Sunday Insight: The seven deadly NZ myths

By Professor Paul Moon

Sid Going leading an All Black haka before playing the Barbarians, the only pre-match haka performed on the tour of the UK in 1972-73. Photo / NZ Herald Archives
Sid Going leading an All Black haka before playing the Barbarians, the only pre-match haka performed on the tour of the UK in 1972-73. Photo / NZ Herald Archives

1. New Zealand was "discovered" centuries ago

Read any general history of New Zealand, and it is likely to begin with the story of Kupe discovering the country. Flick forward a few chapters and Tasman and Cook become the first Europeans to "discover" New Zealand - and that's it; the discovery business is finished. This is the common portrayal, with all the historical edges neatly tucked in.

Yet, what started with the Polynesians, followed by the Dutch and the English, continues as other nationalities arrive here and encounter the country. Yes, New Zealand's location and its inventory of features is now known, but the sense of discovery is still just as potent for new arrivals.

The problem with the conventional account of New Zealand's discovery is that it presumes that only the first arrival in the country by a culture constitutes an act of discovery. In reality, New Zealand is perennially ripe for rediscovery and also is continually being altered as every new wave of immigrants contributes to the cultural patina of the country.

2. 100% Pure New Zealand

A slogan that is hard to shake off. Advertisers, documentary-makers, politicians and even some journalists have sought to represent parts of New Zealand as being "100% Pure". The notion has an almost narcotic effect, with scenes of fern-lined rivers or sublime peaks jutting from ancient fiords typifying the supposedly pure landscape of our country. Such portrayals are peddled either to promote the country's attractiveness as a tourist destination or as a utopian goal for environmental fundamentalists.

However, the idea of natural purity does not come from nature. Rather, it is a human construct. We create ideals of nature and continue to define what is authentically natural and pure.

National parks, for example, are used to support the mythology that parts of New Zealand are "100% Pure". Yet, these parks have borders, boundaries, fences, roads running through them and introduced species. They serve not as places for the preservation of purity but as spectator locations, reassuring us that our fantasy of a pristine New Zealand survives.

3. The Southern Man

According to census data, we are overwhelmingly a nation of urban-dwellers. Yet there seems to be a stubborn cultural resistance to accepting this fact. We seek antidotes to our urban lives, ranging from the pretentious "farmers' markets" (at which you would be hard-pressed to find a farmer) to attending agricultural shows in our tens of thousands and engaging in all sorts of gardening indulgences.

Our desire to seek affiliation with rural New Zealand has culminated in the creation of the "Southern Man", a cleverly fashioned amalgam of farming stereo types which encourages a nostalgic affection for rural New Zealand. The solitary High Country farmer, epitomised by the Southern Man, has become the archetypal New Zealander (there is, as yet, no female equivalent). He is rugged, blunt, resourceful and socially isolated - the antithesis of urban civility. But idealisation does not extend to emulation, so we end up rejoicing in the ideal but practically never embracing it.

The Southern Man is no new creation, though. His lineage extends back via Fred Dagg to Barry Crump, the "ordinary Kiwi bloke", and to John Mulgan's "Man Alone". At every stage, the image has been modified for the period, but the hard-bitten, reclusive, masculine heroism of the character remains.

4. The traditional Maori cultural experience

The crunch point for me was being offered a cob of sweetcorn which had been freshly boiled in a steaming pool nearby. Tourists are expected to accept that this is part of a traditional Maori cultural experience, but there are problems with such representations that simmer under the surface at Whakarewarewa.

Since the 1880s, Whakarewarewa in Rotorua has been where tourists have gone to see an "authentic", "living" Maori village - one that has grown up around the gurgling mud pools and sulphurous vapours of the site. However,what has emerged is a cultural, architectural and historical patchwork. Most of the village's features are arranged primarily to satisfy visitors' expectations. Instead of authenticity, tourists are offered just a vague ambience of history.

Of course, Whakarewarewa is not a "village" in the conventional sense. Its main reason for existence is not the social needs of the community but the gaze of outsiders. What purports to be Maori physical culture has been converted into an open-air museum exhibit.

The whole contrivance is a throwback to Victorian preferences for the role and placement of native peoples:smiling performers of their "primitive" cultures rolled out for the entertainment of the "civilised" visitor. The natives are locked in a state of perpetual but picturesque decrepitude. Meanwhile, modern visitors - who are maybe less discerning of historical accuracy - see "old" buildings, "traditional" cooking (including sweetcorn) and allow their imaginations to roam freely around the idea that this is genuinely traditional Maori culture. The result is an overwrought form of exotica - culture packaged to tantalise the imagination of spectators.

Whakarewarewa is a snap-frozen late-colonial facsimile of Maori society, reflecting and nourishing popular stereotypes about Maori culture, without any deeper considerations of what is really being represented.

