It is in the situational and socio-political contexts in which the ‘possession’ of these canoes, cloaks, weapons, and ornaments has changed, and in the behaviour of their human co-actants, that one can detect the meanings that may be inferred from their actions. Amongst the actions-and-meanings described or implied in their life history narratives are:
1. They are made from stone, wood and/or fibre/feathers – all products of the natural world and connected via it to the gods whose domain ‘te āo tūroa’ (the natural world) they originated from.
2. Through their manufacture and use they display traditional practices, reinforcing relationships with past times, people and situations.
3. They are launched on their trajectories with a name, often conferred by the maker – whose name may be soon forgotten – but the naming confers potential agency on the object.
4. Each may function as a tohu (sign) by which individuals can be recognised (Certain cloaks, mere, ornaments and canoes are associated with particular persons or families).
5. When given or used they emphasise the rangatiratanga of the giver or user, and thus also display respect for the recipient (the donor and recipient in most transactions recorded have been high ranking).
6. They display mana and are status symbols (they are worn/used on ceremonial occasions by high status persons).
7. They appear at important occasions such as in ‘life crisis’ situations – ‘births deaths and marriages’ – where the formation or nurturing of alliances occurs.
8. They may protect the person of the owner or recipient by ‘wrapping’ their mana (on particular auspicious occasions chiefs or brides may wear multiple cloaks, or greenstone ornaments, or chiefs may protect captured enemies by covering them with their kākahu, for example).
9. They have efficacy in situations where they are associated with persons, things and actions (important cloaks may be used to wrap or enhance gifts or transacted items; important weapons may be used to determine the omens prior to battle, for example).
10. In their turn they are enveloped by korero that reiterates their exploits and valorises them as it does also for their current owners.
Documented anecdotal evidence is also available regarding their agentive efficacy in war and peace and in various critical times in the lives of their human associates. That ‘inanimate’ objects can have agency in the sense of being able to carry out deliberate actions or to respond to the actions of others is a contentious issue which will be discussed in the last part of this section, but in order to prepare for such a theoretical discussion I set out some empirical evidence that this form of agency is at least a perception, and a concept that enters into the Māori world-view. These objects can be seen and felt to have certain effects, and the effects are thus interpreted to originate from them, or from the gods and ancestors operating through them as
instantiations. This phenomenon is by no means restricted to the three cases used here as examples.
The mere Tuhiwai is named for the action ‘to strike the water’ and is supposed to have been used thus by Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toa to predict the possible outcomes of his decision-making in wartime. After being presented to him by Te Mātenga Taiaroa of Ngāi Tahu at Kapiti in 1843, Tuhiwai passed on Te Rauparaha’s death to his daughter Karoraina, and then to her descendants, the Wineera family. Two other kinds of responsive actions have been attributed to it. Tuhiwai is said to sometimes change colour when a member of the Wineera family dies,
(www.collections.tepapa.govt.nz, 23/3/10), and prior to its being gifted to the Dominion Museum, Tuhiwai, when kept at the Ngāti Toa pā in Porirua, had the reputation of moving about, for which reason it was kept under the verandah rather than in the house. The late Paeroa Wineera is reported to have said “ It would be found halfway under the house every time we looked for it. We called it ‘the one who walks’”. (rangiatea.natlib.govt.nz/TeRauparaha, 23/3/10). Likewise the mere of Te Rauparaha’s uncle, Te Aratangata, shattered as he ran out of the pā during the first battle of Kaiapoi where he was killed. He interpreted this as foreshadowing his own death. There are two stories about the reason it shattered. Tiniraupeka said also that Aratangata had killed a woman with it, and because of this polluted its tapu – hence the response of shattering (1943: 46-64). In a similar vein, the dogskin cloak, Te Mamae o Pareraututu (the pain of Pareraututu) was returned home from the Auckland
museum to her Te Arawa people after more than a century of moving in different contextual environments and amongst different people. The widow, Pareraututu, had woven the cloak which now bears her name and is seen to embody her being. The journey home, and the responses of her people have been documented and interpreted by Paul Tapsell, whose moving description of the welcome-home clearly indicates the way in which ‘she’ is seen as having agency:
…when almost everyone had left the exhibition space, that the koro was finally able to reunite himself with his kuia. I watched the tall old man quietly collapse to his knees in front of Pareraututu. With great reverence he leaned forward and completed the hongi with his great grandmother. A lifetime of energy abandoned him and tears rolled down his cheeks onto the cloak as his family helped lift him back to his feet… (Tapsell, 1997: 343)[my emphasis]
Furthermore, together with the korero and karakia in which she is ‘wrapped’, Pareraututu is seen as ‘doing something’– something efficacious – because in certain situations, including life crisis situations, such as being presented as kōpaki
(‘wrappings’or grave goods) at tangihanga (funerals) she “help(s) refocus the descendants, their ancestors and lands back into one tribal identity” (ibid: 345). One could add further, that she also embodies the utu, which her maker sought when she sat on Tūkorehu’s marae seeking his assistance in having her grandfather’s head returned after the conflict with Tūhoe. The head was returned to the ancestral mountain, Tarawera, and the Waikato chief was able to broker a peace between Te Arawa and Tūhoe (ibid: 348), which is further evidence of her agency. Therefore, like Tuhiwai, Pareraututu has, in her life trajectory, acquired multiple experiences and korero (stories), which could be considered to confer on her, ‘layers of meaning’. Her mauri and her efficacy as an agent have thus been enhanced with changes in time, place and human connections.
