Review of "Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou - Struggle Without End"

Paul Moon
Auckland Institute of Technology

Deep South v.2 n.1 (Autumn, 1996)

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Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou - Struggle Without End

Ranginui Walker, 1990, Auckland: Penguin.

Over five years have now elapsed since the publishing of Professor Walker's major work on Maori and their historical development to the present time. This review considers the content of the book in the light of current developments in Maoridom.

The themes and subject matter of Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou move precariously between provoking the alienation and eliciting the sympathy of its readers. This reflects the dichotomous nature of the book, which attempts to transmit the distinct cultural imperatives of Maori in contemporary society and completely revise the historical perspectives of Aotearoa, while at the same time couching that presentation in the format of a book that is conventional in structure, predictable in its chronological sequencing, and presents little in the way of information that was not already available elsewhere. Consequently, the success of the book in portraying not only the essence of tikanga Maori, but also its current relevance and application hinges on a specific technique that Walker employs. This technique is to refer to actual historical events or processes, and draw from them cultural as well as the more obvious political implications.

Walker's overriding mission to promote a specific Maori kaupapa in his book, has, to some extent, adversely affected parts of the content, resulting in some sections of the text tilting towards the sort of stereotype Walker is so strenuously trying to avoid. For example, Walker cites a Maori concert party of the 1930s as presenting an image of Maori '...that Pakeha prefer to hold of their countrymen' (Walker, 1990, p. 96), and castigates the non-threatening stereotype this created. However, later in the book, Walker refers to the participation of Maori troops in the Second World War as having '...rekindled the fighting spirit of a warrior race' (Walker, 1990, p. 240). This sort of generalisation about a warrior race, while presenting an arguably more affirmative image, is none-the-less still portraying an ethnic stereotype. Furthermore, this representation of Maori has strong echoes of the patronising 'noble savage' images (Moorehead, 1987) of many nineteenth-century writers - something which Walker, in another part of the text, specifically denounces as being '...romanticised' (Walker, 1990, p.25).

There is a clear desire by Walker to validate Maori experiences in a European context in many parts of the book. For example, he states that Maori quickly acquired literacy in the nineteenth century because it was an extension of their symbolism contained in carvings. However, this claim ignores the developmental gap between carved symbols, or ideograms, and the 'phonetization' of symbols, that is, their direct association with a particular sound or sounds (Barber, 1972).

Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou can be divided into three main sections: the first deals with events prior to European intervention, and defines the world in a Maori context; the second section covers the mechanisms and consequences of British colonialism; and the third section reviews developments in the post-colonial period. The first section, which presents the metamorphosis of a distinct Maori culture from its Polynesian origins, and free from European contamination, sets the scene for the remainder of the book. However, it would be mistaken to see some of Walker's assertions as being valid for that entire monolith Europeans perceive Maori to be. For example, Walker's claim about the location of Hawaiki is rooted firmly in the iwi traditions of Ngapuhi, and would not find favour with any iwi south of Tainui (Sinclair, 1988). In this respect, iwi variations have been overridden in favour of the bigger themes the book pursues. All events subsequent to the Polynesian arrival in Aotearoa are seen as part of a continual strand of Maori cultural and historical evolution - an approach that is both beneficial and problematic. It is beneficial in that it has resulted in the production of a landmark general text which establishes a generally validated Maori viewpoint on the development of Aotearoa. In this area, the book has succeeded in extending the parameters of Maori analysis of Aotearoa, and largely frees itself from the constraints of conventional, colonised versions of the country's history. However, there are also problems with Walker's stance. First, Walker seems to have difficulty in defining his own position as either a reactionary, a revisionist, or a revolutionary. There are several parts of Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou which would support each of these positions. This is probably, in part, the result of the fact that the book enters new ground in cultural and historical analysis, particularly on such a large scale, and so there is seemingly a deliberate underlying theme of constant redefinition in order for the book to establish its 'independent' position. Thus, there is a need to variously react to existing situations, revise what are perceived as current inadequacies or misrepresentations in existing texts, and finally, especially in the third section of the book, to propose, or at least hint, at the importance of on-going struggle to overcome Pakeha political and economic dominance in Aotearoa. In this sense, the philosophy of the author has driven the shape of the book, as opposed to simply the information shaping the author's approach.

Allied to these fluctuations underlying the text is Walker's determination to take virtually no assumptions for granted. While this may be a safe route, it can give the impression of undermining the reader's own (and presumably informed) assessment of events. Incidents in the colonisation section relating particularly to Maori responses to European intervention, such as Kotahitanga and the King Movement for example, are presented almost as benchmarks by which all subsequent Maori actions are to be measured. While this fits comfortably with the evolutionary theme of the book, the references in the final section of the book to earlier events, as an attempt to either reinforce points or draw parallels (where they might not otherwise exist) is a bit laboured, detracts from the comparative importance of contemporary developments, as well as giving a sense that more recent events somehow lack the fortitude to stand alone. This is clearly not the case, but is a by-product of 'over-enforcing' the continuous generic Maori strand within the book in the face of what Walker sees to see the almost all-pervasive effects of European colonisation.

The title of the book, Struggle Without End, sums up precisely the central theme of the entire text: the Maori struggle against the adverse effects of colonialism and for a greater degree of autonomy. Practically every element in the book conforms quite closely to this theme. Walker successfully fuses a diverse range of events and historical developments with the purpose of presenting the reader with a cohesive argument in support of this continuing struggle for the assertion of an independent Maori identity, as though it were part of a lineage of struggles, which the book implies is the case. Although Walker has been clearly selective in his review of Maori development, this can be partly defended on the basis that the scope of his book is so broad, and that there are constraints of space which necessitate some sort of pruning. However, the nature of this selectivity could be questioned in view of the fact that almost all the book's content fits so conveniently around what is a fairly precise and seemingly exclusive theme.

Any book which so unashamedly challenges the broadly-held assumptions of a nation's history and cultural identity, and represents such a major departure from previous works covering the same periods, could be seen by culturally less-aware segments of the population as symbolising the extreme end of what has emerged as a Maori revisionist school. There is a risk here that the book produces a potential for subsequent cultural debate in Aotearoa to be confined by the boundaries set by the more orthodox texts on the one hand, and Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou on the other. Yet, in comparison with the pronouncements of others, Walker's book is strictly moderate. For example, Walker broadly endorses the present legal and education systems (notwithstanding major reservations he expresses about elements in each). Such a stance could hardly be described as radical. Walker's partial and sometimes hesitant endorsement of the general thrust of the current cultural marriage between Maori and Pakeha in Aotearoa has been overtaken by a more confrontational and occasionally revolutionary mood among some contemporary Maori activists, who go as far as to challenge the Crown's sovereignty and the Pakeha presence in Aotearoa. In this context, Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou offers at best a 'middle-of-the-road' Maori perspective yet one which still mananges to break down a substantial part of the existing edifice of literature in the history of Aotearoa.

Works cited:

Barber, C. L. (1972). The story of language. London: Penguin.

Moorehead, A. (1987). The fatal impact: The invasion of the South Pacific 1767 - 1840. Sydney: Mead and Beckett Publishing.

Sinclair, K. (1988). A History of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin.

Walker, R. (1990). Ka whawhai tonu matou - Struggle without end. Auckland: Penguin.

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