Mike Stevens

Dr Mike Stevens, a former senior lecturer in Māori history at Otago University, is a freelance historian these days — with a special interest in Kāi Tahu and Bluff. And in muttonbirding and boat-building, too.

Here he covers quite a bit of that territory in a conversation with Dale.


Kia ora, Mike. It’s a pleasure to be talking with you. And it’s especially interesting to have the company of someone with your background as a Kāi Tahu and Bluff historian, and as a muttonbirder as well. Tell us a bit about your whakapapa.

Yes, I’m Kāi Tahu through my mother, Barbara Metzger. That surname is obviously German. It comes from Joseph Metzger — a butcher by both name and trade — who arrived in Bluff in the 1870s. He met and married a German-speaking Polish woman in Southland and they had a large family.

One of their grandsons married my great-grandmother Mouru Haberfield. That surname comes from Bristol. It’s one of those many Kāi Tahu names from the sealing and whaling period, when a lot of guys came over from Port Jackson, Sydney, into the Bay of Islands and Foveaux Strait regions.

My mother was born in Bluff and the three generations immediately preceding her were based in and around the port town, too. Between the 1870s and the 1900s, our whānau lived at Omaui, one of the five Native Reserves set aside in the 1853 Murihiku Purchase.

These days, Omaui is only a 10-minute drive from Bluff but, until the 1950s, it could only be accessed at low tide across the Mokamoka Inlet. Anyway, by the time of the First World War, we had moved from Omaui out on to the Bluff Road at the top of Bluff Harbour, to a little farming settlement, basically a Pākehā village, called Greenhills. You know, a country school, a shop cum Post Office, a church, a railway siding and a few houses.

I think the family shifted mainly to be closer to the railway line — so they could go into Bluff or Invercargill for employment or enjoyment. My pōua, John Kerle Haberfield, was a whatever he had to be: a shearer, a builder, a goldminer, a bread-maker, a wharfie. One of those blokes who could do anything.

John and Noki Haberfield and children. Mike’s great-great-grandfather William is front left—Invercargill, mid-1880s.

His wife, Noki, was also Kāi Tahu. She was born at Whenua Hou, an island west of Rakiura, in 1839. Noki and John and one of their daughters are buried together in Bluff. Their son, William, my great-great-grandfather, was a shearer and wharfie, too.

Big Nana and Pōua William at Greenhills, late 1920s.

He married twice — firstly to a Haberfield cousin, and then, following her death, to a Pākehā widow from Bluff, “Big Nana”, whose Kāi Tahu husband (from the Spencer whānau) had died from TB and left her with two young boys. Pōua William raised these two boys and he and Big Nana had three more children of their own. And this was the big extended family that my pōua, Tiny Metzger, was born into in 1932.

Mike’s great-grandmother Mouru with her sister Koa Haberfield and his grandfather Tiny Metzger as a toddler, 1934

Our family was more or less centred on Greenhills until the 1950s when we made the shift to the big smoke, Bluff, where my mum was born in 1961. My father, Alister, wasn’t born there, but he was raised there, so both my parents are Bluffies. One was Kāi Tahu from the west end and the other a Pākehā from the east end.

After I was born, my parents shifted to Invercargill for work but they separated when I was five and Mum returned with us kids back to the Bluff. So I did my primary schooling in Bluff and then went to Southland Boys’ High in Invercargill when I was 13 — up and down by bus every day for five years. Then I headed off to the University of Otago to study law and history.

My old man was a seaman, so I’m intrigued by ports and the gritty nature of communities like Bluff, and I can understand the appeal it holds. Can you explain the magic it has for you?

As I’ve said before, it’s a little bit like the way in which you can walk around inside your own house in the dark and not stub your toe because you know where everything is. That’s how I feel about Bluff. I know who’s in what house — or which whānau has been in what house. You know the people. You know the families, the cultures and sub-cultures. At the urupā, you know where people are and where they fit.

I’ll never know anywhere as well as I know Bluff. It’s comfortable and I find it easy being in a place I know and that I know I’m a part of.

