Māori Oral Tradition: He Kōrero nō te Ao Tawhito by Jane McRae.
Auckland: AUP (2017).
RRP: $45. Pb, 260pp.
Reviewed by Michael Reilly.
Jane McRae is a Māori Studies scholar who has extensively researched Aotearoa New Zealand’s often overlooked archival collections of Māori language manuscripts. In this important book she introduces us to the rich world of Māori oral traditions which has its beginnings in the memories of the first migrants to leave Hawaiki.
There are five substantive chapters in this study. The first introduces us to the cultural world these traditions reflected, the individuality of the traditions told differently by each tribe and each expert, the distinctive oral elements of traditions such as concision, repetition, memorable language and gestures, and the experts’ impressive feats of memorisation.
The second chapter examines whakapapa (genealogies and lists of names), so essential to a person’s sense of self and their place in a web of tribal relationships organised around a hierarchy based on rank. McRae draws attention to the oral quality of whakapapa, with its distinctive rhythmic repetition of words and phrases.
The third chapter looks at whakataukī (proverbs and historical sayings) which provide a window into ancestral values, beliefs and practices in the span of a ‘semantically dense text of few words’ (p 85). Whakataukī often formed a core element in larger narratives where they provided ‘awe-inspiring images’ (p 113) that listeners remembered.
The fourth chapter elaborates on kōrero (narratives and prose) told about socially prominent ancestors, in sequences of short episodes, in a paratactic style, using formulaic phrasing and repetitions, to create a fast-paced, exciting narrative for the listening audience. To illustrate the large corpus of kōrero McRae focuses on four typical stories about the culture hero Māui, a migration canoe ancestor, the founding of a tribal school of learning and a tribe’s acquisition of another group’s land by means of a ruse.
The fifth chapter discusses waiata (songs and chants), perhaps the most performed of oral genres, including sentry songs chanted to the warrior’s pacing, haka (dance chants), oriori (songs of tribal history) and waiata aroha and waiata tangi (sung forms about love, loss and death). Waiata composers withdrew from society to craft their words, virtually inventing a new language to fit the musical forms, and packing their texts with natural imagery, intense emotion words, and allusions to tribal history and placenames.
Throughout the book McRae quotes from numerous unpublished manuscripts, giving the reader a feel for the language and content of these oral traditions. We get the opportunity to hear again in public the voices of the traditions’ composers as they speak directly off the page to us. McRae’s own succinct style of writing complements the concision of these traditions. She reminds us that these traditions continue to be performed and spoken with pride by the composers’ many descendants. In a work relying so much on language, Auckland University Press has produced a well edited text devoid of noticeable errors. Māori Oral Tradition: He Kōrero nō te Ao Tawhito is not a showy book: there are no illustrations, instead there is the gift of words, ‘ngā kōrero tuku iho a ngā tūpuna or the oral traditions handed down by their forebears’ (p 12).
Michael Reilly is a Professor in Te Tumu, School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago Te Whare Wānanga o Otāgo. He writes about oral traditions and indigenous histories in Mangaia (The Cook Islands) and Aotearoa New Zealand and has published various articles, chapters and books including, War and Succession in Mangaia from Mamae’s Texts (Polynesian Society, 2003) and Ancestral Voices from Mangaia: A History of the Ancient Gods and Chiefs (Polynesian Society, 2009).