The Great Migration

Jennifer Lee '99 (English 27, Spring '97)

Go, return on your canoes,
To Great Hawaiiki, to Long Hawaiiki to Hawaiiki of the Great Distance,
To the Gathering Place of the Spirits

The arrival of the Maori to Aotearoa (today New Zealand) is one of the basic tenets of Maori culture. As the story goes, the Maori came to Aotearoa from their homeland, the mythical Hawaiiki (most likely Ra'iatea or Tahiti) in three waves of migration. The first to discover Aotearoa was the ancient navigator Kupe from Ra'iatea who happened upon the islands accidentally, while in pursuit of a giant octopus. Then, eight generations later, Toi and his grandson Whatonga came from Tahiti to be the first settlers. But it is the third great migration which reverberates throughout Maori oral tradition - the arrival of a "great fleet" of seven canoes and some of the most illustrious Maori chiefs and most noble genealogies in Aotearoa.

When the chiefs landed, they spread out across the two islands, carving out territories for themselves. Eventually, their descendants organized themselves into loose associations of tribes named after the canoe, or waka, that their founding ancestor had arrived in. And although not all present day waka trace their origins to the original colonizers, the Maori have based their structure of socio-political organization upon the existence of this third migration. In a larger sense, the coming of the Maori is the story of the creation of a collective Maori identity. It is an essential part of what it is to be Maori.

So how much does it matter if anthropologists such as Allan Hanson claim that "The image of the Maori culture that developed around the turn of the 20th century was constructed in the main by scholars who were predisposed to analyze institutions in terms of long-distance migrations, and who cherished the political desire to assimilate Maoris to Pakeha culture?" The answer is not at all. As the world has evolved since the turn of the 20th century, so have the people living in it. And although anthropologists have been accused of portraying aspects of Maori culture as timeless, Hanson does not make the same mistake. He points out that the Maori cultural awareness movement, Maoritanga, has had an active role in reconstructing the Maori reality to suit its own interests:

Its [Maoritanga] image of the future New Zealand is a bicultural society, in which Maoris are on a par with Pakehas politically and economically and Maori culture is respected as equally valid but distinct from Pakeha culture. To promote that image, it is necessary to stress the unique contribution that Maori culture has made to national life - different from but no less valuable than the Pakeha contribution. Thus, the Maori tradition that Maoritanga invents is one that contrasts with Pakeha culture, and particularly with those elements of Pakeha culture that are least attractive.

Therefore, it does not matter whether the great migration was a conscious European creation, as Hanson believes, or not. What matters is that the Maori have embraced it as their own history, incorporated it into their socio-political structure, and use it as a means of unifying their community. And that is not all. The Maori, through such movements as Maoritanga, have not only adopted Pakeha beliefs to suit their own needs, they have used Pakeha culture as a springboard from which they redefine their own culture in a constantly changing environment. In the end, the goal of Maoritanga is to maintain a strict biculturalism to oppose the rushing tide of assimilation. Therefore, it is ironic that in accepting the myth of creation and emphasizing their traditions the Maori are defining their identity in terms of an "enemy" culture. In other words, "Maori traditions are reified and essentialized, while paradoxically, their objectification and reinterpretation takes place principally in opposition to a stereotypical representation of European values, largely because a major goal of the discourse of tradition is to counter European domination.

Postcolonial Overview Australia New Zealand

Last modified 2 December 2001.
Thanks to Blair Morgans of New Zealand for correcting a spelling error.