Ross Calman with the original manuscript written by Tamihana Te Rauparaha. (Photo: Auckland Libraries)

As a Māori writer, editor, and historian, Ross Calman has done much to present stories from, and about, those who first settled in Aotearoa. With his latest book, a labour of love, he’s given us access to the 150-year-old reflections of Tamihana, a son of Te Rauparaha, the Ngāti Toa chief perhaps best known today as the composer of the Ka Mate haka — who Ross can proudly, although perhaps uneasily at times, claim as a tupuna.


Kia ora, Ross. Here you are as the editor of this major book about one of your tīpuna, Te Rauparaha. But I understand that you didn’t grow up at all well versed in te ao Maori.

No. I was born in the early 1970s and had very much a Pākehā upbringing. My mum came from a Pākehā farming family, the Martins, who are well known around Rotorua. But my dad grew up in Whanganui, and it’s through his mother, Ena, that I get my Māori connection. Her whakapapa was Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, and Ngāi Tahu.

Dad’s father was a Calman. The Calmans settled in Whanganui a long time ago. I’ve looked at some old newspapers there and seen that one of my Pākehā ancestors was an undertaker in Whanganui. He used to publish advertisements in te reo Māori, offering his services to the whole community in the 19th century.

Did you always know about your Māori ancestry?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. When we were small, we knew we were Māori. But I guess, at that time, Māori connections were downplayed in the community — and by our parents as well. It wasn’t until I left high school, left home, and went down to university in Christchurch, that I started exploring my taha Māori. I joined the Māori kapa haka group at university and starting to study te reo Māori.

Also, at that time, I was lucky enough that my grandmother, Ena, was still alive, so I could visit her and hear some yarns about her childhood and what she remembered about her father, Kara Davis, and also her grandmother as well. They were stories from the early 1900s, and I was enraptured by them.

She’d grown up on a farm in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it place called Manakau, between Ōtaki and Levin. When she first started talking about that, I thought she was saying Manukau — and I was thinking: “Gee. I never knew you were from Auckland.”

Kara suffered from tuberculosis, which had a big death toll in those days. And Ena said that, whenever he got sick, everyone became worried that it was TB. So he’d often go back to the pā at Takapūwāhia, in Porirua, and get nursed by the nannies who used their traditional practices to help him get better again. He did quite well and lived into his late 60s, which was an achievement considering that he had TB throughout much of his life.

Ross’s great-grandparents Edith and Kara Davis with their children (from left) Joe, Ena, and Hannah, in 1910.

Has your interest in your taha Māori been shared among the rest of your family?

Well, it’s quite a similar story with my wife, Ariana Tikao. We’re the ones in our families to delve into our taha Māori and embark on the journey. Learning te reo Māori. Learning our whakapapa. Really embracing it.

But within my family, there’s a spectrum. Everyone has a basic understanding of our whakapapa — and that we descend from Te Rauparaha. That’s a source of pride in our family. But there are some with a limited interest in Māori things.

That depends to some extent on the era when people were growing up. But I’ve noticed that, among the younger generation, there’s now more acceptance of their taha Māori and also a much more wholehearted embracing of it, which is fantastic.

But it’s especially important for my own sense of identity and in influencing my own interests, my work, and my hobbies. So, any sort of spare time I have, I’m looking up or delving into whakapapa, reo Māori, and Māori history.

Ross’s grandmother, Ena, a nurse in Wellington in the 1930s.

Sometimes we carry whakapapa from people who aren’t seen in a positive light. And Te Rauparaha is a historical figure who isn’t universally loved. I suppose you keep your connection with him close to your chest at times. Especially in the South Island.

Yeah. Back in the early ‘90s, when I started looking into my whakapapa, I remember thinking: “Gee. Of all the people to be descended from!”