In terms of my historical research and what we might call Bluff’s significance as an analytical site, there are some interesting statistics. In the last national census, 15 percent of all New Zealanders identified as Māori. For the whole Southland region, it was slightly lower at about 13 percent. But for Bluff, the number is 44 percent. It’s a Kāi Tahu heartland community.

During the colonial encounter, and beyond, Bluff was a sort of a halfway house, a kind of a border zone between Invercargill, where settler colonialism was writ large, and then places to the south, like The Neck at Rakiura, Ruapuke Island, and the Tītī Islands, where we were, and are, still more in control. So Bluff is sort of a Checkpoint Charlie in many ways.

I’m surprised that the Māori population is such a significant proportion, especially with Bluff having been such a busy port. How has that come about?

It might seem counter-intuitive, but Bluff became a Māori heartland because of its role as a colonial port — not despite it. Actually, prior to sustained European contact in this part of New Zealand, our people didn’t live there. In fact, we didn’t have many permanent settlements in the lower South Island. Certainly not in Bluff, which we know as Awarua.

That said, the harbour was very much known to us and there are archaeological sites going right back to the “archaic” phase of Polynesian discovery. There are also a whole lot of old place names — what we might call “Hawaiki” names — but it wasn’t a site of significant settlement.

It was the sustained presence of “Europeans” that made it a town, and its embryo was the trading depot that James Spencer started, and the whaling station William Stirling established in the mid-1830s.

We tend to call them Pākehā now but, at the time, these men — and all the rest of them who came to us through Port Jackson from every corner of the world — were called tākata pora. That’s shipmen or boat people. Spencer and Stirling and their offsiders all had Kāi Tahu wives who lived with them in Bluff and other places, such as Riverton.

All of those women had parents, siblings and cousins at Ruapuke Island, parts of Rakiura, and so on. And they’d visit Bluff. As Bluff grew and developed, more of our people shifted there. So Bluff became increasingly important for southern Kāi Tahu.

A lot of it had to do with its proximity to Ruapuke, which is located east of Bluff and is one of three places where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Kāi Tahu representatives in mid-1840.

Again, our people were not living in Ruapuke before tākata pora were knocking around our coasts, even though it was likewise known, named and claimed.

Ruapuke became important on the pre-colonial and early colonial frontier because it provided access to, and trade opportunities with, tākata pora. It has some good anchorages in the right conditions and harakeke grows there — and the flax trade was one of the big things, especially during the Napoleonic Wars.

Then, as the extractive maritime economy gave over to the agricultural economy, Bluff, as a deep-water port, became more important than Ruapuke. Bluff is where live sheep get landed from Melbourne. It’s where you load oats and wool for London and, from the 1880s, frozen meat and dairy products.

This explains why a Native Hostel (a “Māori House”) was built there in that decade. They were all over colonial New Zealand — for example, in Nelson and Lyttleton. You had one in Mechanics Bay in Auckland, too. Ben Schrader, who is a really excellent historian, has shed great light on these little sites where Māori, who were visiting from other places, could stay the night and/or trade with colonists. Selling firewood or pork or fish or whatever was the go.

In 1903, our Māori House was replaced with another one. The harbour board needed us out of the way of the wharf because, well, there aren’t many marae in the middle of commercial port zones.

So our new whare, named Tarere ki Whenua Uta, was up in a back street. It’s still there, though a bit the worse for wear, at the foot of our marae ātea. This was just a house though, and, as more of our people shifted permanently to Bluff and acquired their own houses, what we really needed was a hall. That eventually led to building a marae proper — a large whare kai and a whare tīpuna, Te Rau Aroha.

Mike harvesting rimurapa for pōhā—Kaka Point, 2010

It sounds as if Ruapuke, and the other islands below the South Island, were relatively unoccupied through long stretches of our history. But perhaps Ruapuke, for instance, was a place of a permanent settlement for our people rather than a spot for transients.

Ruapuke has been both, often at the same time. You’ve got to remember that, of all those Polynesian crops that came to New Zealand, kumara was the hardiest. But you couldn’t really grow kumara south of Kaiapoi, which helps to explain the development of the large pā there. Maybe you could grow a few in Temuka with a lot of work and a bit of luck, but that’s about your southern limit for kumara.

