Story: King, Michael

Writing Māori history

Michael King, with his 1983 book Māori: a photographic and social history. King produced a series of books about Māori history between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, hoping to educate the non-Māori public and to expand the scholarship on Māori subjects. He withdrew from the field following complaints by some Māori that Pākehā should be leaving Māori to tell their own stories.

In this 1978 radio debate, King and activist Syd Jackson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou) present different perspectives on whether Pākehā like King should be writing Māori history.

Announcer 

A biography of Te Puea by Michael King has aroused deep interest among many Māoris because of its frankness in relating aspects of Te Puea’s life, and the many incidents that happened during her lifetime. However, the book has caused some concern to some people. The most outspoken critic of the biography has been Syd Jackson, but Syd’s adamant that he’s directing his criticism, not against the subject of the book, but rather against the author, who happens to be a Pākehā. Syd Jackson maintains that this sort of work should be carried out by Māoris. In the Mana newspaper, Syd made a scathing attack against Pākehās writing about Māoris. Checkpoint invited both Syd Jackson and Michael King to discuss the question of a European writing about things Māori. Dennis Reich asked Syd Jackson what he had against Pākehā writers producing books on Māori culture, and Māori history.

Syd Jackson 

Well, I think most importantly, I see it as a question, another question of self-determination. I see that there is a need for our people to determine our destinies in whatever field of concern it may be for us, and in particular, in this aspect, I think that there is a need for us to develop writers, to develop people with the competence, with the ability, with the experience, to do research of this kind, because I believe that only in this way, will we get the best possible stories told, and stories which reflect, truly, the viewpoint of own people, and I don’t think that as a general criticism that this can be done by Pākehās.

Dennis Reich 

Michael King.

Michael King 

I agree completely with Syd that this is desirable, that this should be done, but the point I would make, and make very strongly, is that there simply aren’t enough people in the field at the moment, and if you consider waiting until an army of Māori researchers and writers and historians is ready to go into the field, then you’re probably waiting another 10, 20, 30 years. I think in the meantime, it’s very important that anyone who is sympathetic and interested and qualified and prepared to do these things should get out in the field and do them now.

Syd Jackson 

Well, I think that there are in fact many Māoris who are competent and qualified to do the research now, and I think what we need is support and pressure from Pākehās, and particularly Pākehās such as Michael who are interested, who are concerned, and who are, to a degree, involved, to assist us in giving these people the assistance and support that they need to do this work. Now, I believe, for example, that there were people, if I could speak specifically about Te Puea, there were people, both within Waikato itself, and within Māoridom generally, who could have been and would have been quite prepared, and who would have been more than competent to do that particular work. What we need is support from the liberals and the conservative Pākehās who are bound to help us do these things.

Michael King 

Well Syd, if we can use that one as an example, I don’t just do it because I’m sensitive, but because I do think we can illustrate the general point. I got into that book, as you know, because over 10 years I’ve known the people who became the sources. If I hadn’t done it then, it could never have been done, because since it began Pei Te Hurinui has died, Mick Jones has died, Piri Poutapu has died and so on, and a lot of other people’s memories are failing, and I only did it for that reason. Now, if there was anybody else, Māori in particular, who was lined up wanting to do that book, and prepared to do it, I never saw any evidence of it. Bob Mahuta who didn’t want to, Polly Hopa didn’t want to, you know, who were these people? I wouldn’t like to have thought I stood in anybody’s way.

