Shouldn’t a pākehā know more Māori history?

Waka welcome the replica of the Endeavour to Meretoto. Photo: Matt Brown.

Last month, a national celebration took place – Tuia 250 – commemorating 250 years since Captain James Cook with Tahitian navigator Tupaia first came to Aotearoa. Reporter Matt Brown was lucky enough to be part of the historic event.

The event was billed as an opportunity to hold honest conversations about the past, the present and how we navigate our shared future.

But as the searing Marlborough sun turned my pasty, pākehā skin red and local iwi officially welcomed the guests with haka and speeches, I realised I wasn’t particularly well equipped for the conversation.

I don’t speak Māori.

Travelling to the remote bay in the Marlborough Sounds, children from Omaka Marae singing waiata, the excitement in the air was palpable.

And as the masts of the tall ships appeared on the horizon and dolphins leapt through the water alongside, the sun glittering on the water, I found myself reflecting on the contrast of the Māori people’s connection with the past, and my almost complete disconnect.

Now, I can’t say I’ve spent all that much time thinking about Captain Cook, but I admit I was a wee bit surprised when the Endeavour replica was given the moniker, ‘Death Ship’, in mainstream news.

My history education is sorely lacking, and in small-town, South Island, rural Blenheim – I was brought up to believe Cook was one of the last great explorers. And perhaps, despite his shortcomings, he was.

250 years ago, Captain James Cook sailed into Meretoto, or Ships Cove, to perform repairs to his ship, the Endeavour.

Cook loved the spot so much he effectively made the spot his base of operations – spending more time there than anywhere else in New Zealand.

And on the surface, that was the gist of the celebrations – 250 years ago white dudes ‘discovered’ New Zealand.

There’s so much more than that.

Prior to Tuia 250, I didn’t know who Tupaia was.

I may not have been listening in class – or maybe I was one of the rare teenagers who was correct when I said I thought school was not the be all and end all.

For those who are in my boat, or ship as it were, Tupaia is the single reason Captain Cook’s voyage was successful.

Interpreter and liaison, high priest and skilled navigator in his own right, Tupaia was able to calm waters between the English ‘goblins’ and the native Māori people and created bonds of friendship and respect.

It is little wonder that iwi lamented when, on subsequent voyages, they learned of his death.

The event was moving, the location magical – but in translation, something is always lost.

I asked Omaka Marae manager Kiley Nepia how he thought Marlborough would look in 50 years.

He told me he hoped it had “browned up” by then.

Reflecting on my cultural identity, or lack thereof, I hope he’s right.

Watching people from the various tribes of Marlborough, I was struck by how history is a living thing. To them, the wounds of the past are still raw because the past isn’t an abstract thing.

Fifty years from now, at Tuia 300, I hope not only for more cultural diversity but the casual racism endemic to the region be but a distant memory.

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