Here I was in Christchurch finding out I was descended from a man who was infamous for his raids on the South Island in the 1830s. But then, when I looked into it, I discovered I also had Ngāi Tahu whakapapa which came about through a peace marriage in the 1840s, between Te Rauparaha’s granddaughter, Ria Te Uira, and Peneta Nohoa of Ngāi Tahu.

The old people, back in those times, basically put in place a process to heal those wounds and make peace between those iwi who’d been at war just a short time before. I think it’s important to note that we’re all connected by whakapapa. And it’s also important to emphasise the connections between us, rather than the differences that might stem from an event long ago.

Actually, Te Rauparaha has an ambivalent reputation. He’s acknowledged as an amazing tribal leader and, of course, as the composer of the famous Ka Mate haka. But he was also one of the leading chiefs of the Musket Wars era, when there was so much fighting and so many deaths.

Also, there were a lot of tribal groups forced off their home territories. But I guess that, when you’re a descendant, you have to accept your ancestors. The good and the bad.

Because I’m so interested in history, I also want to try and understand why it was such a tumultuous period. Why there was all this fighting.

So, for me, it’s about understanding. It’s not about glorifying events in the past. And when there’ve been unhappy incidents, it doesn’t do you any good to try shoving those away in the back of your mind and not deal with them. Bringing these things into the open has got to be healthy, and even healing, although it may be difficult.

When we look back through western history, it seems to be all about the battles and wars. Do you think we might fall into that western trap of an over-emphasis on the warfare when we’re telling our stories?

We do have these narratives recounting the details of the battles. And these accounts can sort of justify who has the mana to resources or land.

But our habit of putting those front and centre, and putting other aspects to the side, is probably a product of those early Pākehā scholars who put together accounts of Māori history — such as Percy Smith and Elsdon Best who looked through a western lens.

For example, the concept of utu or reciprocity wasn’t just about avenging misdeeds. It was also about repaying kindnesses. And it was equally important for your group’s need to maintain its mana and standing that you repaid the kindnesses and the gifts as well. And, if you didn’t, then you’d be held in just as bad a light as if you’d not avenged a killing or another “crime” against one of your kin.

And another side of it is the way that whakapapa knits everything and everyone together. It shows all the connections, all the marriages between different hapū, different iwi, and how those lines have come together that way.

That’s a side of the traditional Māori knowledge system that the west, apart from some churches, mostly doesn’t value. In general, in western mainstream history, the whakapapa isn’t considered important at all. Just about every whānau, however, has got a whakapapa book bequeathed to them by their ancestors and it shows the significance of whakapapa.

Ross and Ariana Tikao at their wedding in 2002, with their daughter Matahana.

You’ve done quite a bit of editing since you turned to working on Māori content for Huia Publishers and then AW Reed. But you also now have a number of publications to your credit as a writer.

As a boy, I loved reading. I’d spend hours and hours and hours with books. And when I got to Canterbury University, my main subject was English literature. Then I was lucky enough to get a job at Huia Publishers in Wellington. At that point, I wasn’t writing so much as editing other people’s work but, in the back of my mind, I always had the thought that I’d prefer to be a writer.

After some travel overseas, I came back to New Zealand and landed a job, in the late ‘90s, updating a very basic Māori dictionary. And that led on to me writing an introductory book, for Reed Publishing, on the Treaty of Waitangi.

I remember sitting down in a university library with a pad and pen. No computers back then. It was just a matter of sitting down and writing. Some of what was coming out was rubbish. But I soon learned that you can’t afford to be put off by that.

The thing with writing is that it’s the sitting down and putting pen to paper that’s important, even if some of what’s coming out isn’t very good. You have to just keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Put something down. Get a draft out there. Then set it aside. Don’t look at it straightaway. If you look at it straightaway, you’ll say: “Oh, who wrote this rubbish?”

So, just don’t do that. Put it in a drawer. Bring it out a couple of weeks later, perhaps, and read it then. That’s when you start the process of editing and polishing and spotting if you’ve got gaps in what you’ve written. And then it’s important not to be too hard on yourself.

