Important Reading and Writing Questions for Scholar Helen Brown


Helen Brown (Ngāi Tahu) is part of the Ngāi Tahu Archives team at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. She co-edited the second volume of Tangata Ngai Tahu | The people of Ngai Tahu (Bridget Williams Books, RRP $49.99).

Helen Brown: This book belongs to Ngāi Tahu whānui but is for everyone.

Provided

Helen Brown: This book belongs to Ngāi Tahu whānui but is for everyone.

Tell us about the meaning of wahine in this volume

The Wāhine have always been central to Ngāi Tahu culture and identity. But, the dual impact of colonization and patriarchy has often led to the omission or neglect of the contributions and achievements of our women.

When planning for this volume began in 2018, it coincided with the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. While the story of the fight for women’s freedom is primarily a Pākehā story, Kaupapa suffrage has drawn attention to the need for us to make Māori women’s stories more visible.

Among these were several wāhine which I felt compelled to feature because they were simply so remarkable – these included wāhine such as Hira Pōhio Traill, Hera Stirling Munro, Jean Rawei and Aunty Jane Davis which is one of the few wāhine in the book that I knew personally.

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Is there a story in volume 2 that really stood out to you?

The one who will stay with me is Hira Pohio Traill. Born in 1894, Hira was a devotee of the arts, she composed and published music and sculpted pounamu. In the 1930s and 1940s, she became a prolific and outspoken Ngāi Tahu commentator on social, economic, and political issues. She has spoken out against both central and local government over the unequal treatment of Maori under the law.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi was central to her thinking about seeking equality and justice for Ngāi Tahu and she frequently asked why Te Tiriti had not been honored. I was drawn to her passion, firmness, incisive language, creativity, and the fantastic juxtaposition she embodied as a wāhine who is remembered by her whānau as a sweet, well-dressed lady, but who was also a firebrand with the pen and formidable in an argument.

What are the challenges of archiving?

Like its 2017 predecessor, this volume is literally a tribal family album. Many whānau contributed to its realization and this is particularly evident in the richness of the illustrations. Family photos were pulled from scrapbooks and shuffled into boxes to be shared. Whānau also arranged for treasured family portraits hanging on their walls to be unframed for copying.

With the challenges of Covid-19, we had to ensure that images were carefully couriered across the country to be professionally scanned. Taonga kept in family collections were also photographed.

These objects have an immediacy and intimate connection to the subjects of the biographies and tell stories in a way that words cannot. We were also extremely lucky to have Neil Pardington working on the design and image work. He has restored and enhanced many photographs with digital magic, repairing tears and scratches in beloved prints and bringing out the luminosity of early studio portrait photography.

Who is this book for?

This book belongs to Ngāi Tahu whānui but is for everyone. The product of four years of research, writing and collaboration, it is a taonga for future generations, and we hope it will serve not only as a celebration of lives lived, but also as an inspiration for emerging leaders and a catalyst for further developments in tribal storytelling.

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