So, everything beyond that was exclusively hunter-gatherer. That meant our tīpuna had to be mobile. They were always on the move. That helps explain the nature and extent of our mahika kai and the lack of big permanent villages in the lower South Island: you just kept moving from seasonal camp to seasonal camp — creating and transporting surpluses all the while. And lots of those people would then winter over at Kaiapoi where they’d live off their surpluses.

The presence of sealers in big numbers from the first decade of the 19th century attracted a lot of these people south, and small seasonal sites probably became bigger and more permanently occupied. And one of the ways that this happened was when sealers introduced potatoes into the region.

Sealers might get dropped off on one of a little cluster of islands and their captain would say: “I’ll see you in six weeks.” But then they mightn’t come back for two years. Or the ship sails away and gets shipwrecked somewhere in the Indian Ocean or the South Atlantic. So, you’re waiting for another passing ship to find you.

As a consequence, these sealers would carry seed potatoes with them, and the first thing they’d do would be to plant them. Potatoes were a key part of their survival. And, soon enough, there were enormous Kāi Tahu-controlled potato plantations in the upper regions of Bluff Harbour. Like at Omaui.

These spuds made year-round occupation in the south much easier. But, also you weren’t just growing these potatoes for yourself. You were growing them as trade items.

Later on, when there were the well-known difficulties with Ngāti Toa and their allies, and their musket incursions into Kāi Tahu territory from Kapiti, some of the survivors who fled, from Kaiapoi or wherever, headed for relatives already at Ruapuke. Others just retreated from Arowhenua or even Ōtākou, for their own protection. There are references to young women being sent south “just in case.”

While all this pulling and pushing in a southward direction was going on, you’ve got shore-whalers basing themselves in Foveaux Strait. So, a lot of women, for whom “home” might be Temuka or Wairewa or somewhere like that, would end up hooking up with some handsome, blue-eyed devil under the lee of The Bluff.

Then their families would stay there. So, we have lots of families in the south who may have been in Bluff or Murihiku for at least five generations but whose whakapapa take them to northern parts of our takiwā.

By the 1840s, there were a few hundred people living at Ruapuke in as many as seven different villages. But they were always transient. By the late 19th century, it was down to say 20 people and then dwindled further throughout the 20th century, until there was really only one or two permanent residents.

However, a number of people did and still do maintain houses there. It’s still Māori-owned. Ruapuke is to southern Kāi Tahu what Kapiti Island is to Ngāti Toa, except that it’s still exclusively in Kāi Tahu ownership and it’s in the hands of those families that have the whakapapa to that place.

A lot of those who maintain one of those houses, spend a lot of time there, commonly mixing farming with fishing. As with the Tītī Islands, aside from the economics of it all, I think there’s also the psychological dividend of being in a space that’s ours — a reprieve from “New Zealand.”

Kia ora, Mike. Now I wonder if you might tell us about your decision to study law and history.

Okay. Initially, I did an honours degree in history and a law degree. Then I did a PhD in history. The law thing was sort of an “interest only” degree. I guess it’s a little bit like my father. He’s a mechanic by trade, but as soon as he was out of his time, he went and drove trucks and joined the Fire Brigade and did other things.

His training as a mechanic wasn’t a waste of time because he still does his own oil changes and he’s still sufficiently handy with motors. Similarly, my mother, who’s a seamstress by trade. She now works in health promotion but she recently made my lounge curtains and patches all my old clothes for the Tītī Islands.

And that’s probably how I look at my law degree. I don’t think I was ever going to practise law, but it’s been extraordinarily helpful to have a greater understanding of what law is, how it’s made, and the separation of powers and all that carry on. I’m particularly interested in how the common law was introduced to these islands and calibrated here. It all feeds in to my understanding of colonial politics and our constitution, which helps me to see where we’ve been and where we are.

All of that is vitally important in my role as the alternate representative to Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu for Awarua. So I don’t see my law degree as a waste of time or money or effort. But the thing that took me to university, and my great love was and remains history.