But it’s about sitting down and getting to work — and, of course, these days it’s more likely to be with a laptop than a pad and a pen. But you need to sit down, have a system, and do it.

One of your projects was updating The Reed Book of Māori Mythology. I’m not sure that was a great title, but a lot of what’s contained in our stories and whakataukī is rich and important and meaningful to us. Do you feel that these writings, these accumulations of material from yesteryear, are still a guide to us in today’s modern society?

Absolutely. I think the word myth is an unfortunate term and I know that some people prefer the word “truth” to myth.

I know, for example, that Rangi Matamua, the Māori astronomer, has talked about how the advantage we as Māori have over western science is that we tell better stories. And that’s a really good attitude. They’re stories, but they have truths about our world.

They may be stories of supernatural feats and supernatural people and atua and so on. But they tell us something valuable about our universe and about ourselves.

Unfortunately, so many of those stories that we’ve grown up with have come to us through the filter of the same group of Pākehā who wrote down our history. Like Percy Smith and Elsdon Best and John White and George Grey. They’ve read a lot of tribal versions and created a single Māori version. But most of their versions never really existed pre-1910.

And now there’s a huge thirst among Māori to go back to the original stories. There are truths in our stories and that’s something I’d like to work on more.

When I did that Māori mythology book for Reed, it was largely trying to untangle versions that had been stitched together from the stories from various iwi. AW Reed had done a good job of making the stories accessible to readers, but it was still a challenge to identify the kernel of a story and bring that out.

Do you sense that, if New Zealanders gain a better understanding of our history, including our wars and the Treaty, we’ll be able to weave our peoples together?

We can’t pretend that it’s all going to be happy families. It’s been a very difficult past and we have to face up to the violence of the early founding years of this nation. It’s been built on violence and on deceit and on land being taken from Māori in a variety of ways. It’s left us as an impoverished people and we’re still feeling the effects today.

A lot of Pākehā say: “Oh, that’s in the past. You can’t blame me for that.” But the impact of the violence and deceit and theft is still very much with us, and that has to be addressed.

If you look at Germany, which has a very dark past not that long ago, you see a country that’s faced up to its past. The Germans have shown that it’s possible to grapple with something as evil as the Holocaust, to bring that out in the open — and then to move forward.

So the planning to include our own history in our school curriculum is an extremely positive step. Perhaps there’ll still be people telling me: “Oh, that’s all in the past.” But my reply would be: “Just look around you. Look at where the wealth is. Look at where the power is. The basis of that wealth and that power is in these historical events. That’s why we’re an unequal society. That’s why we need to understand our history.”

Another problem with our race relations is that a good many non-Māori don’t know how to engage with te ao Māori. Some of them feel that there’s resistance from Māori about them finding out more about reo Māori and tikanga Māori too. But, for me, an important part of the solution is Pākehā understanding the Māori worldview.

I think Māori have gone all the way to understand the Pākehā side of things, but there hasn’t been a reciprocal Pākehā understanding of the Māori way of things. So I’d hope that more and more non-Māori will embrace te reo Māori and acknowledge that it’s Aotearoa’s reo rangatira.

It’s complex, it’s challenging, and it’s confronting. But these conversations need to take place for our nation to move forward.

Tamihana Te Rauparaha. (P1971-005/1-011c, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago)

Let’s turn now to your latest work. Can you share some kōrero about it?

Yes, it’s called He Pukapuka Tātaku i Ngā Mahi a Te Rauparaha Nui. It’s a manuscript written in the 1860s by Te Rauparaha’s son, Tamihana Te Rauparaha. And it’s quite a long life story. About 50,000 words and all in te reo Māori.

Basically it’s a story that’s had a series of Pākehā interpreters who’ve picked it up and plucked out some aspects of it. Then they’ve reshaped it and put out their own accounts of it.

