Thinking with your own ink – and baby dragons

Well, 2017 has been a rocky one so far.  Over a few short months I have been quite literally hands-on performing an autopsy on our pet horse (my first and hopefully only time), seen the last of my side of the family leave town, started psychoactive drugs for paralysing nerve pain that I then found was being caused by (only) an abscessed wisdom tooth for the last 9 months, been in a car crash that ended in a write-off for our car and nearly a fight in the street in front of my family, and been in the thick of it for a very, very public emergency at work while my boss has been talking since February about disestablishing my job.  And that’s only the highlights.

So I’m making pictures of cartoon dragons and having a damn good time doing it.


Picture is courtesy of my 7yo’s artistry (the one on the left hand side).  Yes, my 3d rendering and design is laughable from a technical pov, but I have only been learning Blender for a couple of weeks.  And I’m happy to post this embarrassing pic because at this stage of “the curse of 2017” I just don’t care anymore.  As I tell my daughter, “no you’re not bad at this, you’re just a beginner”.

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Māori ‘tattoo writing’

February 6th was Waitangi Day in New Zealand.  It is both a celebrated national holiday and day of protest, a way to discuss old issues … and possibly raise new ones:

But that’s why it is a source of pride for kiwis (New Zealanders).  As one news commentator said this year – many other national days are bland and boring – at least ours is a chance for a real, up-front (and non-violent) look at our national identity!

And the most important forum of the day is a verbal one.  The Māori culture is an ‘oral’ culture, and also one that puts as much energy into protocol as the average Victorian-era dinner party host.  While the surface conversations may seem silly to an outsider – who will/won’t or can/can’t stand and talk where, or at which stage of which meeting on which specific day – there is a huge undercurrent about what these arrangements say about the relationship, and the attitude between those involved.  Sense and Sensibility Antipodean style.

This post is not about that type of detail.  Needless to say, the reason for Waitangi Day is to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and most (not all) Maori tribes in New Zealand in 1840.  The common, modern, description of the Treaty is about ‘partnership’ between the Crown and Māori in decision-making, ‘participation’ to empower Māori communities, and ‘protection’ by giving Māori the rights of British people and giving them the right to practice their own culture.  The way that (again… most, not all!) Māori tribes agreed to this Treaty was by signing one of nine documents that were sent around the country.

This type of signature was clearly fairly new to many of the Maori chiefs.  While many of them had by then begun to learn English, many ‘signed’ the Treaty with a drawing of their ‘moko’, their facial tattoo.


From – signatures gathered from Ngāti Porou chiefs in the East Coast of New Zealand.

It is normal to talk about Māori culture being an “oral” one.  True enough, but it begs the question about what is a “language”?  The Maori moko was a written language, one that others could use to identify the ‘whakapapa’ (lineage) of the bearer, and one that was good enough to translate to a signature. You could say the same about the elaborate carvings of the marae (meeting house).

Here is a famous signature, the unfinished moko of the Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha.  So much more than a simple English scrawl, the drawing shows the care and importance the man placed in the act of transferring a part of himself onto a page.

Below is a link to an interesting paper about the use of moko as signature.  It’s well worth a flick through.

Quote from the paper (cited as Henare 2007 – see references): “The moko mark was consideholy and binding, because it was taken from the skin of the head, believed to be the most sacred part of a leader’s body.  The ‘tohu’ or sign, was the recognised signature of the leader… Subsequent generations of descendants of the signatories would refer to such moko marks as ‘taonga tapu’, a most sacred treasure and commitment.”

That quote says so much about the intersection between the British and the Maori, coming from very different worldviews but arriving at basically the same result.  It’s a shame some people on both sides still refuse to see each others’ perspectives, but as long as we can really “get it all out in the open” in a forum like Waitangi Day, there’s hope for the country yet.

