Kennedy Warne, a co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, on how the cultural sleep was rubbed from his eyes.
Though it was more than a quarter of a century ago, I still remember the day I began to wake up.
It was 1989. New Zealand Geographic, the magazine I co-founded and edited with the publisher, John Woods, was less than a year old. One of our photographers, Arno Gasteiger, had produced a set of evocative images of the Spirits Bay — Cape Reinga area, and I was keen to publish them.
I had pictures, but no text. Who could write words that would catch the essence of that spiritually charged landscape — the leaping place of the departed?
Arno had a name: Saana Murray. She was a poet, an elder of Ngāti Kuri, the tribe of that place, and a keeper of the long-burning fires of her people.
After some phoning around, I found that she was in Otara, staying with the family of one of her 13 children. I drove to the house and showed her the photographs and asked if she would be willing to write something. What she wrote was up to her, I said. I wanted the words to support, but not explain, the pictures. Above all, I wanted to capture the spirit.
Saana agreed. Then, nervously and apologetically — deadlines were looming; deadlines were always looming — I asked how soon she could deliver the text. What she told me I have never forgotten. “I cannot write anything here,” she said. “I will have to go to the land.”
She said it as if she were stating the obvious. Yet it was the first time I had heard such a thing: that words about the land required the presence of the land. That knowledge was inseparable from its context.
For someone steeped in scientific thinking — a mindset in which knowledge is a commodity, endlessly transferable — it was a challenging thought. For a moment, the fabric of my fact-based worldview started to fray, and I caught a glimpse of another country.
I‘ve come to learn that this is the country Māori inhabit. In the Māori worldview, context is vital. Knowledge is not disembodied information but part of a living matrix of encounters and relationships, past and present, natural and spiritual.
Saana cared deeply about Māori knowledge, and she asserted that the tangata whenua are its rightful and necessary custodians. She believed that the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed the custodianship of Māori things by Māori people, and it pained her that that guarantee had not been honoured. Yet Saana never stopped believing in the Treaty. “I was born to the tune of the Tiriti of Waitangi,” she wrote. It was a tune she would sing all her life.
A spirit’s flight
Two years after we published the Spirits Bay story, Saana and five other iwi representatives lodged the Wai 262 “flora and fauna” claim with the Waitangi Tribunal. It was a claim, among other things, about Māori control of Māori intellectual property. When, after 20 years of research and deliberation, the tribunal delivered its report in 2011, Saana was the only one of the original claimants still alive to read it.
Then, later that year, she passed, too.
I heard the news while driving to the Bay of Islands. It was already the last day of the tangi, and she was to be buried that afternoon at Spirits Bay. There was little chance I would get there in time, but I wanted to pay my respects to a woman whose influence I had felt for 20 years. So I kept driving.
It was dark when I arrived at te muri o te motu. As I’d expected, the tangi was over. The place seemed deserted. Then I heard dance music and children’s laughter and the clink of bottles coming from a small marquee surrounded by a clutch of cars and caravans. I walked over.
“I’m looking for the whanau of Saana Murray,” I said.
“You’ve found it. Come and join us for a beer.”
I sat in the tent with a smoked trevally and a Lion Red and listened as one of the granddaughters-in-law told me about Saana’s passing. Saana had felt, at long last, that her work for the iwi was done. She had fought her battles and could rest now. So when the latest bout of illness came, she let herself be taken. Hers was a completed life. How many of the living achieve such closure at death?
I knew about a few of her battles. When her own mother lay dying, she had asked Saana to promise that she would endeavour to “retrieve the land and ratify the Treaty.” Land and Treaty became the wellsprings of Saana’s energy and passion. For 40 years she pleaded her people’s cause to politicians, ombudsmen, governors-general, talkshow hosts, judges, even the secretary-general of the United Nations.
She once joked that she’d go down in history as “the Great Objector.” She objected to the Europeanisation of her people. She objected to Pākehā trampling of the Treaty. She objected to “laws with claws like parasites, devouring my human rights.”
One of her battles was over sand — specifically the dazzling white sands at the entrance to Parengarenga Harbour, the raw material of New Zealand glass manufacture. The dunes were Ngāti Kuri land. A century of mining and dredging had left the dunes scarred, vegetation damaged and kai moana smothered. Saana fought to stop her people’s land being sucked away for Pākehā profit. She prevailed, and today the dunes lie unmolested, glittering in the sun.
“She’s buried on the hill over there,” one of the whānau told me. “You can go up if you want.”
In the dark, I followed the path which led to a tiny urupa. Just four graves. It was a path Saana would have walked often, for her own son is buried there. Saana’s plot was mounded up with sand and covered with flowers, kete and keepsakes. Jammed into the middle of it was a young tī kōuka. Its long leaves were rattling in the wind — a quiet anthem of the north.
