‘We Wouldn’t be a People’: Kaumātuatanga and Tangata Whenua (1974)

By Emily Kate Timms

One striking sequence in the first episode of the Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay’s ground-breaking six-part documentary series Tangata Whenua The Spirits and Times Will Teach features the Waikato kuia Herepo Rongo. She performs a karanga surrounded by her whānau. The Māori land rights activist Eva Rickard explains to the camera that ‘she doesn’t stand alone when she calls […] we wouldn’t be a people without our old kuias.’ The scene is powerful assertion of the kuia’s ability to bridge past, present, and future so that a whole whānau can benefit from a connection with their tupuna. Tangata Whenua brought Māori culture to prime-time television during a period of heightened cultural production and political activism that came to be known as the Māori Renaissance. Consequently, the series constitutes a significant cinematographic taonga in Aotearoa New Zealand history.

Tēnā koutou, ko Emily Kate Timms taku ingoa. I am a PhD student from the University of Leeds, sponsored by the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities. My research is partly influenced by the life-long influence of my elders: they give me a sense of where I come from and where I may head to, and I have innumerable treasured memories of my grandfather telling stories. What brought me to Aotearoa New Zealand are its kaumātua, their stories, and the roles they play in shaping Māoritanga. My PhD thesis explores representations of age and ageing in Māori and Caribbean fiction and film using a postcolonial studies methodology. I was fortunate enough to spend two months in Wellington consulting Barry Barclay’s holdings at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision watching the Tangata Whenua series, listening to audio interviews, and reading through documentation. I would like to share some highlights from working with such precious taonga. Nāku te rourou nāu te rourou ka ora ai te iwi.

Ngā Taonga’s vast array of materials puts Barclay’s series in its cultural and historical context. I learned how the series’ origins emerged in part from Waikato elders’ concerns during the late 1960s that post-war urbanisation separated kaumātua from younger generations. The programme’s host Michael King, a Pākehā journalist and historian, remembers in a 2000 interview for Tohu Pākehā;

“Mokopuna were no longer sitting on the marae at the feet of their kuia and koro learning things […] the kaumātua age group were looking for alternative ways of disseminating information and reaching people, and one of them was to work through people like me.”

Elders used television to help fulfil an important aspect of kaumātuatanga: to pass on their histories, stories, and knowledges so that Māori culture will survive, and thrive, throughout the twentieth century and beyond.

Intergenerational relationships are recurring kaupapa in many elders’ kōrero across the episodes. Kaumātua stress the importance of how younger generations might listen to their elders. In the episode ‘The Carving Cries’ Ngoi Pewhairangi (Ngāti Porou) reflects that there are some assumptions about how kaumātua knowledges can be learned: “some people say, why don’t those old men teach us how to do this, how to use a taiaha [staff weapon] … and they don’t realise, it goes deeper than that.” Rather, as Tūhoe elder John Rangihau explains, elders “believe [knowledge] is part of them, it is part of their own life-force [mauri] and when they start shedding this, then they are giving away part of themselves.” In short, there can be dangerous consequences if younger generations do not respect the balance of mauri at stake when their kaumātua pass down cultural practices.

Pewhairangi discusses how her elders sought to preserve their mauri and enable younger generations to learn their traditions:

“They don’t teach you, they automatically place you in a situation where you absorb these things, perhaps in the next room to them. They are singing or reciting these genealogies and reciting certain waiata and as you are lying there in the dark you sort of absorb everything.”

The elders did not ‘teach’ directly but would put the student close-by, so they had to listen. The emphasis is not on the elders to ‘tell’ and risk giving away their mauri, but it is the responsibility of younger person to demonstrate that they are willing to listen with respect and care.

Documentation and audio recordings demonstrate how people ‘listened’ to the voices of these elders as Tangata Whenua was filmed and aired. In Ngā Taonga’s Jonathan Dennis Library I read production papers and correspondence that were a testament to Barclay, King, and producer John O’Shea’s determination to gain industry support for the series and to defend the Māori participants’ perspectives expressed in the episodes. I also listened to interviews about Tangata Whenua’s cultural legacy many years after it aired such as Lawrence Wharerau’s 2009 interview where he asserts that Barclay’s series is “still absolutely relevant to our time now”. Time and again, older people and kaumātua are discussed as essential to the series’ success and its contribution to Aotearoa New Zealand’s cultural politics.

My favourite moment in the Medialibrary was watching Barclay’s own remarkable response to Rongo’s karanga at a twenty-fifth anniversary viewing of The Spirits and the Times Will Teach. After the episode finishes, Barclay tells Tainui Stephens:

“I am very moved by the generosity of those old people that had not been treated very nicely by any form of the media to that point, and that they could open up and give something from right within themselves.”

As I sat with my audio headset on in Ngā Taonga’s Medialibrary nearly forty-five years since Rongo’s call aired, I too was moved by the series’ elders, and by Barclay’s pioneering role as what we might call a cinematographic kaumātua. In a global context where many commentators express concern about ageing populations and intergenerational conflict, we would do well to remember the generosity of those kaumātua as they tried to safeguard Māori culture, and to reflect on how we might listen to these elders’ voices with respect and care in the present. And we can certainly start by listening to the film and audio collections at Ngā Taonga in Wellington.

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou.

Ngā Taonga newsletter

Sign up for our regular newsletter about projects we're working on and fascinating items from our collections.