Champion of Tuhoe brought history to life

By Catherine Masters

Judith Binney. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Judith Binney. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Dame Judith Binney, whose Tuhoe history was the 2010 New Zealand Post Book of the Year, has died aged 70.

A little over a year ago, shortly before an accident with a truck on a rainy December day which left her seriously ill but from which she fought back, Dame Judith sat in her lounge in Mt Eden and explained where her passion for Tuhoe came from.

In the 1970s, she said, she had set out as a young woman with friends to walk through the remote Urewera forest to a place they had found on a map called Maungapohatu.

When they got there they found a collection of derelict buildings, few people and a feeling they were intruding.

A shiver had gone up her spine, Dame Judith had said, telling the story with eyes bright and possibly as excited as she had been all those years ago.

She could simply feel the history of that place, she said, that here was a sense of "a very present past".

Dame Judith had been standing on Tuhoe's sacred mountain where the prophet Rua Kenana had built a thriving religious community in the early 1900s and from that moment she was hooked on Tuhoe.

Years later, Tuhoe would give the woman who became a Tuhoe champion and one of the most eminent scholars and historians in the land a very special name - Te Tomairangi o Te Aroha, or "the little rain of love".

This was at the 2009 launch of one of her most impressive books, Encircled lands: Te Urewera 1820-1921, more than 600 pages of immaculate research which pulled no punches about Binney's view that Tuhoe were the most persecuted of Maori tribes. It was last year's New Zealand Post Book of the Year.

Dame Judith, who died on Tuesday night after an illness unrelated to the accident, was revered as the foremost New Zealand historian of her day.

As tributes flowed, among those mourning were Tuhoe. Academic and claims negotiator Tamati Kruger said Tuhoe were very sad to hear of Dame Judith's passing.

"For Tuhoe I think we remain astounded that she had evolved this regard and curiosity about Tuhoe and its history and I think what made her slightly different from other historians is that she disclosed and revealed her feelings in her works."

Scholars are taught to be objective and Dame Judith was sometimes criticised for having crossed that line and unapologetically showing her politics, he said.

"But she felt there was really no other people in the history of New Zealand that had suffered more at the hands of the Crown than Tuhoe."

Professor Stuart McCutcheon, vice-chancellor of Auckland University, where Dame Judith was an emeritus professor, said her work as an oral historian and chronicler of communal memories had broken new ground and had left a lasting impact.

Dame Judith is survived by her mother Marjorie Musgrove, who is in her 90s, and partner Sebastian Black.

- NZ Herald

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