For more than 50 years, Anne Salmond has been studying and explaining Māori and Pacific philosophies — and, as well, examining the encounters that came about as European explorers and then migrants headed this way.
There’s a wealth of that knowledge in her books, starting with Hui. That was a study of Māori ceremonial gatherings which had been the focus of her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania after she’d done her MA in anthropology in Auckland.
Her body of work has been so remarkable that she has received abundant honours and awards — including a damehood, and then, in 2013, selection as New Zealander of the Year.
The latest of her books, Tears of Rangi, adds more lustre to her achievements. It’s a book that, as Kennedy Warne notes, is an analysis of what happened when two very different cultures confronted each other here in Aotearoa.
It’s also, he says, about what that melding of the ways of life might mean for our country’s future.
Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au — I am the river, the river is me — is a statement of identity by those who whakapapa to Te Awa Tupua. It’s also a truth capsule containing the essence of Māori belief.
In those few, simple words lies the understanding that life is a reciprocal exchange between persons — in this case, between a human and a river.
The hau, or wind of life, flows from one to the other and back again in an endless cycle, nurturing, sustaining and transforming all who it touches. This, according to Anne Salmond’s book, Tears of Rangi, is the core principle of te ao Māori.
The book’s title comes from the origin story of Te Awa Tupua, the great river that has laid a claim on her through her own family history. In that kōrero, the river springs from the tears of Ranginui. Salmond is also thinking of the metaphor of Rangi and Papa weeping for each other: sky bathing earth in rain, earth responding to sky in mist.
That picture of reciprocity and exchange is the book’s central image. Titiro atu, titiro mai — one glance directed at another, the other glancing back. I see you, and I am seen.
That principle permeates the Māori world. We see it in action at every pōwhiri, every marae encounter. One calls, another responds, and a connection is forged. The exchange shapes identity and generates life.
Such circularity, Anne Salmond believes, is fundamentally opposite to the European worldview, which has its origin in the Great Chain of Being, a hierarchy of entities with God at the top and creation sorted into descending categories and ranks.
The European “Enlightenment” was epitomised in “I think therefore I am.” The Māori understanding is “I relate therefore I am.”
In Aotearoa, these two worldviews met — and are still negotiating their engagement. Hence the book’s subtitle, Experiments Across Worlds.
Anne Salmond sees the history of encounter between Māori and Pākehā as a grand experiment, one that continues to this day as the Treaty partners forge new ways of doing things, “in law, in governance and … in everyday life, from the arts to sport to public ritual.”
If the word “experiment” suggests a book that is heavy on the academic side, it’s not. One of the achievements of Tears of Rangi is how vividly Salmond renders the two cosmologies: one based on hierarchy, the other on reciprocity. One linear, the other circular. One focused on separation, the other on relational exchange.
She incarnates this cosmological kōrero in figures from Aotearoa history who were at the forefront of cross-cultural encounter — among them Cook, Tupaia, Ruatara, Hongi Hika, Marsden, and the tragic Thomas Kendall.
Almost alone among the missionary band who came to sway Māori to their faith and philosophy, Thomas Kendall went the other way, becoming increasingly entranced by te ao Māori. And not just by te ao, but by an actual Māori woman, Tungaroa, one of his school pupils, with whom he had an affair.
It all ended sadly for him. Anne Salmond writes that the paradox of representing Christendom while embracing Māori thought “tore him apart.” His personal “experiment across worlds” became an unbearable torment.
While Kendall wavered in his assurance of European superiority, his fellow missionaries were resolute. One consequence of their certainty that their view of reality was right is that Māori concepts have been weakened — eviscerated, even — by their rendering into English by missionary translators.
Forced to fit a European worldview, they were cut adrift from their true meaning. This is particularly apparent for words that relate to cosmological ideas.
The missionary translators were keenly attuned to anything that smacked of idolatry, so the act of translation naturally involved a negation of what they saw as heathenish views.
Thus, an atua, a powerful ancestor, lost all sense of personal connection and was presented as a disembodied god.
Wairua, the totality of a person’s immaterial being, became compartmentalised as spirit. Tapu, stripped of ancestral presence, became merely a category called sacred. Likewise, noa, rather than fulfilling the role of yin to tapu’s yang, was demoted to profane.
A tohunga, an expert steeped in ancestral knowledge, became a religious priest (or, worse, a witch doctor). Karakia, chants which in their very utterance invoke the breath of life, turned into supplicatory prayers. Utu, the principle of reciprocity, was narrowed and sensationalised as revenge. Whakapapa, the matrix of connections among all human and non-human life, dwindled into mere genealogy.
“There are no words in English to translate words like tapu, mana, utu and hau, which were (and are) ontological terms, premised on the taken-for-granted presence and power of ancestors in everyday life, and different states of being in te ao mārama, te kore and te pō,” writes Salmond. “Such words presuppose a reality that is, in many respects, fundamentally at odds with Western ideas about the world.”
The good news is that the country seems to be in a process of recovery — and for Pākehā, discovery — of the Māori conceptual world. For Anne Salmond, this movement isn’t a cultural nicety but a social necessity.
“The old Cartesian dualisms and their fragmented dreams are no longer working — in science, in material matters, or in human affairs,” she writes in her preface.
Relational networks, interlinked and co-emergent, are the future, she believes. “In New Zealand, and elsewhere in the Pacific where ancestral insights remain vital, this can happen.”
Much of the second half of Tears of Rangi — material which was presented and broadcast as the 2014 Royal Society of New Zealand Rutherford lectures — looks at how Māori perspectives might apply to how we perceive and relate to rivers, land, sea, and people.
They already do, of course. Who could have imagined, even 10 years ago, that Te Urewera forest and Whanganui River would become legal persons, with more such ancestral landscapes awaiting similar recognition?
Ko au te awa, submerged and sidelined for so long, is staging a comeback, and the “exchanges across realities” seem the obvious path for a country seeking to resolve the injustices and inequalities of the past. Old certainties, old prejudices, old fears are losing their grip. New modes of thinking and relating are taking their place.
The back cover of Tears of Rangi shows an archival photograph of a Whanganui woman weaving. Two skeins of flax lie in her hands, and she is plaiting them into a rope.
Anne Salmond has proved to be a tohunga raranga, too, showing how two strands of thinking and being from opposite sides of the world might be woven into an unbreakable cord.
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 non-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 contributing $5 or $10 a month.