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Rediscovered images of Māori life are precious taonga

Recently retrieved documentary footage, images and documents of Māori life in the early 20th century are a treasure trove for future generations.

An emotional hui to welcome back Māori soldiers from the First World War is one of four extraordinary events recorded in the earliest days of documentary filmmaking in New Zealand and rarely seen since.
In another film, politician and scholar Sir Apirana Ngata leads an expedition of Māori and Pākehā to the East Coast to film the traditions and cultural practices of Ngāti Porou, mobilising an ambitious programme of Māori artistic, cultural and economic revitalisation.

A close focus on the film fragments, photographs sound recordings and written archives of these journeys, created in 1919, 1920, 1921 and 1923 by the Dominion Museum, is at the heart of a Marsden-funded research project which investigates how Sir Apirana Ngata, Te Rangihīroa (Sir Peter Buck) and others transformed outcomes for Māori in the early twentieth century.

Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond, leader of the project, has a highly personal involvement with this part of story. She is the great-granddaughter of James McDonald, the photographer and filmmaker — as well as the Dominion Museum’s acting director at the time — whose images have created a lasting cultural legacy for the film’s descendants.

Collaborators with Dame Anne on the project, Dr Billie Lythberg from the University’s Mira Szászy Research Centre and Faculty of Arts doctoral candidate, scholar and artist Natalie Robertson, say their research has taken them as far as Hawai‘i to recover, retrieve and digitise the valuable remaining documents and images from the Dominion Museum expeditions; an extraordinary journey of its own.

“These films and images weren’t restored until the 1980s,” says Natalie, “and they’re such a wonderful interweaving of the relationships that made them possible.”

She says that although for example, the 1923 film He Pito Whakaatu i te Noho a te Maori i te Tairawhiti Scenes of Māori Life on the East Coast, has been criticised for ‘ethnographic othering’ — in other words, viewing Māori through a Pākehā European lens — her research uncovered a different story.

“The fieldwork, from a Ngāti Porou perspective, was assisted and supported by local people. I was able to trace various relationships, through whakapapa or ‘kin networks’, of hosting and friendship between members of the documentary team and local people. These are what Apirana Ngata calls takiaho or “relational cords”, which are brought to light so that descendants can keep alive these connections through the remaining film fragments, and beyond the frame.”

Natalie’s PhD subject is the role of photography in ecological change in the Gisborne district’s Waiapu Valley, and she says some of these black and white images, of fish-netting practices for example, provide valuable clues for this generation about the area’s river and sea environments.

“It was an image taken in 1923 that probably seemed benign at the time, but which demonstrates the importance of the camera in this narrative,” says Natalie. “In 1923, James McDonald photographed what turned out to be the last ever recorded catch of upokororo, the New Zealand grayling, in the Waiapu River. At present, this fish is the only one to have legal protection in New Zealand, and it gained this only after becoming extinct.”

For her research, she drew on her whakapapa, community relationships, knowledge of place and tribal sources, as well as the 1923 diaries of Te Rangihīroa (Sir Peter Buck) and one of the Pākehā researchers on the expedition, Johannes Andersen, Chief Librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Billie Lythberg says the team was particularly delighted to uncover an unpublished document on Māori kinship written by Sir Apirana Ngata, in the archives of Te Rangihīroa at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

“We knew Ngata had written several tracts of what he intended to be a doctoral thesis on Māori social organisation, and that our colleague Wayne Ngata, part of Ngata’s extended whānau, had worked with some of this material for his own doctorate,” she says.

“The document in the Bishop Museum explores the terminology of whakapapa through allusions to meeting houses, weaving, twining and fishing techniques. We were able to reunite this manuscript with others from the Alexander Turnbull Library and the Ngata family collection, as well as an introduction from Dr Wayne Ngata about the value of this genealogical knowledge today, and publish a really rich text on whakapapa and its practical application.”

The research team believe these films and related material are a rich treasure trove from a cultural, historical and environmental point of view, and hope this project will make them more widely known and available as a valuable resource to all New Zealanders.

Key findings from this research have recently been published in a special edition of The Journal of the Polynesian Society including the Ngata manuscripts from the ATL and Bishop archives. Founded in 1892, The Polynesian Society is a non-profit organisation based at the University of Auckland, dedicated to the scholarly study of the history, ethnography, and mythology of Oceania.

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