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‘Time & the Art of Maori Storytelling’ – Joan Metge

October 31, 2015

Discussing her early encounters with apparent ‘inconsistencies’ in the timing of Maori accounts of ancestors, Joan Metge wrote a really interesting piece challenging reader’s/listener’s assumptions. She explained: “Kupe, for example, gives sailing directions in the first person to Turi, who is many generations removed from him on the whakapapa. Where most scholars of the time interpreted these ‘inconsistencies’ as evidence that the Maori had no sense of history and the passage of time, Te Rangi Hiroa explained them as examples of a literary style which used the first person or oratio recta, even when ancestors belonged to different periods. The aim, he suggested, was to ensure the effective communication of information from generation to generation.” (p.3)

She observes that “Because the New Zealand islands underwent early separation and long isolation from other lands, their flora and fauna are botanically and zoologically distinctive, different from those of other Polynesian islands. The stories of the Children of Heaven and Earth, Maui and Tawhaki are supposedly set in Hawaiki before the migrations, yet all the trees, birds and fishes mentioned therein are most of the plants are identifiable, by their Maori name and characteristics, as species distinctive to new Zealand. [she lists various examples from Maui’s tales and discusses how this might work in storytelling]” (p.4)

“Myths never become out-of-date. Instead, they continue to provide a charter for existing social institutions, even in social change, and attempt to bring [-p.9] about a mediation of contemporary as well as ancient problems. Myths move with the times, because myths are for telling. If this is true for the myths, it is also true for other stories about the ‘doings of the ancestors’, including those presented before the Waitangi Tribunal. Western-trained historians understandably have problems handing such material. Some take the extreme position that it falls outside the realm of history, into that of myth. Others are willing to recognise that Maori have their own scholarly approach to history, including their own ways of testing reliability and validity. While the Maori approach differs from the Western one in significant ways, knowledge of its conventions would open up access to information at present locked away in code as it were. I hope that this study of ‘time and the art of Maori storytelling’ will help historians to recognise and allow for the processes of updating and localisation at work in oral evidence.” (pp.8-9)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Joan Metge (1998) Time & the art of Maori’ storytelling. New Zealand Studies 8(1), pp.3-9

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