Maori: A Photographic & Social History

My attention has been drawn to Pat Hohepa's review of Maori (Art New Zealand 29). I cannot help but conclude that his prior conviction that a 'white mind' cannot understand 'brown' history has required him to misunderstand or to misrepresent many features of the book. His specific conclusions are eccentric, right down to his last one that Maori was 'printed with care but written in a hurry'. In fact, as other reviewers have noted, the book was written over a long period of time but printed quickly and carelessly, to the detriment of much of the photographic quality.

The misunderstandings begin with his implication that the introduction sets out to offend Maori opinion. On the contrary, it is a careful revelation of what has upset Maori sensitivities in the past, written primarily for those who have no knowledge of such matters (coon humour and the like). Its object is to educate Pakeha readers and photographers about what is acceptable to Maori opinion by looking at what has not been acceptable in the past. To view this section in any other light seems mischievous.

Other problems arise when Maori informants provide information with which Dr Hohepa disagrees, and he uses this disagreement to suggest carelessness or insensitivity on the part of the author. The reference to a coffin being closed to end a tangi at Awhitu, for example, came from a woman whose family was in the photograph concerned, and that was their interpretation of what had happened. That is not to say that something else might not have occurred in other parts of the country. Indeed, I went to considerable lengths in the book to stress regional and tribal variations in Maori custom.

The worst examples of my alleged insensitivity that Dr Hohepa quotes are unfairly wrenched from context. My reference to a figure looking like an Aboriginal was not an aesthetic judgment ' it indicated my doubt about the authenticity of the photograph; the subjects who looked 'Indian or Eskimo' indicated a photographer who had been influenced by North American styles of arrangement and presentation; and so on. It is a simple matter to make comments sound foolish by isolating them.

As to the wider point Dr Hohepa raises, the peg on which he hangs his minor arguments, I cannot help but be aware that the opinion is sharply divided within Maoridom over whether or not Pakeha should research and write Maori history. Almost all my letters and expressions of support for Maori have come from Maori readers; most of those who have bought it to date seem to have been Maoris. As a Pakeha, it is inappropriate for me to suggest ways of resolving this conflict.

But I do note when I began writing history a decade ago, the cry of Maori radicals was that Pakeha historians were neglecting Maori history and ought not to be; that they were writing about Aotearoa as though the Maori ingredient did not exist. I was one who set out to redress this imbalance, and on at least two occasions had Dr Hohepa's cooperation. Now the cry coming through from the comparable group is that Pakeha ought to neglect Maori history.

I too am coming round to this view, because I respect Maori arguments in favour of Maori self determination, and because I don't want to initiate divisive controversies with people I like and respect. But I make no apologies for the previous things - films, features, books - I have done with Maori guidance. They needed to be done when they were done, and they were carried out with the full co-operation of Maori informants.