Thirdly, Te Maungārongo, originally Te Rangipurewa’s hei tiki, displays a further aspect of agency that is evident in all of the tāonga examined thus far. This is its name; “Te Maungārongo” means ‘lasting peace’. When one considers the role that it has played in all the recorded transactions where it has acted, peacemaking appears to have remained its agentive function, regardless of whom the transactions were between, and whatever additional meanings they had. Te Rauparaha was presented with a slave girl who was wearing it, and he was ‘moved by the sincerity of the gesture’ into releasing Te Pukekōhatu’s captive relative as utu
(collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object 23/3/10). Therefore, in this case as with Tuhiwai, the name of the tāonga reflects its intended or perceived agency. As the two preceding cases suggest, this would be enhanced by the accumulating kōrero about its name and actions. Te Maungārongo ended up being sold in the European exchange system, and this would seem to suggest a lack of understanding or regard, for the intention that its presentation to Governor Bowen had for the Ngāti Maniapoto and Waikato people who gave it. It is just this kind of disjuncture between ‘world-views’ and knowledge systems that is being considered in this thesis. On this occasion such ignorance did not lead to a particular incident of physical violence, but obviously the ongoing structural violence of colonialism was implicated.
Thus examination of a variety of primary sources, including unpublished accounts of associated iwi members and hunga tiaki (guardians), as well as early ethnographic archives and publications associated with the various tāonga, has
revealed the range of ways in which they have changed hands, and how these transfers have been understood by generations of Māori people into whose lives they have entered. Oral histories and early European and Māori narratives – often several accounts of the same incidents – have been used to help interpret the meanings of these transfers between people, places, and times. Acceptance is now eventuating, that indigenous interpretations of tāonga, when laid alongside, and incorporated into them, can add another perspective to the academic understanding of objects in many ‘other’ societies. A number of authors (eg. Reed, 2007: 42) in the collection of Hēnare et al. (2007) have acknowledged that for some peoples, one physically identical item can change its significance when it passes between worlds of signification, as in the cases I have just described. Like the persons whom Marilyn Strathern describes as having multiple identities, so can objects have multiple identities different parts of which can be mobilised depending upon the assemblages, associations and situations they are occupying at the time (cf. Strathern, 1991: 25-7). It is this adaptive and polymorphic identity that gives people and things, separately and as actant assemblages, a more potent agency than they would have if their identity were fixed and unchanging (Latour, 1999; Strathern, 1991). Furthermore, Hēnare, Reed, Pedersen, Leach and Holbraad (in A. Hēnare et. al, 2007) have each documented further examples supporting the view that in some societies, things may be understood to have an agency that “does not originate from humans” (Reed, 2007: 42). This adds complexity
to their agency in actant assemblages, and allows them the possibility of contributing to a reconfiguration of cultural schemas as people may do (Wilkes, 2008:16).