There was also a translation about 100 years ago, but it’s a terrible translation. Not only because the translator didn’t fully understand the cultural underpinning of Tamihana’s account, but also because he was working off an inaccurate script.

He couldn’t look at the original because he wasn’t allowed to take that manuscript from the Auckland Public Library where it’s held. It’s been held there all along. And he had to work from typewritten copies which were full of errors. So his translation has all these passages that just don’t make any sense because the typist couldn’t read Tamihana’s handwriting.

But I shouldn’t dwell too much on the negative side of it because it’s an amazing account of Te Rauparaha’s life and times, and really focuses on the migration of Ngāti Toa from their home in Kāwhia to the Kapiti region. And he also writes of the migrations of other Taranaki iwi, and about Ngāti Raukawa moving to Kapiti.

He goes on to talk about the campaigns against Ngāi Tahu and the arrival of Pākehā traders and whalers, and then the arrival of the first settlers from the New Zealand Company, and the early days after the Treaty of Waitangi.

So it’s an amazing account written by someone who lived through a lot of those events, and who personally knew Te Rauparaha. He used to sit as a child and listen to his dad’s stories. And he also spoke with other kaumātua of that 1860s era and gathered different accounts, including some from Ngāi Tahu and from other iwi who were former enemies of Ngāti Toa.

You can see in these stories that he gives their perspectives, too. It’s such a rich account of those times and of the traditional Māori world before the Treaty — and before the missionaries had had much of an impact. It’s just a fascinating picture of, and a window into, that world.

I was first attracted to this account, because I wanted to know about my tupuna — because it was written by his son who knew him and knew that world. For me, that meant it was going to offer an extra level of insight that you wouldn’t be able to get from reading a biography written many years after Te Rauparaha’s death, by a Pākehā who may not appreciate the depth and range of traditional Māori thinking.

So this has been a labour of love for me. I came across the manuscript nearly 30 years ago when I was at the University of Canterbury. But I didn’t have enough grasp of the Māori language back then to read or understand it. And it’s taken me a long time to develop my reo to a point where I could start to make sense of it.

It’s written in the classical Māori of the 1860s, which is quite a different language from what we speak and write today. So I had to get used to the grammar and the vocab of that time. I’ve spent the last six years working on this.

It’s a transcription of the Māori text into modern Māori, and also a translation. And I’ve provided a historical context, as well as a lot of notes, an introduction, and maps and photographs, too. I’m hoping that I’ve been able to do justice to what Tamihana wrote 150 years ago, after it’s been sitting for all those years in the library without him getting the due that he’s deserved.

I take my hat off to you for your skill and endurance in helping shape such an important story. And I’m wondering if investing so much time and energy in this project has left you with more confidence that Māori and non-Māori are heading in the right direction in shaping a society that benefits all our mokopuna. 

In recent times, there’s been more and more interest by the wider community in everything to do with Māori. And I think that the interweaving of many of the good aspects of Māori culture into the mainstream culture will be a good thing for the country. I’ve seen that happening, and the education curriculum is becoming more balanced.

So we’re making progress — and we can carry on doing so, if we don’t forget about exploring our past and if our wider New Zealander society develops a sense of pride in the richness of Māori culture.

One of the reasons I’ve been interested in documenting history has been so that my mokopuna will know who they are and can move forward in a world proud of who they are, and with a solid sense of their identity. I think it’s good for everyone to have that firm foundation.

We’re reclaiming a number of our practices from the past, but also we’re sort of working out how that fits with this 21st century world that we find ourselves in. But it’s not always straightforward. And it may be that some of this may not come to fruition for several generations.

But that’s okay. There’s no great rush. We sometimes have to take the longer perspective if we’re to achieve our goals. There’s cause for optimism though because we’re moving in the right direction.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

He Pukapuka Tātaku i Ngā Mahi a Te Rauparaha Nui, published by Auckland University Press, goes on sale on November 12. Pre-sales are available here. Next week, we’ll publish an extract from the book.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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