. I was in my 20s or 30s when it last came out on the water, and I was arguing that I should be allowed on it, but they said, “You haven’t had any training — get on the side!”

Te Wehi o te Rangi was in so many battles it’s a story on its own, and it now rests in the Whanganui Museum. There are still waka by the marae when you travel down the river. At Putiki, Mangaone belongs to the marae.

Heremia Rāwiri, the old soldier who lived at Oneriri and recorded so many songs and chants on the dictaphone for the expedition, was Rihipeti’s uncle. Seeing him brings back lots of memories about Operiki. That was the main village until it became overcrowded and our whānau moved out of there and down to Koroniti. And listening to him . . . it’s like he’s sitting here and talking.

As for Aperahama (Apirana Tukairangi), he was very clever. He demonstrated the old ways of measuring using the body and the niu divination rites for the expedition. He was using his computer! Our old people were clever and had skills in all areas.

Reading the expedition narratives in this book is awesome. I can hear the kōrero coming out of the wānanga we had in the 1980s. We don’t do those anymore because the people have gone, but now I’m thinking that I need to do something about that. I’ll get onto it. I’ve got to get as old as them first!

Five women making kono inside Te Waiherehere at Koroniti, 1921. From left: Rangi Pokiha’s mother Ngāreta, Naima Peni, Rihipeti Aperaniko, Puti Ngātaierua and an unnamed woman. (Te Papa)

Extracted with permission from Hei Taonga mā ngā Uri Whakatipu / Treasures for the Rising Generation: The Dominion Museum Ethnological Expeditions 1919–1923. Edited by Wayne Ngata, Anne Salmond, Natalie Robertson, Amiria Salmond, Monty Soutar, Billie Lythberg, James Schuster and Conal McCarthy. Published by Te Papa Press, $75

See also Kennedy Warne’s review of the book for Kete Books here.

John Niko Maihi MNZM (Ngāti Pamoana Atihaunui a Paparangi) is the son of Aperaniko Maihi (Paeroke) and Te Kahui Gray. He is a former member of the Whanganui River Māori Trust Board (1988–2017), and has held significant leadership roles in the settlement of the Whanganui River Claims.  In 2011, he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori.

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