Following Hēnare (2007:16-19)I see ‘things’ as capable of being used heuristically by anthropologists because that is how they operate in the worlds of some of our ‘others’, including Māori. In contrast with Godelier’s view that “a gift object does not move without reason [or]… of its own accord [and is] always set in motion by human will” (1999: 102-5), I take the view that Māori people (and others who choose to) may live, sometimes simultaneously, in ‘real’ worlds, imaginary worlds, and alternative cultural worlds as Vivieros de Castro has suggested(2004). Hēnare has said “these ‘different worlds’ are not [necessarily] to be found in some forgotten corner of our own … [and] alterity can quite properly be thought of as a property of things – things, that is, which are concepts as much as they appear to us as ‘material’ or physical entities” (2007: 10-13). Sometimes Māori people may not distinguish between these worlds whilst living their lives. What is true for them, is true for them, and if in certain circumstances some of them perceive that ‘things’ can be set in motion of their own accord, or respond to circumstances by changing colour, then the social effect will be the same, whether this is real to a Westerner or not. I repeat, “ … things are what they have become” (Thomas, 1991: 4). They are invested with meaning from the layers they have acquired in the course of their lives, which changes them with time and experience. In some peoples’ worlds they actually have become what they once symbolised. If a Catholic woman actually ‘sees’ the statue of Mary crying, then that is what she experiences. It is real to her and she responds accordingly. I have therefore stated before, that the agency of the ‘thing’ may include the agency of the giver and vice versa, but in the Māori world a ‘thing’ may also be considered to have a separate agentive force of its own (Tapsell, 1997: 362; Tcherkézoff, 2002: 28; Wilkes, 2006: 35; Hēnare 2007: 47-8). Tapsell described how a cloak for example, is made by a female artist who is seen as “fulfilling the creativity of the atua (god)”. She then gives it to the kin-group “under whose mana it is controlled”. It becomes imbued with the mana and tapu of those who have worn it. It may “eventually become [a] physical representation of the collective identity” (1997: 362) and may even be seen as the ancestor:
… the koro [old man] was finally able to reunite himself with his kuia (grandmother/old lady/great grandmother). I watched the tall old man quietly collapse to his knees in front of Pareraututu. With great reverence he leaned forward and completed his hongi with his great grandmother. A lifetime of energy abandoned him and tears rolled own his cheeks onto the cloak as his family helped lift him back to his feet… (Tapsell, 1997: 343).
To Māori, ‘things’ in some situations, may be actors in transactions as much as their human counterparts are, and one of the properties of things is that they may also be concepts “as much as they appear to us as ‘material’ or ‘physical’ entities”
(Hēnare, 2007: 13). In this interpretation they contain the concept (usually more than one concept), and usually act together with people. What remains is to show how this might be understood theoretically.
The approaches of Marilyn Strathern and Amiria Hēnare provide some theoretical insights. Referring to the Mt Hagen people of Papua-New Guinea, Strathern famously remarked that “women are like tradestores”, because a woman is both a “repository of nurture from her kin” and ‘‘repository of nurture due to her kin in return” and she thus benefits the relationship between her relatives (1996: 127). In some ways she has the properties of a ‘thing’/commodity and the exercise of power is dependent on who is able to control the flow of this wealth (ibid: 517-9). Viewing humans as ‘things’ or commodities could also be seen as applying in some situations to Māori. One could say that people can be ‘things’ and things can be like ‘people’ in the Māori world, and the circumstances for this are situational. Hēnare writes:
A tāonga might equally be a historic whalebone weapon, the Māori language, a native plant, a body of knowledge; distinctions between the material and the ephemeral are not relevant here. Nor are ideas about animate versus inanimate entities; women and children may be exchanged as tāonga, and tāonga such as woven cloaks are often held as ancestors or instantiations of ancestral effect (2007: 47).
Strathern acknowledges Latour’s project of describing actor-networks where human/nonhuman hybrids act, but says that she wants to “extend them with social imagination”, using them to think about Coppet’s ‘Are’are (Solomon Island) people who are both ‘dividuals’, i.e. ‘divided’ persons and ‘hybrids’. At death they become separated into three different elements: the body, produced by nurture (eaten as taro), breath, (taken away in slaughtered pigs), and image, (which becomes an ancestor who endures). “A human being is… conceived of as an aggregation of relations”. Non- human substitutes exist for each of these forms: taro for body, pigs for body & breath, and shell beads for ancestral image. Events are marked with the exchange of shell
beads, which “builds up a person as a composite of past transactions with diverse others”, and when death occurs there is one last series of exchanges which stops the flow. Thus ’Are’are social relations are condensed into things as well as people, and things have some of the properties of people, who are equated in some of their properties with taro and pigs (1996: 525-7). That ‘things’ in the Māori world may have identity and agentive force in the formation of social relationships thus seems to be possible, considering the parallels in Polynesia.
Therefore, I have shown in this section, from the archival and published documentation – Māori and European – that objects of Māori provenance that have been transacted intra-iwi, inter-iwi and with Europeans, have an agentive force that can be attributed to their life trajectories and the fact that they embody the social relationships between humans, gods, the natural world and conceptual understandings of these. Included in these relationships and understandings that tāonga and other ‘things’ embody, are actions in which they have participated. The conceptual understandings of what these ‘things’ and ‘actions’ embody have changed over time according to how the recipients of the objects have related their stories, sometimes deliberately inaccurately, or mistakenly, and especially inter-culturally. This has sometimes led to contested outcomes during transactions, some of them violent in nature. In a sense, as each object has participated in a transfer of ‘ownership’ or other ‘action’, it has become part of an entirely different social assemblage, and has thus become a different ‘thing’, differently understood in its new context. The following section examines the implications of this issue.