The anthropologist and Al-Rodhan Prize-shortlisted author of Tears of Rangi, Dame Anne Salmond FBA, on Māori culture, turning a book into a documentary, and how ideas from New Zealand might just change the world.
Learning about Māori culture as a teenager was like discovering a new country in my own familiar landscapes.
When I was 16, I won an American Field Service scholarship to go to the United States and I knew that I’d have to talk about my country. My very first contact of any depth with Maori happened as a result. I realised there was a whole dimension to my own country, New Zealand, Aotearoa, which I had learnt very little about at school, a hidden extra dimension in the landscape. After that, I went to university and trained as an anthropologist because that’s where I could study the Māori language. I became friends with two Māori elders, Amiria and Eruera Stirling. Eruera was what we would call a tohunga, a tribal expert, and eventually he became my teacher.
Tears of Rangi asks how Māori and non-Māori in New Zealand first managed to forge relationships across gulfs of different assumptions about how the world works.
The book goes right back to the first close encounters between Maori and non-Maori in 1769-70, when Captain James Cook circumnavigated New Zealand. I also examine some very close relationships that were forged in the very early settlement period; for example, between a missionary called Thomas Kendall and an eminent fighting chief, Hongi Hika, who eventually came to Britain and met King George IV. How was it possible, when they had such radically different understandings of reality, for them to forge close relationships and work with each other?
In the Māori language, you talk about te ao Māori, the Māori world and te ao Pakeha, the non-Māori world. They’re seen as two different realities.
It’s an odd experience. One second you might be operating in a totally modernist way, and the next thing you find yourself in a situation where you’re speaking Māori, talking about things which, in a modernist understanding of reality, shouldn’t or couldn’t happen. That’s quite commonplace for people who speak Maori in New Zealand, for example. The subtitle of my book, ‘experiments across worlds’, refers to what happens if you take these different assumptions about how the world works and try to do something creative with them.
In schools and in public life now, the Māori part of our country’s legacy from the past is honoured
The very first book I wrote was about Māori ceremonial gatherings on marae, ancestral places where people carry out various rituals to do with life and death, talking about tribal matters. I wanted to share what happens on marae with other New Zealanders, because at that time, very few non-Māori New Zealanders spent time in those places. Now, it’s quite common for other New Zealanders to speak some Māori, to have a marae attached to a university or a school, and these rituals are carried out at the opening of major ceremonial events. That was not the case when I was young. Things have changed, and I guess my books have contributed to that transformation. It’s a fantastic change and one that is uncommon in settler societies.
Māori stories of how the world emerged reconcile really well with the stories of contemporary science
We’re lucky that we have an indigenous, local philosophy, that’s been formed out of an oceanic realm over millennia, which enables us to see the wider world in different ways. It gives me great hope that we can build on the work that we’re doing to take care of our rivers, the sea and the forests around us, to live with them in ways that allow us to flourish together. In New Zealand, we’ve become the first country in the world to recognise a river, the Whanganui River, as a legal being with its own rights and its own legal personality. I think that we’ll end up doing much more of that in future, because we’re learning that as human beings we’re part of wider systems, we don’t rule and dominate and control the planet.
If you look at the state of the world at present, new ways of thinking are needed.
Old logics split off mind and matter, people from environment, nature from culture. Those kinds of splits don’t exist in Māori philosophy and that enables us to think in new ways about how we can relate, for example, to rivers and the sea. Why not allow new thinking to emerge from this part of the world, which sometimes, from a European or American perspective, looks marginal? When things in the metropolitan centres are not working in ways that promise well for the future of humanity, new thinking has to come from somewhere. Why not from the heart of the world’s largest ocean?
For an anthropologist, it’s a stock in trade but also a personal passion to try and see how human beings can reach across gulfs of cultural difference
When I travelled to America as an AFS scholar, I was just a young kid from New Zealand and I remember sitting on the front lawn of the White House to hear President John Kennedy. He spoke to about 2,000 young people from all over the world and said: “The future is in your hands. The world doesn’t have to work the way it sometimes does, you can help make it better.” That was inspiring for a 17-year-old to hear. As an anthropologist, I study ideas that can set different groups of people at each other’s throats and aim to build bridges across those gulfs, coming up with understandings of the world that enable us to live well together – not just with other human beings, but also with other life forms.
Our scientific insights, without the human dimension, will not take us to good places
When you look at any of the great challenges facing humanity at the moment, climate change for instance, loss of biodiversity, degradation of the ocean, the wars that still erupt around the planet, all of these things emerge from human ideas and actions. It’s not the case that you can understand or do anything very sensible about them without understanding human dynamics.
At the base of all these challenges are decisions, values, ways of relating with each other, but also with the planet. It’s been one of the great failings of our education system, but also our political discourse, that young people now think that they don’t need the humanities in order to think intelligently about the future for themselves and their own children and grandchildren. That is manifestly not right.
I don’t really mind which medium reaches people – whatever it takes to get across the gulfs of misapprehension and misunderstanding.
I recently hosted a documentary series called Artefact in New Zealand, looking at many of the same themes as Tears of Rangi. It’s a delight to explore new media and reach people through new channels of communication; with the book, but also through television programmes that attract a really wide audience. The aim is just to reach out to people who might be making judgments about each other that are ill-informed or dismissive, and do each other damage. Whether you use television to bridge those gaps, or a speech, a book, or if you engage with people on different kinds of projects – if they work, it’s worthwhile.