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Documenting cultural significance through films

Fearing that tikanga Māori was going to be lost with so many deaths during World War 1 and from the Spanish flu, Sir Apirana Ngata initiated the Dominion Museum ethnological expeditions in 1919.

These expeditions spanned the North Island, documenting moments of cultural significance within the Māori community through film, wax cylinder recordings, and photography.

During World War 1, 18,000 Kiwis died in two months, quickly followed by 9000 dying from the Spanish flu.

Sir Apirana watched many kaumatua and tohunga who held a lot of knowledge of Māori culture and practice die, and decided that something needed to be done to capture this knowledge before it was lost.

He wrote to Internal Affairs to ask them to use the technology they had, to record and photograph Māori hui.

The first of these expeditions was held in Gisborne with the Hui Aroha in April 1919.

The story of these expeditions has been brought to life in a book Hei Taonga mā ngā Uri Whakatipu, Treasures for the Rising Generation.

One of the authors, Dame Anne Salmond, Professor of Māori Studies and Anthropology at Auckland University, has a personal connection with the book.

Dame Anne's great-grandfather James McDonald was the acting director of the Dominion Museum at the time when Sir Apirana wrote to Internal Affairs. With his expertise in film and photography, he happily obliged.

“The interesting thing about the book is we have people who are descended from the tipuna in the photos, writing about them, and talking about them. It's beautiful,” Dame Anne said.

With the first expedition being the Hui Aroha in Gisborne, author and historian Dr Monty Soutar was a perfect fit for the book.

He was approached by Dame Anne to be a part of the book because of his extensive knowledge of the Māori Battalion.

“Monty was a no-brainer because he is the great authority of the battalion.

“He's from Tairāwhiti, so when he wrote that chapter it was perfect,” Dame Anne said.

The Hui Aroha was a planned welcome home to the Māori battalion from the Eastern Māori electorate which at that time covered an area from Bay of Plenty through to the bottom of Hawke's Bay.

The hui included a commemoration and a tangi for those who had fought and all the lives that were lost.

While the book is a historical representation of that time, Dr Soutar believes we also need to capture our “now”, in film for the next generation.

“I'm a writer and word descriptions of the past are difficult to convey, but if you have a photograph and moving picture, pictures say a thousand words,” Dr Soutar said.

As a descendant of Sir Apirana Ngata, Dr Wayne Ngata also became involved in the book through Dame Anne, who was a lecturer of his, at Auckland University.

Over the past decade, they have collaborated on research into and writing about the tipuna of Tairāwhiti.

When sifting through some of the material that was kept at Sir Apirana's home in Waiomatatini, Ruatoria, Dr Ngata found his part for the book.

“The particular piece that I am interested in and is part of the book, is around the terminology of whakapapa, and how Apirana brings clarity to it for our generation.”

Dr Ngata believes the preservation of Maori culture is just as important now.

“Apirana comments that taonga, Māori culture, kōrero was disappearing fast, and he was very fearful at that time.

“If he was fearful then we should be far more fearful now,” Dr Ngata said.

Natalie Robertson has a connection to Tairawhiti through her ancestors George Gillespie Boyd and Riria Kawhena. She became interested in the book through her interest in photography.

She made contact with Dame Anne about her great-grandfather's photos when she found a convergence between their photography of the Waiapu River in Gisborne.

“I was particularly interested in the Ngāti Porou perspective in the ethnographic expeditions rather than the institutional one,” Robertson said.

The quality of the photos from 100 years ago was remarkably high, she said, and when she viewed them it was like she was there.

“So their mauri, their wairua shone through for me, and it compressed time and space.

“It felt as if I could be there with our tipuna and the people of Ngāti Porou.” Robertson said.

Other events featured in the expeditions are the 1920 welcome to the Prince of Wales in Rotorua, communities along the Whanganui River 1921, and Tairāwhiti in 1923.

■ Hei Taonga mā ngā Uri Whakatipu is published by Te Papa Press and is available in bookstores. For more information go to tepapa.govt.nz/Hei Taonga mā ngā Uri Whakatipu.

protected: Sir Apirana Ngata and grand-daughter Wiki White, in 1943. Picture by John Pascoe
Hei Taonga mā ngā Uri Whakatipu was published by Te Papa Press in November.