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.
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: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/docs/Volume123/JPS_123_1_02.pdf