A week ago today I was winding my way back to Wellington after an invigorating couple of days in the heart of Waikato-Maniapoto for our Kāhui Kaitiaki hui. The three days were what they always are, reaffirming. As a wahine Māori working in a museum, it can be a hard role considering the colonial construct that museums are. I’ll get to that again later, but one point that resonates is memory. When mana whenua take you to farmlands that were once their pā sites and they show you how their history has been forcefully erased, you feel a resolution that you must continue to fight for that history to be heard. To fight for Māori history, and advocate for mātauranga Māori to be defined by Māori. The walls of the museum are not just physical, they are philosophical, and Kāhui Kaitiaki hui are a reminder that our people, and our knowledge, are not bound by walls. In the words of Ahumai (ehara ko Rewi!): E kore e mau te rongo, ka whawhai tonu mātou mō ake, ake, ake tonu atu!
The post-Te Māori years saw a flush of Māori enter museums to care for their own taonga for the first time, a move that was met with the relief of a rebalance. Thirty years on and the kaupapa of a hui for Māori working in museums is about self-care. The kaupapa was selected after the previous hui saw the sharing of heavy kōrero about people’s workplace experiences. What does this say about our sector if this is how kaitiaki feel? And yet, we come together and sing and laugh. We hear history told from our perspectives, we are shown art interpreted by our worldviews, we share whakapapa and see how linked we really are. We talk about whānau members recently lost, those who held and advocated for mātauranga Māori. Kua hiki te wairua.
We are told hilarious stories of the old days while lying together in a whare resplendent in the kōrero of a Ngāti Apakura hapū – this is micro history at its finest. We are taken to land, marked by an inauspicious sign, in which atrocious events took place and histories have had roads run right through them. The land, Ōrākau, on which tīpuna from my iwi joined the fighting, where so many Tūhoe were led to death that a manawa wera was composed for the returning rangatira, Te Whenuanui, that challenged: “Ka hoki mai a Te Whenuanui ki te aha?” At Ōrākau I think of a pūtatara, Te Umukohukohu, that will be used in a forthcoming art exhibition as a wero to the visitors about the histories they are about to encounter. I wonder whether or not its inclusion is doing its history justice. Being at Orākau lifts history from the intangible to the heartbreakingly tangible. Hearing what took place there, and in other sites nearby, made those museum walls I mentioned earlier feel stifling.
Te Umukohukohu was gifted to a governor in 1906, prior to this it had been in Te Whenuanui’s whānau for six generations and he is quoted as saying that it was played before he went into battle but that it hadn’t been played since 1866. If Te Umukohukohu had borne witness to the events of Ōrākau and elsewhere, who am I to include it in an art exhibition? This is a continual struggle faced by kaitiaki, balancing the need to have our histories told by us with needing to ensure they are handled properly. Our hui are the perfect places to share this sort of kōrero, to whakawhiti kōrero with people who understand what it means to work with taonga that you can feel the weight of.
And so we continued on our day and headed to the Ruakurī caves, a site that had acknowledged the way in which it had mishandled a sensitive history and endeavoured to redress it. At the caves, you walk a spiral ramp down about six floors, where each floor is lit by candle-like lights. The atmosphere bordered on religious. As we descended, we sang Pōkarekare Ana, our voices filling the cavern with our language. Kua hiki te wairua.
Our taonga, our people, our language, our mātauranga, they provide us with pathways to healing. Te Umukohukohu was present at sites of unimaginable destruction and its presence in the museum, that it forces us to remember, helps to reconcile my choice to include it in the exhibition. The mnemonic nature of taonga Māori are a constant reminder that, despite so much of our history being undermined, ignored and erased, the events happened. They happened and it is our right, as kaitiaki, and broadly as Māori, to continue to tell them.
Māku e tuku atu he mihi nui whakahirahira ki te mana whenua whānui o Waikato-Maniapoto mō ō koutou āwhina mai i a mātou o te Kāhui Kaitiaki. Nā mātou te hōnore.
He mihi anō ki ngā kaitiaki katoa i roto i ngā whare taonga o te motu, ka whawhai tonu mātou!
Ki ngā tāngata e mahi ana i ngā wāhi kē, i reira e whakapiki ake i te mātauranga, hītori, kōrero Māori hoki, he mihi kau ana hoki ki a koutou katoa.