Ki tō ringa ki ngā rākau ā te Pākeha? – Drawings and signatures of moko by Māori in the early 19th Century – Ngārino Ellis, University of Auckland: 


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Tarawera eruption – phantom canoe? Part 2 of 2

A group of Maori, and two boatloads of European tourists see a mysterious canoe on Lake Tarawera.  Although the tourists think little of it, the local Maori see it as an omen of evil.  Around a week later, Mt Tarawera erupts, devastating the area and destroying the Pink and White Terraces.  Later reports talk in depth about the significance of the “Tarawera phantom canoe.”

So what is the harm in a “very pretty and poetical conceit”, or the “prodigies of fancy… to have seen this or any other portent that affords .. comfort in the retrospect”, as the Otago Witness newspaper reported after the event?

As I mentioned in the first post on this topic, I want to look at how this legend is being developed over time.  The clear trend is for reports to move towards the sensational, and there is enough ambiguity and misreporting of the event itself to see how this story is moving from the vaguely interesting to the purely mythical.

(part 1 – if you missed it: Tarawera eruption – phantom canoe? Part 1 of 2)

This is a myth that is supported by official agencies as well, basically because it seems to be a “pretty and poetical conceit” that ties in nicely with general New Zealand perception of Maori identity.  Take the NZ government website Te Ara.  Its section on the Tarawera Phantom Canoe states the canoe had a “ghostly outline in the morning mists”, with a “double row of occupants… wrapped in flax robes, their heads bowed and.. their hair plumed as for death with the feathers of the huia and the white heron.”  Where did that come from? clearly not from the eyewitness reports.  Although Mrs Sise states there was morning mist on the water, other eyewitnesses were at pains to say that the sky was clear, without “the least obscurity in the atmosphere.”  Also, the reports from the Europeans in both boats said they were around half a mile – one kilometre – from the “phantom canoe”, not anywhere near enough to see clothing or anything else significant, other than whether those on the canoe were standing or sitting.

Some of the reporting can be put down to pure romanticism.  The Auckland Art Gallery has the famous artwork by Kennett Watkins entitled ‘The Phantom canoe: a legend of Lake Tarawera’, and explains the factual inaccuracies in terms of artistic license.  “Although the spectre was seen in broad daylight, Watkins presents it in a dramatic nocturnal setting illuminated by a full moon amidst billowing clouds, foreshadowing the volcanic blast to come.”

… incremental steps that build up to a NZ mythology. To be blunt, if it was a reported UFO we would have no issue of complicit credulity. The fact that looking into this myth in some way (and in a way literally) could be seen as intruding on Maori cultural values… that complicates things. Traditional Maori oral culture had no reason to make a distinction between the scientific and the supernatural, or between factual recollection and artistic licence. But to treat reports of Maori myth and storytelling as the same as attempts at objective eye-witness reporting is just lazy. Worse, in my view it discredits the Maori culture. I’m not sure if the 19th Century reporters, or today’s websites view the Maori account as a “prescientific” perspective or if they feel Maori views on events as somehow outside the bounds of rational analysis, but either view is patronizing.

Yes, before Maori learned of the scientific method they believed in psychics, ghosts and fairies, and you can say the same thing about any other culture on earth, including the British. But to think that somehow the myths (e.g. of taniwhas or St George’s dragon or UFOs) are therefore out of bounds of scientific reasoning is absurd – even if members of that culture still believe in and/or prefer the myths.

This is an understanding that seems to have gone out the window when official sources report on the experience of the Maori guide Sophia Hinerangi, who hailed the phantom canoe. Guide Sophia’s account of the incident seemed to get more and more elaborate over time, to the degree that she was reporting that the canoe actually grew and shrank to hold from one to thirteen people, that it was being paddled faster than humanly possible, that it disappeared into the waters of the lake, and – most significantly – that those on the boats actually had dog’s heads on the bodies of men. This seems to have been first reported – in the media – in a 1929 Evening Post letter to the editor, a quote which seems to have come from a 1904 book by EL Massey on the Tarawera eruption.

