Shining light through the Tuhoe mists

By Phoebe Falconer

Dame Judith Binney
Historian, author
Died aged 70

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

Judith Binney was one of New Zealand's most respected historians and authors.

She was particularly admired for her works on the Tuhoe people and their struggle for self-governance and control over their land in the Ureweras.

Her last book, Encircled Lands: Te Urewera 1820-1921, was published in 2009 and last year won the New Zealand Post Book of the Year and the prize for best non-fiction book.

In 2006 she was awarded the Prime Minister's Lifetime Literary Achievement Award for non-fiction, and in the same year was created DCNZM (later DNZM) for historical research.

Binney's fascination with Tuhoe began with a walk in the Ureweras to Maungapohatu in 1975. She found derelict buildings, few people and a history she neither knew nor understood.

With photographer and friend Gillian Chapman, she discovered photographs taken in 1908 of the Tuhoe people and the community founded by Rua Kenana at Maungapohatu.

The pair began talking to the descendants of Rua, recording their conversations and making copious notes. These were collated and published in 1979 as Mihaia: The Prophet Rua Kenana and his Community at Maungapohatu.

More taping and talking led to a further book, Nga Morehu, The Survivors: The Life Stories of Eight Maori Women, published in 1986.

But this was a book that very nearly wasn't. During a burglary at Binney's Mt Eden home in 1984, cassette tapes of the conversations were stolen. A plea to have the tapes returned resulted in the recovery of 11 of the 14 taken. Three are still missing.

"A lot of people will still say that oral history is an untrustworthy source - well, of course it is, and that's what the skill of the historian is for - to test what you're getting against other kinds of sources," she told the Herald in 2005.

In Nga Morehu, she tested many of the stories the women gave her, going back to their school, birth and death records.

"What was fascinating was they [the women] were always right."

Binney's trust in and reliance on oral sources was seen in Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, published in 1995 and winner at the 1996 Montana Book Awards.

Her commitment to Tuhoe earned her the name Tomoirangi o Te Aroha (the heavenly dews of love).

She was born Judith Mary Caroline Musgrove in New South Wales in 1940, and came to Auckland when she was 6. She attended Auckland University, where she became associate professor of history, eventually being appointed to a personal chair in 1997. She retired in 2004.

Dame Judith Binney is survived by her mother and her partner, Sebastian Black.

- NZ Herald

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