The moon was up and the surf was glowing in its light. The scene was uncannily similar to the opening photograph of our Spirits Bay story, two decades earlier, in which a solitary white bird soars across a wide expanse of sea. I had entitled the story “A spirit’s flight”. Those words sat well in my mind as I bade farewell to another spirit, flying away home.
A forecourt marae
On my way back south that night, something happened that, in its way, was as emphatic as anything I learned from Saana. It was another small awakening from the long sleep of Pākehā-centric thought.
I was driving the coast road through Doubtless Bay, and my fuel gauge was way past empty. In my haste to get to the tangi, I hadn’t filled up, expecting that there’d be at least one petrol station in the Far North open at night. Fat chance. By the time I got to Kaeo, I knew I wasn’t going to make it much further. No worries, I thought. I’ll find a rest area and sleep under the HiLux till morning.
Then I spotted a truck stop with a card reader. I drove in to see if the antiquated machine would recognise my credit card. It clicked and whirred and spat my card back out. Transaction error. I tried two or three more times, then gave up.
I was about to drive off to look for a spot to sleep when a fish delivery truck pulled in. The driver had a fuel card that would work in the machine, and I asked if he would mind putting $30 of diesel in my vehicle after he’d filled his, and I’d give him cash for it.
He nodded and, while he was filling up, I started telling him why I was in the north and the history I’d had with Saana and why I didn’t want to let the opportunity pass by. He didn’t say much, just listened while the Pākehā said what was on his mind.
He hung up the nozzle and I held out my hand with the bills. He looked at me and said: “Put your money away.”
That’s all he said, but I felt as if I’d been jolted by a live wire. It was another glimpse into the Māori world, another wake-up call. There are times when money has no place and no importance. At that fuel stop in Kaeo, two strangers were holding their own tangi. That forecourt was our marae.
Soul of the forest
A year later I was in Te Urewera, writing about Tūhoe’s long walk towards justice and having a little more cultural sleep rubbed out of my eyes.
One night, at Clifford and Kuini Akuhata’s house at Waimana, some whānau were explaining the meaning of matemateaone. It was a feeling of being wrapped and cocooned by the earth, one of them said. Like being privy to the yearning that Ranginui, the sky father, feels for Papatūānuku, the earth mother from whom he is eternally separated.
“It’s like being in a spell,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m walking in the forest I get the taste of Papatūānuku on my palate. There’s a sudden sense of sweetness. ‘Hmmm,’ you think. ‘What’s that?’ It’s no particular flower or plant. It’s just the taste of health. Other times, at night, the sky can feel like an ocean of stars and you seem to have stepped off the edge of the earth. You’re dizzy, but you don’t want the experience to stop. It’s too special.”
I had felt those very things in the Urewera forests. Once, at midnight, I stepped outside a hut on a high ridge and almost stumbled with vertigo. The stars were thicker than I’d ever seen — great clusters of light spangling the sky — while immense trees thrust upwards to greet them.
At dawn, I walked to a bluff with a view of mist-wreathed valleys and listened to kōkako, the soul of the forest, the bird that Tūhoe say mediates between wairua time and people time. Kōkako seem not to simply sing their notes, but send them into the world as gifts, painting the forest with song, drawing the listener into the music.
In such times, the curtain between natural and supernatural feels thin, like a membrane allowing passage from one side to the other. The more I get to know te ao Māori, the thinner that membrane seems to get.
It’s an idea that sits awkwardly in the Western worldview, but comfortably in the Māori one. Physical and spiritual are children of the same parents. Intimations from beyond are known, expected and trusted — though less so today than in the past, when Pākehā thinking had yet to erode Māori cosmology. Te Kooti, whose presence is often felt in the hills of Te Urewera, was one who “lived by the omens of the sky, thunder and the rainbow, and waited for the time that they told,” wrote Judith Binney, one of our historians.
I had an inkling of that, coming back from possum trapping with Maynard Apiata and two of his sons, up the Whakatane River. As we walked our horses across shallow streams, the iron of the horseshoes ringing on the smooth river stones, I was sure I heard a babble of voices behind me. I looked over my shoulder several times, scanning the steep bluffs that rose on all sides, but saw no one. But the sounds seemed unmistakeable, and I wondered what battles might have been fought here, and who had travelled these river roads generations before, and what ghost band of hunters or hunted was making its presence known.
Tūhoe take this sort of experience in their stride, incorporating it into a life narrative that interweaves many ways of knowing.
And, really, this is what Saana Murray showed me all those years ago, when she said she had to go to the place where the knowledge belongs.
I’m pushing 60. It’s taken me most of my life to wake up and start to learn what Saana was on about. But hers is a catchy tune, and it’s the one I want to sing.