‘A lot of stars, tides, and funding sources had to align,’ said the the Hon Justice Joe Williams, about Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History at the Wellington celebration of the book at Unity Books on Friday 21 November. ‘But it’s hard to find words that do anything other than impoverish the work.’ Judging by the crowd in attendance as well as the general public’s reaction to the book, Judge Joe’s statement was well-founded. With three esteemed authors behind the words (Atholl Anderson, Aroha Harris and the late Judith Binney) and the ongoing guidance and support of publisher Bridget Williams, Tangata Whenua has been in development since 2007 – and its release seven years later is meeting with acclaim.
To call those involved passionate would be an understatement. The communities involved – from Māori to Pākehā, historians to laypeople – were out in full force, with the audience spreading through most of the shop, and an aura of pride emanating from everyone. The formal part of the evening opened with a beautiful karakia, followed by a welcome in te reo from Morris Te Whiti Love. Between speakers, children from Te Kaahui Kōhanga Reo performed waiata – and were wonderfully well-behaved while the grown-ups were in the spotlight.
‘Judge Joe’, as Justice Williams was referred to by others, responded to Morrie Love’s welcome in kind, before wrapping up with a passionate ‘Tihei…’ to which the children and various audience members provided the ‘MAURI ORA!’ response, in keeping with the spirit of the evening. In English, he suggested that ‘a book like this can be a bridge, if we are to negotiate a way to modern New Zealand’s nationhood’ and went on to praise ‘the scholarship of these people and the tenacity of their publisher’.
Bridget described the project as ‘extensive in every respect’, while Atholl spoke of ‘te whānau o te pukapuka’ – the family of the book. The sense of excitement and shared triumph throughout the speakers and the audience certainly backed up Atholl’s description – everyone who had a role to play, no matter how small, was delighted to see this enormous undertaking come to fruition. Given that Tangata Whenua translates as ‘people of the land’, Atholl’s guiding principle of ‘He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.’ (the well-known Maori proverb meaning ‘What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.’) made beautiful sense. ‘The book focuses on Maori people and their lives, rather than the context.’
Aroha caused ripples of giggles through the crowd by prefacing one of her earlier points with the wry statement ‘and if I know my history…’ She brought this long-term project into a very contemporary context, by referring to recent comments from public figures regarding the manner in which New Zealand was settled and sovereignty was – or wasn’t – ceded. And knowing her history, as she obviously does, she posed the audience the question: ‘If not 1840, when? And if not by ceding sovereignty, then how?’
Before the evening turned to signings and last glasses of wine, the concluding mihi from Ripeka Evans paid tribute to those involved in the book and its production, with particular reverence towards Judith Binney, ‘whose words echo beyond the grave.’ For a book that looks back on the history and lives of this country’s people of the land, it seemed an appropriate way to conclude the evening – celebrating the past in a book that will capably serve the future.