Many of us bemoan the fact that so few of our kids get much New Zealand history at high school or university. And it’s especially sad that they’re missing out on regional histories when those stories are so important in the process of us getting to know ourselves. Do you agree? And, as part of that, do you think Māori history is in good health or not?

I think for all New Zealanders, but for Māori in particular, New Zealand needs to be understood regionally. Different groups of people arrived in different parts of New Zealand at different times. So, for example, the colonial state achieved what a legal historian calls “substantive sovereignty” — as distinct from “aspirational sovereignty” — at different places, in different times, via different means.

None of that denies the development of what might be termed national culture. Indeed, that is a key aspect of the New Zealand story. But there are underlying regional narratives and cultures and these need to be better understood.

Why do my Auckland cousins say platter and we say ashit? Why do they say nogs and we say dwangs? Why do North Island iwi say muka and koro and we say whitau and pōua? Why do you leave the rito and we take it? Those questions all have really interesting answers.

As for the current state of Māori history, I can’t say things are terrible when I enjoy the friendship and scholarship of a whole bunch of scholars of the Māori past. Through my membership of Te Pōuhere Kōrero, a collective of Māori historians, my mind immediately turns to the likes of Melissa Williams and Aroha Harris, Hirini Kaa, Ngarino Ellis, Nepia Mahuika and Monty Soutar, Puawai Cairns, Leanne Tamaki, Arini Loader, Paul Diamond and Rawinia Higgins, Te Maire Tau, Atholl Anderson, Megan Ellison and Tā Tipene O’Regan.

Those names alone add up to an impressive body of Māori historical scholarship. There’s also a whole lot of very competent work on the Māori past being done by non-Māori, which is another longstanding feature of the history of these islands.

Iwi are also investing in historical research — quite separate from anything required by the Treaty claims process. Within Kāi Tahu, we have Takerei Norton and Helen Brown and their wider rōpū in the archive team at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu doing incredible — and award-winning — things. I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside this talented group in recent years and it’s been the most rewarding work of my career to date, by quite some margin.

So there’s clearly a lot of work being done — more than ever before. But, despite those big gains, the battles aren’t won, of course. One of the big challenges is taking this new research and getting it into schools and actually getting teachers to engage with it, understand it, and use it.

This is where the books in schools stuff undertaken by Bridget Williams Books should be applauded. A great difficulty in all of this, though, is even gauging the extent to which teachers from the Pākehā power-culture can be relied upon to understand or care about Māori history, much less the audiences they’re required to connect with.

For some, it’s certainly easier to focus on 1870s German unification or decolonisation in French Indochina than the role of railway building and indigenous resistance in the New Zealand archipelago. And that’s a great shame. We all need to find a way to do this better.

Tiny and Mike weaving kete for pōhā—Bluff, 1996

Thank you. Now, what say we talk about muttonbirding? For most New Zealanders, this is an annual harvest that may seem a bit quaint, whereas for others it’s been a necessary food source, as well as a way of keeping Ngāi Tahu culture alive and well. What I’ve been told is that the muttonbirds, the tītī (or sooty shearwater), lay an egg in a burrow on a number of islands, more than 30 islands overall, and then, in April and May, the chicks or fledglings are caught for food or trade.

You’ve gotta realise that by 1890, nearly half of all Kāi Tahu people and families were entirely landless — and the other half had too little land for their economic survival. The first major land purchase began here in Otago in 1844 and, within 50 years, the tribe was virtually landless. Remarkable.

This landlessness obviously had a huge impact on access to what had been their mahika kai. You can’t roam across lands if they’re fenced off and if someone else has a legal title to them.

That’s one problem. You can’t move freely. Then there’s another difficulty when resources that you once valued are now also valued by the colonists, by the incoming culture. Whitebait, for example.

The other thing that can happen, of course, is that, if certain resources aren’t valued by the colonists, like weka, they’re killed off. Our people still had big weka harvests in the North Otago interior into the late 19th century until they were poisoned and killed, because colonists didn’t see their value.

Wool not weka. Mutton not muttonbirds.

So, against that backdrop of landlessness, resource depletion, resource alienation, resource loss and all that stuff, you have the Tītī Islands that were retained exclusively by those Kāi Tahu whānau and individuals who had rights to them.

