About 15 months ago I began work as Museums Wellington’s first Curator Māori. I was pretty excited for many reasons: love of history and Wellington; curiosity to know more about Wellington’s Māori history; the many possibilities I could see for improvement in how we (as a city) remember our Māori stories. How you feel about these topics depends where you are on the vast spectrum of different kinds of local people. I am local now, but not as local as those born and bred here. I have ancestral connections here, but not in a way that means I have mana whenua in this place. In comparison with some, I know a bit about the history of this area; in comparison with others, I know hardly anything at all. But I am always keen to understand these things better, so I figure that’s a good place to start.
The confusing and conflicting histories of Wellington are not just legendary to some who work in this area, but also to some who come from here*. In a post like this, of few words and less-than-deep analysis, I won’t try to lay out the reasons for this, suffice to say the process of colonisation has been so lengthy and disruptive you need a shovel and several decades to get down to the bottom of it, no matter where you are. What I do want to write about in this post is layers, and whakapapa, and invisibility.
Although most of us know whakapapa generally means genealogy, a literal translation is ‘to place in layers’, and so when I talk about the whakapapa of this place I am referring to both the genealogical connections and the layers of history. Researching the history of Wellington, it is immediately apparent that there are multitudes of layers, some thicker than others, and some more visible.
Last week my ‘research assistant’ (daughter) and I drove around the sites of Te Ara o Ngā Tupuna – a meandering heritage trail around Wellington’s beautiful coastline, to explore the historic Pā sites. I have read about these places, and been to some of them, but the stories and the places had not coalesced until I made a focused study of them. Anyone can follow the trail as described by the WCC pamphlet. The inner city sites should be walked – these are the ones I’m most familiar with. From Matairangi (Mt Victoria lookout) onwards, it’s better to bike or drive – these are the sites we explored last week.
Some places are easily spotted and well-designated by carved pou and signage, while others are easily missed. Some are simply rocky spots on the shore with a story attached to them about kāinga or pā or burial sites that can no longer be seen. ‘I wouldn’t like to live on a burial site,’ my research assistant declared at what we figured must be Taipakupaku Point. I had to agree, it wasn’t the best idea, but we spent some time there by the water anyway, just enjoying the sound of the sea washing gently over the rocks. The ocean was wonderfully clear, and watching it for a while was meditative. Any sign of ancient habitation or burial lay dormant beneath the exceedingly nice and exceedingly expensive homes that now grace the south coast. These also obscure another history which can still be discerned among the most recent habitations of the area: baches and old fishermen’s houses, many fully renovated, suggestive of another era.
In Seatoun extensive signage at Te Turanga a Kupe (the great standing place of Kupe) and Kirikiritatangi told us about the area and how to find Oruaiti Pā. These are the places of the very first arrival of our Pacific ancestors to this area and some of the earliest settlements. It was exciting to follow their footsteps. At last a walk! We were ready, but first a turn on the most excellent local playground. Important research for curators and their research assistants. The shoreline and coastal track were an easy walk, well-maintained and planted, but so littered with dog poo that the rank smell was almost overwhelming. To our right, brand new houses. Further around, a ‘flash’ looking school (in research assistant parlance). The trail would take us higher up to an extraordinary view of the ocean and land for many miles around. No wonder the tupuna built their fortified homes here. Signs of military use were apparent below the pā.
Returning to the carpark we were treated again to what I had dubbed ‘Te Ara a ngā Tūtae’ (The Path of the Poos). Some equation was trying to form in my head between the flash houses now to my left, and the neglect of what should have been a beautiful and significant path. Logically there is no direct correlation, but the scene could not be ignored. The uppermost layer of this particular site was scattered with excrement that no one bothered to clear. I wondered if it was a local or imported problem. And then I wondered if anyone who lived in this ‘new’ neighbourhood was related in anyway to the mana whenua of this place – the many layers of indigenous groups who had originally made their homes here. The housing suggested to me a level of income that would make that improbable, though though not impossible. I imagined it more likely that Māori existed in this place on signs or landmarks only – an earlier layer. I don’t know if I was right in any of these thoughts, but these were the thoughts that came, discomforting as they are. On to Te Mapunga Kainga and the view of Tapu te Ranga, then. The ocean and cleansing winds.
Curating Māori Wellington is often a disquieting process. You look for clues, find evidence, or can’t see what you set out to find. You see things you’d rather not see and have to raise your hand and say ‘Hey, have we considered this?’ or ‘Why is it like that?’ It’s an incomplete process, a start-at-the-beginning process (but first you have to find the beginning). It’s a little bit like following Te Ara o Nga Tupuna: I am glad it’s there, grateful for the work WCC and their team have put into making the historical material available. But there are gaps in the story, gaps in the whakapapa, and questions around current care and status. There are always more questions than answers. These are the same issues we face as Māori curators. Kaitiakitanga – what are our responsibilities? We have a lot of work to do. In a future post, I may find room to get into the specifics of that!
I am sure that I took more photos on our exploration of Te Ara o Ngā Tupuna than I found in my camera today as I uploaded images for this blog post, but I quite like this reminder of things that happen occasionally when you work with Māori history. There are things you cannot know or can’t have access to until the time is right. Some invisibility is imposed, and some is willful or chosen. When the time is right for you to see, you’ll see. Maybe you just have to go there yourselves. It’s worth the trip.
Amazing local Māori history resources are available at Wellington City Library:
* There are people who know the history of this area and its stories well. They are our taonga and we’re grateful to have them in our communities. However, I’ve encountered many who have a similar experience to me: our local history is a puzzle we are slowly piecing together with the sneaking suspicion some of the pieces have been mislaid, although they might be found years in the future under a couch cushion or in the wrong cupboard.