Again, I need to contrast this with the actual eyewitness interviews given at the time – that a canoe was a kilometre away (too far away to see clothing or detail), filled with about nine humans (some of whom stood up), and that the group watched the boat until it took another channel from the tour boats and was obscured by a headland.

Sophia was a regular tourist guide for rich Europeans, obviously used to marketing the Tarawera area. She was clearly aware of the impact of romantic Maori cultural myths on credulous tourists, and her story went through many iterations over the years (apparently R.F Keam talks about this in his book on Tarawera). Also, as a famous Maori “prophet”, and as one of the key figures in providing shelter and welfare in the community during the eruptions, she would have been frequently asked to talk about the “phantom canoe” story.

The fact is the European tourists didn’t see anything untoward on the canoe, and reported that it was actually too far away to see anything much at all. The reports of the canoe growing and shrinking and disappearing are clearly wrong, and even if Sophia – using her psychic powers – did see dog-headed men in the canoe in 1886, there is no suggestion she said anything about it to either the tourist group or to someone she knew and respected more than a boatload of spoiled tourists – like the hotelier McRae. Also, she recovered enough from the nightmarish vision to lead other tour groups onto the lake less than a week later and make jokes about a Maori myth of a phantom canoe (without mentioning her own recent vision).

Despite all this, the official stories about the “phantom canoe” tend towards the sensational. Why? Well, of course, if you’re skim-reading a story about a ghost ship sighting what will you remember – whether the eye-witnesses reported clear sky vs a sheen of morning mist, or the fact that the phantom rowers had the heads of dogs! No mention of what the two boatloads of people reported seeing – the second-/third-/fourth-hand account of Sophia’s 10 year old recollections are now used as evidence for what everyone saw that day.

NZ History online – “phantom canoe appeared with a sole paddler. The canoe grew bigger.. and boasted a crew of 13, each of whom had a dog’s head. The ghostly waka then shrank and disappeared.”

Auckland Museum – “a ghostly war canoe sailing past, its paddlers dressed for a funeral – some with the heads of dogs!”

Worst of all – in my opinion – is a learning resource from the NZ national museum Te Papa. In a schools resource on Sophia’s ‘Hei Tiki’ (carved greenstone necklace). Question three for students: “What is another word for ‘premonition’? Think back on the story of Guide Sophia’s premonition. What do you think the single person in the waka becoming 13 people with ‘dog-like heads’ signified?”  There’s no hint about the students questioning the accuracy of the prediction or the correctness.  Students are asked to talk about themes and symbolism, while breathlessly accepting the ‘historical’ myth that has now replaced the actual events.
Oh, and according to our national museum, psychics exist.  What happened to scientific analysis, or at least evidence-based research?  You’re a museum for Christ’s sake! [irony intended].  No, I don’t accept giving a “free pass” to this myth because it relates to Maori cultural tropes, or because it is a ‘harmless’ story with a useful moral, or because there are precious little shared cultural narratives in post-colonial NZ, or because it lends perspective and gives interest to a vague historical disaster, or because it “affords comfort in the retrospect”.
Why is it reported this way?  Clearly because “we” – as a catch-all word for people in NZ in general – want it to be true.  It is a neat little story to explain an otherwise tragic event.  It is an easily digested tale about the hubris of British and European scientific imperialism in the face of a romanticised version of the Maori cultural worldview.
It gives us the comfort of perspective that – while natural disasters may tear these shaky islands apart every once and a while – that we can have some kind of warning.  That’s why we love the stories of children or village elders who herd their families to the top of a hill before a tsunami, or a mysterious psychic prophet foretelling an earthquake or volcano.
It is also why we place such faith in scientists and why when this faith is misplaced – in the case of Ken Ring’s self-promotion, or in the case of ESR selectively warning the Christchurch public about the risk of damaging aftershocks – that the public backlash and venom is so intense.  We feel betrayed because accepting that people do not have some strange power to predict danger (or abuse the power) means we have to accept our vulnerabilities in the face of unimaginable forces that have the power to literally change the landscape around us.
So rather than accept our own humility through pre-scientific or trans-scientific faith, why can’t we accept our own humility through scientific awe at the unbelievable power and mystery of nature?  Or are we so superficial that we are only able to glimpse the majesty of the world through the vague and blurry story of a dog-faced ghost?

