Part 1 of The unbearable costs to Aotearoa’s culture and heritage of leaving the National Library and Archives in the Department of Internal Affairs

This morning, on Waitangi Day 2022, the Waitangi National Trust Board Chairman, Pita Tipene, said to the RNZ interviewer: “It is strange, also, that certainly in my memory I have never been to a Waitangi Day when it has been raining – and raining hard.  That in itself is he tohu – a sign maybe … it is strange, and surreal … [but] it is a positive sign. Waitangi, and what it means literally, is a sign in itself. Literally – and excuse the pun – it’s a watershed period.” Waitangi Day, but not as we know it

Six days after the first Waitangi Day, on 12 February 1840, Mohi Tawhai addressed those assembled  at the Mangungu Mission Station to continue the Treaty of Waitangi signing process, saying: “Let the tongue of everyone be free to speak; but what of it. What will be the end? Our sayings will sink to the bottom like a stone, but your sayings will float light, like the wood of the whau tree, and always remain to be seen. Am I telling lies?” (Maori is my name, ed. John Caselberg, 1975, p 48) .

On 29 January 2022 the words of the National Librarian, Rachel Esson, floated lightly in the Dominion Post . She said that she was determined that the National Library was going to get rid of the 600,000+ books published overseas, bought by and for the people of Aotearoa New Zealand, because in her words…”the world’s moved on, and we don’t need to keep these …It’s not good for New Zealand, and for us, to keep them.”

What a completely different attitude to knowledge, and the need to keep it, and add to it, this Pakeha bureaucrat (a third tier manager in the Department of Internal Affairs) has from the original Maori perspective.  As explained by University of Canterbury lecturer Madi Williams (Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, Rangitāne o Wairau), in her 2021 book Polynesia 900–1600: An overview of the history of Aotearoa, Rēkohu, and Rapa Nui, all of human knowledge (and indeed human existence itself) came from the three baskets of knowledge which Tāne fetched from the heavens. This journey and what it achieved is described and remembered in a traditional chant:

Tēnei au te hōkai nei o taku tapuwae
Ko te hōkai nuku ko te hōkai rangi
Ko te hōkai a tō tupuna a Tānenui-a-rangi
Ka pikitia ai ki te rangi tūhāhā ki te Tihi-o-Manono
Ka rokohina atu rā ko Te Matua-kore anake
Ka tīkina mai ngā kete o te wānanga
Ko te kete-tuauri
Ko te kete-tuatea
Ko te kete-aronui
Ka tiritiria ka poupoua
Ka puta mai iho ko te ira tangata
Ki te wheiao ki te ao mārama
Tihei-mauri ora!

This is the journey of sacred footsteps
Journeyed about the earth journeyed about the heavens
The journey of the ancestral god Tānenuiarangi
Who ascended into the heavens to Te Tihi-o-Manono
Where he found the parentless source
From there he retrieved the baskets of knowledge
Te kete-tuauri
Te kete-tuatea
Te kete-aronui
These were distributed and implanted about the earth
From which came human life
Growing from dim light to full light
There was life.

Williams prefaces her book with this chant, and in the conclusion she explains both what it says, and its ongoing significance, as follows:

“These baskets are te kete-tuauri (sacred knowledge/light), te kete-tuatea (ancestral knowledge/darkness) and te kete-aronui (knowledge in front of us/pursuit). These baskets are thought never to be full, and thus there is always room for further knowledge. The baskets should not be separated, and all three forms of knowledge are essential. Knowledge is not achieved without challenge and questioning, and, just as Tāne ascended to the heavens, we must challenge ourselves and the knowledge we hold, continually seeking to expand our understanding. We must also not discount any form of knowledge, since to seek merely one form is to not appreciate the nature of knowledge.” (pp 79-80)

I took hearing what Pita Tipene said about signs, and reading what Williams had to say about knowledge, and the fact that the Maori name for the National Library translates as ‘the spring of knowledge of Aotearoa’, as a tohu that a good use of my Waitangi Day afternoon in 2022 was to begin writing a series on why the Department of Internal Affairs is (and always will be) such a lousy guardian of the baskets of knowledge, and why for the past ten years it has not only been getting in the way of re-filling those baskets, but has actively contrived to empty them.

A series which will conclude on a positive note, regarding what can and should be done to treasure those baskets and keep filling them. Here’s hoping that Pita Tipene is right, and we are indeed reaching a watershed period.

By Dr. Christine Dann

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