5. "Aotearoa"

"Aotearoa" is now widely recognised as the traditional Maori name for New Zealand, but this is not necessarily historically definite. In his 1833 poem, The Palace of Art, Alfred Tennyson used the phrase "long white cloud", and reworked it in the same composition in 1842.

It was only from the 1850s, however, that the "long white cloud" began to appear popularly as a non-literal translation of "Aotearoa" (the "Land of the Long White Cloud") - supposedly the traditional Maori name for New Zealand.

Of course, "Aotearoa" could just as easily have been a loose back-translation of Tennyson's phrase which succeeded in quickly entering the cultural mythology of Maori and European in New Zealand in the mid-19th century. There are numerous other cases in this era of phrases appropriated from English poems and appearing in colonial New Zealand literature.

The reason for the slight mistrust of "Aotearoa" as the singular Maori title for the country arises from the character of Maori communities before (and for many decades after) European intervention. Maori society was sharply fragmented politically along hapu and iwi lines. Such was the depth of these divisions that they endured long after European political dominance was established in the country.

The notion of "Aotearoa" as the traditional Maori name for New Zealand initially seemed to have caught on not so much because Maori communities took it to heart (which many did only gradually, decades later), but because it fitted more with the type of history settlers wished for the country.

It appeared to suit British migrants in the 19th century that they were entering a country that was not some anarchic hotchpotch of self-governing tribes, but rather, had a sort of ancient, sovereign pedigree. And if it required a quaint Victorian literary affectation to achieve this, then all the better.

6. Te Aurere

Historical re-enactments can be cringe-worthy at the best of times.Unlike science, history cannot be reduced to experiments which can be repeated to verify the details of an event. In the early 1990s, though, construction began on the 17m double-hulled vessel Te Aurere, which supposedly re-enacted ancient Polynesian voyages across the Pacific. Yet, Te Aurere's exacting mission to prove a historical point fell well short of the faithful evocation of traditional construction and navigation techniques that it was initially pronounced to be.

The trees from which the hulls were made were felled with chainsaws, dragged out from the forest by bulldozers and then trucked to the construction site. And when it was launched on its first voyage, the vessel that was to be the embodiment of ancient Polynesian migratory techniques was aided by an outboard motor, radios, modern sails and rigging, and satellite navigation equipment.

Thesemodern intrusions were topped off with perhaps the greatest indignity: the fact that Te Aurere had to be towed for part of its maiden voyage to Rarotonga to reach its destination. The project ended up being not so much a marriage of the modern and the traditional as a procession of jarring cultural aberrations, yielding practically no historical benefits.

7. Nostalgic New Zealand

Two kinds of histories vie for dominance in our minds. One is the formal type of history, fastened together with dates and analyses - the sort you find in history books. The second type is nostalgia, which relies on how we imagine the past.

Napier is an example of a place which fulfils nostalgic fantasies - where people gorge on the peaks of Art Deco culture (without, for example, having to endure the corresponding nostalgic troughs of the Depression).

The annual Art Deco Weekend in Napier has becomethe climax of this indulgence in a fabricated memory. Flamboyant fashions of the 1930s are affected with varying degrees of pedantry, Benny Goodman or Count Basie might be heard blaring out from a modern sound system, and a melange of vapid Art Deco bric-a-brac (particularly Clarice Cliff-ish reproductions) is offered for sale.

Such grotesque parodies reveal the capacity for nostalgia to secrete memories into the imagination from outside an individual's direct personal experience - free from finicky objections by humourless historians.


Kiwiana redefined

Who are we, what do we believe, and where do we draw our lines in the sand?

The Herald on Sunday has described New Zealanders as a courageous people, arriving in our waka and sailing ships, showing enormous commitment in two world wars, standing up for our principles during the nuclear ships stand-off and after the Rainbow Warrior bombing. "We can be brave again," we wrote. "We can throw off some of the suffocating cotton wool of health and safety, our sometimes crippling paranoia about sickness and crime, our fear of change. We can take risks to make life better for ourselves, our kids and our communities."

The late Michael King, author of The Penguin History of New Zealand, described Kiwis as "good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant".

But Professor Paul Moon says that is nothing more than a stereotype. "The projections of a 'real' New Zealand are little more than harmless advertising conceits, sustaining a fantasy that most people are prepared to believe in."

He argues the only thing that defines New Zealanders is our geography, and "an idiosyncratic scrapbook of shared national memories" like winning the Rugby World Cup.

So do No 8 fencing wire, pavlova and buzzy bees still define us as New Zealanders?

Tell us your thoughts on the values and icons that could represent New Zealand for the future.

Email letters@hos.co.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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