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Tarawera eruption – phantom canoe? Part 1 of 2

This post is about a famous – in New Zealand – story surrounding the Tarawera Eruption, the event that also destroyed the Pink and White Terraces.  This story is etched into the New Zealand psyche, so much that I did not feel the need to explain the basics at the beginning of this post.  Nearly any Kiwi will be well-versed in this legend.

If you are from outside NZ or if you are a New Zealander who has not heard this particular legend, the Wikipedia link above will give you an overview.

Our liking for vivid sensations explains, in part, the tendency to supplement terrors that are real by the prodigies of fancy. Wairoa Maoris chiefly, who, having since lost their all, are clearly entitled to have seen this or any other portent that affords them comfort in the retrospect.  No one can deny that the phantom canoe, manned by shadowy warriors fleeing across the mysterious lake from their burial place on Tarawera Mountain, threatened by volcanic fires, is a very pretty and poetical conceit which does the Maori imagination credit.  It is somewhat startling, however, to learn that the apparition was also beheld by a party of well-known European tourists.”

Sober, old-fashioned paternalistic racism in the article, but from a writer who clearly had respect (of a kind) for Maori traditions in relation to recent tragedy.  Unfortunately, apart from the dated prose, this quote also sums up the attitude the NZ public has about this event today.

I’m a skeptic.  I know there’s a romantic, literary appeal to think a group of tourists and guides saw a mysterious ancestral canoe just over a week before the eruption of Tarawera, but my first reaction is to want to find out the ‘Truth’ (capital ‘T’) about the event. I’m one of the crazy folk who think there’s no difference between the claim that the tourists saw a phantom Maori war canoe in Tarawera a week before the 1886 eruption, and the claim that Ken Ring predicted the Christchurch earthquake.  Both need to be investigated on their merits alone, and personally (I know it’s not a popular opinion) I think both claims disrespect the people involved in the event and the later disaster if we accept them out of hand.

The stories of the phantom canoe began the day after the 1886 eruption. Journalists interviewed some of the tourists, and in a way the story has stayed consistent. Tourists and their Maori guides saw what they reported as a war canoe gliding along the lake, and the occupants didn’t reply to the shouts of the Maori guides who were with the tourists. The canoe disappeared in the direction of the old burial site in Tarawera and some of the local Maori said it was clearly a supernatural omen of bad luck because no war canoe was known to be in the region.

Over the next couple of days, more stories came out that verified some of the claims and added more information. Yes, they were crossing the lake in two boats with a well-known guide named Sophia. The canoe was definitely a double-headed canoe and the paddlers were clearly distinguished.  G L Sise – in an interview specifically about the “phantom canoe”stories that had been printed from 11-17 June – stated that he was in a canoe and said he saw nine (“not thirteen”) people, three of them stood up while the tourist group watched, and Sise saw the flash of three paddles on the visible side, but he also said that since the craft was half a mile or so away it was impossible “to ascertain whether they were clothed or not, and their was absolutely nothing en evidence to show that they were warriers.  They might have been apple-women or nurse-girls.”

Other reports attempted to clarify the earlier stories. The group was on their way to Rotomahana from Wairoa, the morning was bright and clear with no clouds “or the least obscurity in the atmosphere.” The canoe went parallel to them, apparently racing and the crew were standing and paddling. The boat did not disappear as has been previously reported, the ship was lost to view as they passed down a different arm of the lake. The local hotelier of the Wairoa hotel for the last 17 years, Mr McRae, could testify to the Maori guide claims that there was no canoe like that anywhere in the district.