Syd Jackson 

Well, I think that are other graduates both within Waikato and other tribes who would have been, and who should have been, offered as a first option, the chance to do this work. We are, in fact, the people who are being written about. We are the people who, I believe, are most competent to write those works about us. Now, you know, we have a situation that is humorously remarked upon in the United States, where the nuclear American Indian family consists of mum, dad, four children and a visiting anthropologist. We’re concerned that that same kind of situation doesn’t arise in New Zealand, because we do have all kinds of people setting themselves up as experts, and writing material about us, a lot of which is blatantly untrue. Now, if you can go back to Elsdon Best, for example, who was looked upon as one of the foremost ethnologists on traditional Māori society, and you can look at the writings of Sir George Grey, and you can see the both of them were influenced to a large degree, Grey because of a false sense of propriety, particularly in the creation myth, and Best, because he must have been one of the biggest racists this country has known, by their own personal attitudes, and this intrudes on their writings, but nevertheless, they come to be accepted as the experts on us, and they’re not.

Michael King 

Syd, yes, I don’t think you can just use that purely ethnic argument. It’s like saying that Kiri Te Kanawa or Īnia Te Wīata could not do an Italian opera, or that Sam Karetu could not speak, cannot teach French or German, or that George Hēnare cannot do a Noel Coward musical, all because they’re Māori, you know, what’s important is not the ethnic background, but the person’s exposure to the culture that they are becoming involved in, in a professional way, and the extent to which they get into it, and work at it.

Syd Jackson 

If I can hark back to a thesis which I myself wrote on Māori politics in the Eastern Māori electorate, one of the most important comments that I received from people to whom I spoke was that, ‘thank Christ it’s a Māori doing this research, because we’re sick and tired of having Pākehās coming and looking over us and in writing books about us.’ I think that’s a very strong feeling amongst our people. I know of many cases where Māori respondents have divulged very little, or only a part of what they know, to Pākehā writers, whether they be historians or anthropologists, with the result that what is written is quite different from the reality. And if we want good research, then we must have respondents, and we must have writers who are sympathetic, who fully appreciate the cultural and other differences which do exist, and who will recognise them, more importantly.

Michael King 

Syd, but you will know there’s another side to that, in that if you’re Māori you may be a tribal person, you may be viewed tribally, and you know, the other side is that people like Koro Dewes had greatest difficulty going into Waikato and wanting to do a thesis on a Waikato topic, because their attitude was, ‘Who is this man who doesn’t belong here? Why isn’t he back doing this with his own people?’ And that, you know, at the moment, you’re speaking about Māori as Māori, whereas a lot of people will speak of Māori as a person from a particular tribe, and I say in mitigation, that one of the advantages that some Pākehā researchers have had, is that they have not been seen in a tribal way, so they haven’t been hamstrung by that particular aspect of diplomacy.

Dennis Reich 

Syd Jackson, in the last analysis, would you rather lose aspects of Māori culture, and have them forgotten altogether, rather than see Europeans carry on the research in the short term?

Syd Jackson 

Well, I don’t believe that they will be lost altogether, because I think the trend away from that possibility has long since vanished. I believe that we have the right to say who will write our history, and to have a Māori viewpoint reflected by our people, writing things as we ourselves see them, and I think that can be best and most adequately done by our own people

Dennis Reich 

Is the output likely to be different in the end, then?

Syd Jackson 

I consider that it will be, if we look at some of the other literature that has been written, and I think you can see gross deficiencies in the research which has been done, primarily because, I think, of the shortcomings of the researchers involved, and if that is the case, and I believe it is, and if as an alternative to that we provide our own people, to do this research, I believe that the output will be far better.

Michael King 

Alright, Syd, I go along with that completely, provided the people do come forward, you know, one can immediately produce a list of 30 Māoris about whom biographies should be written, you know, instantaneously, they should be begun over the next year, and I think it’s very important that we discuss about this with a view to producing those people and not just to stopping Pākehās doing it, because a net reflect [sic] could then be that nobody does these things, you know, I think we’ve got to pool our resources, and if anything, Syd, you know, we turn around and we face the enemy, and the enemy is the person who doesn’t want Māori viewpoints to be heard, and who doesn’t want them emphasised, and that’s certainly not you and me.

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How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips. 'King, Michael', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6k3/king-michael (accessed 2 June 2023)