Restoring identities

In view of the scale and rapidity of the social change New Zealand had been through since the 1970s, this extensive ‘navel-gazing’ after 1990 was not surprising.

Writing about identity

Many books were published embracing these themes in 1990. One notable example was Culture and Identity in New Zealand, edited by David Novitz (a South African, as it turned out) and Bill Willmott (a Canadian). Publications like these pointed to New Zealand’s seeming ambivalence on issues relating the country’s colonial experience, the contemporary impacts of that experience and New Zealand’s continuing dependence upon Britain.

According to Willmott, New Zealand was not being well served by ‘political theories on the right, the left or the centre.’ All of these contained essential misconceptions about national identity. In the 1980s, he said, arguments about national identity foundered because we so often confused other identities we might have, which extended well beyond our national boundaries, with those which were particular to New Zealand.

We sought in vain for some kind of ‘soul’ or mystical essence which arose from our belonging to this land. However, this often signalled a ‘dangerous precursor to notions of cultural purity and exclusiveness much beloved by right-wing nationalists.’

statue of John Ballance outside General Assembly Building, Wellington. Ballance was NZs Premier from 1891-1893.

For his part, Novitz sought to clarify the confusion in people’s minds over the terms ‘culture’ and ‘cultural identity’. ‘Culture’ was a concept which included collections of social phenomena arranged in particular ways, allowing us to embrace ideas of cultural diversity and pluralism with confidence and ease.

Attempts by dominant groups, or oppressed groups, to demarcate culture in ways that merely reflected their own aspirations and frustrations failed to adequately address the vexed question of national identity.

A deeply divided society

Bob Consedine saw things more starkly. As 1990 approached, he depicted New Zealand as a deeply-divided society with racism, discrimination against women, unemployment and an emerging plutocracy all cited as evidence for his view that New Zealand had long deceived itself into believing its own ‘egalitarian myth.’

In order to encourage such useful discussions, the 1990 Commission was accordingly directed to assist with efforts at determining national identity, but in more practical ways, by providing a central focus on the Treaty of Waitangi. Other priorities included increasing cultural awareness and knowledge of peoples who had played important roles in creating our current patterns of social and political life and interaction.

The Beehive and Parliament Buildings, Wellington, the seat of government in NZ.

Community identities

Communities were also encouraged to preserve their historical memories by writing local histories, or by arranging historical enactments of key events from within their collective histories, or, with something more tangible in mind, by renovating and restoring old buildings. Restoring memories Pompallier House in Russell was an example.

In 1990, Auckland Architect Jeremy Salmond was commissioned by the Historic Places Trust to prepare plans for the conservation of Pompallier House, in which incidentally Bishop Pompallier, founder of the Roman Catholic Mission in New Zealand, had never lived.

Built in 1842 as the headquarters of the Catholic Mission, the house had once produced books at a prodigious rate, all in Maori, for Maori to read, when Maori literacy was supposedly flourishing. The house had also served as a storehouse, tannery and private home before being acquired by the government in 1940.

Pompallier House, Russell, formerly the home of NZs first Roman Catholic missionary, Bishop Pompallier, who arrived in 1838.

Problems with Pompallier House stemmed from ‘changes to its original construction in pise de terre (rammed earth) and timber.’

Pise was difficult to alter and thus structural defects, arising from renovations in the 1880s, had long been apparent and of concern. ‘The choice of rammed earth reflected the Catholic Missions precarious financial state in 1840 as it was not able to afford building timber.’

Rebuilding marae

Other buildings also under reconstruction in 1990 included the rebuilding of marae, consistent with a surge in marae reconstruction not seen in New Zealand since the 1870s-1890s. Whitikaupeka and Oruamatua were two marae wharenui standing at Moawhango on the Napier-Taupo coach road. Whitikaupeka was a nineteenth century marae, built in 1890, and its notable features included ‘dancing figures on the maihi, the large protruding eyes and the manaia figures at the end of the raparapa.’

Oakura Marae, Oakura, just south of New Plymouth.

Oruamatua was by contrast a low building with very wide and solid timbers featuring bold painted kowhaiwhai. Both houses had been substantially damaged over time and were in need of extensive rebuilding if they were to ever function as community centres once again.

Renovations included replacing rotten foundation timbers, fumigation and the conservation of both interior and external carvings. To this end, the Historic Places Trust had made available grants totalling $14,000, a tidy sum in 1990, with further restoration costs also to be met by the Trust.

One year later, rebuilding work also commenced on Te Tikanga, on Tokorangi Marae, near Fielding. This marae belonged to Ngati Waewae, a hapu of Ngati Tuwharetoa. The marae had been moved to its current hilltop position from the Rangitikei River flats much earlier, in 1907 because of the continuing risk of flooding.

Anaru Kimura wrote of the epic 1907 endeavour to move the house, and especially of the epic struggle to contain the tahuhu (ridge pole); the people used a big wagon drawn by six draught horses. There was concern about how they were going to get the tahuhu around the corner as it was very long. Aunty Rora remembers watching from the top of the hill.

When they reached the corner, ropes were tied around the tahuhu. As the horses and wagon turned the corner, the tahuhu swung over the bank. The people took the strain on the ropes and held the tahuhu until the horses and wagon straightened out.

It was slow progress, with the horses being moved forward a short space at a time. There were many people there to help.