Not all Kāi Tahu people can go to the roughly three-dozen Tītī Islands. And those who can go to the islands can’t necessarily go to all the islands. Our whānau has rights to three islands, but my wife’s whānau has rights to eight or nine of them. So our children have got about a dozen in their back pocket. In reality, with the cost of visiting and maintaining the facilities on an island, you really only ever have an operational presence on one island, if any.

The Crown, through the Department of Conservation and various earlier bodies such as the Wildlife Service, has had some input into the management of the Tītī Islands in different ways and at different times — not all of it welcome or beneficial.

But, even so, it’s the closest example we’ve got to retaining customary control over a customary resource. So, touching on a comment I made earlier, I think there’s a psychological benefit for us having responsibility for property that comes to us in an unbroken line from our tīpuna — and that, I believe, is not to be underestimated.

Let’s turn again to New Zealand’s history. We know that there’s a push at the moment to have the New Zealand Wars commemorated more thoroughly than has been the case so far. Perhaps even to have a special public holiday. But do you favour this, Mike? Do you think that we’re ready, as a country, to confront the realities of our colonial history?

Well, there are a number of questions there. And one is this: Do we need a holiday to think through the so-called New Zealand Wars or colonial history more broadly? I’m quite Presbyterian on such matters. I certainly think it’s a conversation that needs to be had, but I’m not so sure about the need for another public holiday.

One of my concerns is that the focus on the wars leads to equating colonisation and colonial dispossession with open warfare — thereby leaving out most of the country. Let’s remind ourselves that the New Zealand Wars were a set of regional conflicts. So, if you only focus on them, you’re leaving out most of Te Waipounamu — and certainly us Kāi Tahu — from the larger story of the British colonisation of New Zealand.

Colonial violence came in lots of forms. The New Zealand Wars are at one end of the spectrum, particularly the Waikato War within that. But there’s a bigger story, a wider spectrum, and I do worry that the focus might be a mite narrow at present.

Tiny with a pōhā—Bluff, 2010

The paths we’ve taken, and the person we become, naturally, are the result of all sorts of influences in our lives. Can you point to any in your life that you’d like to acknowledge?

My pōua, my maternal grandfather, Tiny Metzger, who I mentioned at the outset, has probably had the biggest influence on my life.

He’s still with us, and he’s just clocked 86. A lot of what he says and does was likewise shaped by his grandparents, especially his Pākehā grandmother, Big Nana. She became a first-class muttonbirder and played an important part in transmitting knowledge about mahika kai and associated material traditions across our whānau.

Her big thing was pōhā. They’re the kelp bags that tītī are traditionally preserved and transported in. She didn’t go along with the way some families were putting their birds into wooden kegs and metal tins from the 1940s, and now, of course, the familiar plastic buckets. So, she told my pōua — and this would’ve been over 60 years ago now — that whoever went to our tītī island had to keep using pōhā, or the knowledge would die.

My pōua was charged with that duty and he has fully discharged it — with the assistance, I should say, of his own wife, my maternal grandmother, who is also Pākehā. My pōua’s lifelong commitment was the basis of Te Waka Toi presenting him with a Tā Kingi Ihaka Award in 2004.

Nowadays, it’s really just our whānau that keep pōhā going. There’s the odd person from this or that whānau who knows a bit about it, typically kaumātua rather than mokopuna, but we still do it season in and season out. The lion’s share of our preserved tītī go into pōhā. They’re an iconic part of Kāi Tahu material culture and they still exist thanks to the love and support of a couple of Pākehā women.

Professionally, my biggest influences and supporters have been my tuakana, Tā Tipene O’Regan, Professor Tom Brooking during my undergraduate years, and Professor Tony Ballantyne who was my PhD supervisor.

I don’t doubt for a moment that when you’ve been digging away to uncover some of the past, you’ve unearthed stuff that has kept you looking further afield.

Absolutely, the deeper I’ve dug, the more I’ve come across unexpected things. I’m reminded of this saying: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So my historical research on Bluff has been, to some extent, a process of making this very familiar place unfamiliar.

