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INDV307 Ancient East Polynesian Histories

Topics in ancient pre-contact Indigenous histories of selected East Polynesian societies, such as Aotearoa/New Zealand, Cook Islands and Hawai'i.

The focus of the paper is on traditional history from various peoples in East Polynesia. This history comprises the traditions recorded by different indigenous historians or outsiders who worked with them.

Various Islands will be chosen each year, but there will always be a particular focus on traditions drawn from various iwi in Aotearoa/New Zealand and from the Cook Islands, especially the Island of Mangaia.

Paper title Ancient East Polynesian Histories
Paper code INDV307
Subject Indigenous Development/He Kura Matanui
EFTS 0.1500
Points 18 points
Teaching period Second Semester
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $868.95
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $3,656.70

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18 200-level HIST, MOAR or PACI points
Schedule C
Arts and Music
Some background in History, Māori Studies or Pacific Islands Studies is preferable, equivalent to one 200-level paper in those subjects.
Tel 03 479 8674
Teaching staff
Professor Michael Reilly
Paper Structure
Week 1: Sources for ancient Indigenous histories
Identifies the sorts of sources used in presenting ancient Indigenous histories, such as stories, songs, sayings and genealogies. Asks what their strengths and limitations are as authentic historical sources.

Week 2: The relationship between oral tradition and written text
Discusses the issues around using orally transmitted traditions collected and frequently written down following the introduction of literacy to Polynesian societies during the 19th century. A look at individual collectors and recorders and the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars who recorded oral traditions in written form.

Week 3: Creation of the world and Island societies (1)
Spirit powers created the universe and continue to appear in and to influence human society. Examination of themes and metaphors found in selected creation stories, songs and chants.

Week 4: Creation of the world and Island societies (2)
Polynesian culture heroes, such as MÄui and TÄwhaki; island-specific heroes, like Ngaru of Mangaia. Their contribution as models and transformers of the social and cultural order.

Week 5: The nature of the early human era of Island societies
Typical key events may tell of important migrations, core ancestors from whom society descends and how the people of the land came into being.

Week 6: Social and cultural relationships (1)
Historical sources reveal the kinds of social structures that existed (families, clans, tribes and other kinds of collective associations, such as worshippers of a single spirit power or supporters of a particular leader). Historical narratives show how someone might call on their networks to harness them for building infrastructure, fighting in war or coming together for a concert, for example.

Week 7: Social and cultural relationships (2)
The dynamics of marriage and friendship; the relationships between men and women; fathers, mothers and their offspring; grandparents and grandchildren; masters and slaves; the manifold expressions of important human emotions, such as love and loss or hatred; moral and ethical values as expressed in behaviour.

Week 8: Spiritual and secular leadership (priests and chiefs)
Ancient Polynesian histories might be characterised as heroic ones in that they focus on the deeds of the social elite: the leaders of Island societies, usually divided into priests and chiefs. Tapu and mana are key organising concepts in such histories, along with other important metaphors of leadership. Related topics include the roles and contributions of male and female leaders; the complicated relationship between the two polarities of Polynesian leadership - that is, the sacred priests and the secular ruling chiefs.

Week 9: Looking after the land
Caring for the land and its prosperity is an important part of the work of any leader. It includes the performance of ritual, sound economic management, effective organisation, appropriate implementation of customary concepts such as possession, succession and boundary making, and dispute resolution.

Week 10: Maintaining peace
Peace was the ideal state of society aspired to. Looks at how it might be achieved and maintained. The importance of establishing multiple relationships, often through genealogical ties or personal friendships, were important to maintaining such a balance in society. Examples of leaders who were outstanding exponents of peace and its resulting prosperity for everyone.

Week 11: Making war
How warfare was practised in these societies, including what caused wars to begin, what kinds of tactics were used (ambush, open battle fields, assassinations, surprise attacks, sorcery), fighting weapons and practices and what objectives people fought for. Particular case studies will be looked at to illustrate these kinds of subjects.

Week 12: The arts of peace
Historical sources are filled with reference to the various peaceful arts, such as manufacturing of goods and their trade and distribution; the role of the expert; the diverse kinds of entertainments enjoyed during peaceful periods, including various kinds of sports and performing arts such as songs, dramas and other theatrical presentations to appreciative audiences.

Week 13: Drawing conclusions, reflecting on the nature of Indigenous histories
A general discussion based on weekly readings throughout the paper.
Readings will be listed in a course outline available on Blackboard.
Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Cultural understanding, Research, Teamwork.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes
Students who successfully complete the paper will be able to:
  • Demonstrate a deep knowledge of selected topics of Indigenous East Polynesian Island histories
  • Communicate about various topics of Indigenous East Polynesian Island histories as part of seminar discussions
  • Write extensively on a topic relating to the Indigenous histories of East Polynesia
  • Participate effectively in small-group discussions on selected historical readings
  • Reflect critically on the selected readings about Indigenous East Polynesian Island histories

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Second Semester

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system


Stream Days Times Weeks
L1 Wednesday 15:00-16:50 28-34, 36-41
Friday 13:00-14:50 28-34, 36-41