Another statement in the same story is that “at first they counted eleven men in her, and afterwards not more than three.” This sounds to me like lazy, vague writing – I have no idea what the reporter was implying or what the reporter was trying to get across – but I’ll explain later how this statement could lend weight to the other, supernatural, direction that some people took the story.

There seems to be some agreement that the sighting was on the 31st March, but even a week or so after the event there are differing opinions. Take the well-known Maori guide Sophia who hailed the “phantom canoe” and will be the key to the next hundred+ years of this story. A woman tourist from Cambridge who took a trip to the Pink and White Terraces on 3rd of June said Sophia acted concerned and was clearly worried about the volcanic activity (i.e. the sound coming from the Devil’s Hole). However, another tourist who travelled on the same (Wairoa to Rotomahana) canoe trip on 7th June said the Maori boatmen and Sophia were “in the highest spirits”, and that Sophia not only didn’t mention the phantom canoe, but also made “some laughing allusion.. to such an apparition in days gone by.”

But why would Sophia be inclined to say anything to a bunch of foreign tourists she was steering around in a lake for a day, even if she was worried about an omen of death (more about that later)?  She is on record as having said something to a colleague she knew closely.  Sometime before a story on 11th September 1886, The “writer of sketches of the New Wonderland in the NZ Herald” says Sophia told him (the writer) that after the boat trip on 31st May she discussed the omen with the hotelier McRae, saying “I shall not make many more trips to the terraces… I feel that something is going to happen – I know not what, but this I do know, I shall not go much oftener to the terraces.”

It is clear by now isn’t it… what this boat trip represents.  In one small gift-wrapped morsel – connected with one of the worst natural disasters in post-colonial history –  it describes the clash of credulity (faith) and logic (close-mindedness).  Not only that, but the key to this story is somewhere in the thicket of 19th Century (and modern-day) Maori and NZ European culture.

Crowded in the boat is a bunch of rich NZ European tourists, out for a jaunt to the Lakes for a holiday.  They are patronising and critical of the Maori guides.  In the words of the reporter interviewing Mr G L Sise:

“they [the Maori locals] were in a state of abject superstitious terror [due to recent tribal conflict, death of an elder and the volcanic activity], and were prepared for anything marvellous from a mermaid to a banshee. The boat in which they were traversing the lake was the boat of the dead and decaying chief and on board was an ancient harridan who crooned dismally during the passage… [after the sighting the Maori guides made] the cheerful announcement ‘we all die to-day’. Sise thinks it was a ‘got up arrangement’ – a ‘put up job’ on the part of the tohunga.”

Crammed in the same boat with the rich white tourists are the Maori locals.  These include a respected guide (Sophia) who already had a reputation for clairvoyance.  They lived and worked in an area with a supernatural history and were scared for their lives and their livelihoods because there had been waves, noises and volcanic activity recently that weren’t like anything they had come across.

This post is getting long and it is really one long setup for what I really want to talk about – the fact that the myth has developed over time.

More than that, I want to question whether it should develop.  As you can see, there’s agreement from everyone who was there for a memorable and compelling story.  But human nature makes us want more.  Less than twenty years will pass from the date of the sighting before the story is changed even more.  Artists will show a stormy, foggy night rather than a bright, calm Monday morning.  Years later Sophia will say the boat travelled at superhuman speed, the warrior paddlers had “dogs heads on the bodies of men…”, the boat disappeared into thin air…

And this is in the official record in NZ government, museum and historical sites – sites that report more what the myth became, not what was reported as seen at the time.  Because of the mystery and romance of the story, this story is moving into legend, and the habit is to add, and emphasise the supernatural, whether it’s mist and a stormy night (rather than a calm, bright morning), or dog-headed men.  That’s what I think is worrying, to choose to throw away all the other possible explanations for the sake of romance.

Should we go along with treating this as a supernatural story because it “affords comfort in the retrospect”?  How would we feel if someone made a claim to seeing dog-headed ghosts before 9/11 or the Christchurch Earthquake?

Read Part 2 of this article Tarawera eruption – phantom canoe? Part 2 of 2