When I complete my book on Bluff, I hope it shows Bluffies a picture of the Bluff they already know, maybe in a little more detail, while also revealing a Bluff that our ancestors knew but which looks quite alien to us in a number of ways.

I want to wish you well with that. We’re yet to talk about the whaling scene. Would you like to touch on that? It’s just that many of our proud communities have been built off the back of what we now see as an ugly industry.

Who is “we”? I don’t necessarily see whaling as a terrible thing. The problem with commercial sealing and whaling, as it was conducted in 19th century New Zealand, is that it was unsustainable. My problem isn’t that it occurred. I’m not bothered that we killed these animals or that future New Zealanders may do so again. Some people are morally opposed to that outright. I’m not one of them.

My problem is the way it happened. For example, whalers, especially shore-whalers, took advantage of the mothers or cows coming into warmer, shallower waters to breastfeed their young. And one of the techniques would be to capture the baby, drag it ashore, and the mother would follow it. It was brutal stuff.

But, of course, what that’s doing is taking out the offspring and the breeding stock. It’s not like muttonbirding where we take only a percentage of juvenile tītī. So, muttonbirding, if you think about it, is New Zealand’s oldest continuing industry. It has greater claims of sustainability than anything else happening in these islands.

What did Dieffenbach write about whalers in 1840s Wellington? Something like: “They cut down the tree to pick the fruit.” I think that’s right.

But then there’s the other question you were alluding to — about whether it’s morally defensible to kill animals. Clearly, I think it is. I don’t think whales — as mammals — are any more remarkable than tītī or crayfish, which are magnificent animals in their own ways. For me, the morality of it all begins and ends with the question of maximum sustainable yield.

Coming back to whaling, if we’re approaching the issue from a purely economic perspective, then — thinking about my Kāti Kuri relatives at Whalewatch Kaikōura — they’re worth more to us alive these days than chopped up and rendered down.

Mike with his wife, Emma Wyeth, sons Kura-mātakitaki & Tūhiku-a-Kiwa, and daughter Te Haeatanui—-Moeraki, 2018

Finally, Mike, I suspect that, with the research and the writing you’re doing, as well as your family commitments, not to mention the muttonbirding when that season rolls around, you don’t have a whole heap of time for other interests. But perhaps you do find time for something else.

I come from a family of practical people and I like doing things with my hands, so I do quite a bit of building and even a bit of boat-building. Pōua Tiny did his apprenticeship as a carpenter and then went boat-building. In the early 1950s, he designed and built 10-foot plywood dinghies, hard-chine things. He sold a heap of them to fishermen in Bluff — a lot of them Kāi Tahu, some from Ruapuke.

Tiny would come home from work and do a couple of hours a night in the back shed after tea. He got it down to such a fine art that he could build one of these dinghies every two weeks, and that was one of the ways that he and Nana saved money for a deposit for their house. I built a little pram dinghy with Tiny when I was 12, but I always wanted to build one of his 10-footers.

Last year, when my wife and I were on sabbatical, we spent a school term in Bluff and Tiny had the old plans out — all lofted out on this enormous roll of Sisalkraft paper. And I just thought: “Let’s build one of these things.”

Two weeks be buggered! Between paid work and three kids and everything else, I’ve been working on this boat for over a year now. But we’re sort of on the final stretch now. The hull is completely covered — all the plywood is on — and we’re just about ready to steam the keel. Then it’ll be on to chine battens and rubbing strakes and gunwales and we’ll flip it over and get started on the thwarts.

Tiny is also well known for his dinghy oars, which is another thing I’ve put some time in to. Right from going deep into the bush and selecting the right silver beech tree and milling it ourselves with a portable chainsaw mill. In my first undergraduate year at Otago, I discovered that I’m quite deaf in my left ear. I imagine this all had something to do with it.

Laminating the oar shafts and planing them down by hand is incredibly labour intensive. A lot like he mahi pōhā. And a lot like the work of a historian.

One doesn’t do any of it for economic rewards or accolades. But it provides a sense of history and some personal satisfaction in a job well done.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


© E-Tangata, 2018

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