She describes it as "probably the hardest journey on earth - to know another people". Historian Judith Binney is talking about the missionary Thomas Kendall's struggle when he came to New Zealand in 1814. But the description, reframed in her re-issued biography of Kendall as "an effort 'to cross the beach' and enter the imagination and knowledge systems of a people who he had come to know and respect", could also be applied to her.

In the front room of her Mt Eden home, encircled by a clamour of contemporary and historical artwork and photographs, Binney says she is still somewhere in the middle of the beach. "It's a journey I began and, I would say, will never finish."

Recovering from a hip-replacement operation a week earlier, a consequence of chemotherapy for cancer diagnosed in December 2003, Binney is eager to get back to her path.

"I'm feeling fine and I'm walking and I throw away the crutches on July 12 and I really believe that's going to happen."

But the illness has taken its toll, delaying her giving evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal last year regarding Urewera land claims and forcing her a month ago to resign her position as a tribunal judge.

For Binney, Kendall's struggle is about coming ashore on strange land and discovering people are there and an unknown and dangerous terrain is in between. "It is negotiating that terrain and crossing it successfully and entering the world of people who actually live there."

Binney's negotiation began in earnest in 1963-64 with her MA thesis on Kendall. In hindsight, she says a recurring theme of her work is individuals at odds with their society or their times - "quite a few have been of that kind of tension".

But she was also deeply influenced by the late Sir Keith Sinclair, who taught her history at Auckland University beginning in 1959.

"Keith made me think the most important thing in New Zealand history at that time was to explore Maori and Pakeha relations, which no one was writing about much."

Sinclair's poem, Memorial to a Missionary gave the title for her book, Legacy of Guilt: A Life of Thomas Kendall. "Father he left us a legacy of guilt ... We know St Paul, but what in that dreaming hour, In that night when the ends of time were tied - and severed, Again so ever - did he learn from the south?"

In Kendall's case, the guilt comes from getting too close to the people he sought to convert - having an affair with his servant girl Tungaroa and trading guns for the friendship of Hongi Hika and other Maori chiefs.

It is a Faustian delusion that ultimately leads to his expulsion from the Church Missionary Society. "He is prepared to do everything his values system tells him is wrong to achieve something else and, in the process, he is destroyed."

Binney says even though he was unsuccessful, Kendall is important because he is one of the few in New Zealand history who made the journey across the beach, and he did it alone with everyone condemning him.

By engaging with Maori and their language, Kendall also deserves recognition for being a key figure in the creation of the first Maori grammar. "In trying to understand the words, he knew he had to understand the concepts, so he entered that world. And for a time he entered it fully and talked about the sublimity of the ideas he encountered."

Binney says writing about Kendall was what made her into a New Zealander. "Trying to understand what was happening to Kendall made me realise that I belonged here. Up to that time I had always thought, 'Well who knows where I'll live?"'

Born in Australia in 1940, Binney came to Auckland when she was 6. Her father, Sydney Musgrove, a former head of Auckland University's English department, was a friend of the poet Rex Fairburn.

"He [Fairburn] used to tease me mercilessly about being an Australian. He used to go on and on about it. I don't know why - part of his kind of macho Kiwi style.

"I can remember him making me cry about it on the Devonport ferry. I don't know how old I was - maybe about 8."

These days, Binney calls herself a Pakeha. "I think it is the most simple and practical term. It is a name given to us by Maori. It has no pejorative associations like people think it does - it's a descriptive term. I think it's nice to have a name the people who live here gave you, because that's what I am."

A couple of chance events set her well and truly on a cross-cultural path. It began with a walk in the Ureweras to Maungapohatu in 1975 and a realisation there was history there she didn't know or understand.

Then, with photographer and friend Gillian Chaplin, she came across some 1908 photographs of the Tuhoe community founded by Rua Kenana at Maungapohatu. The pair set out with the photographs and began talking to some of the descendants of Rua.

The effect and power of the photographs was startling. "The emotional charge was enormous and because, in some cases, we were bringing photographs that they had never seen in their lives before, they started to talk to us and to the photographs."

The result, after many day-long sessions of taping conversations, was Mihaia: The Prophet Rua Kenana and his Community at Maungapohatu, published in 1979.

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

By now Binney, well established at Auckland University's history department, was honing her craft and developing a take on history different from conventional history, which relied mainly on written sources.

"A lot of people will still say that oral history is a most 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."

With Nga Morehu she tested many of the stories the women gave her, going back to their school, birth and death records. "What was fascinating is they [the women] were always right."

Binney's handling of oral sources discovers new layers of meaning in Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, published in 1995, and winner at the 1996 Montana Books Awards.

The huge work about the 19th-century founder of the Ringatu faith is described by one reviewer as requiring "discipline and concentration by the reader, so thick is it with detail".

Among written sources - official printed archives, personal manuscripts, newspapers, and Te Kooti's diaries, plus extensive documents recorded by his three secretaries - Binney weaves photographs and oral sources that are often contradictory. But she also lets the ambiguities lie - allowing multiple meanings. History, but not exactly as we know it.

An example of the effect is in the story of Te Kooti's diamond - recounted from a variety of oral sources. Sometimes the diamond "known for its blinding rays" is carried by Te Kooti and, on occasion, to guide him by night.

In another story, Te Kooti lays the diamond on the sacred mountain. In another version the diamond is revealed to Rua Kenana as affirmation he is the chosen one to complete Te Kooti's work.

Binney sees the story in the context of the times, as a quintessential statement of light and wealth and as a metaphor for the sacred knowledge of the Ringatu faith.

"Because the story occurs and because I know there are no diamonds in New Zealand, I'm saying we are working on another level here and what it's saying is as important as if there were something you could take a digger to and dig out."

Strangely, the diamond reappeared this year at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing held at Maungapohatu.

Unusually, the sacred mountain was in clear view so everyone took photos with the assembled four-wheel-drives and the marae in the foreground. One photo doing the rounds by email among Tuhoe at present shows a diamond clearly visible over the mountain.

A trick of the light, or a sign? Either way it is fitting it occurs just as Binney presents the last part of her research to the tribunal, a report commissioned by the Crown Forestry Rental Trust on the history of the Urewera from first contact to 1916.

"I think Tuhoe have had a horrific historical experience. They were invaded for no reason. And martial law was proclaimed to direct resistance to justify land confiscation. I can demonstrate that closely in documents. It might sound a strong statement, but I stand by it."

The process of the tribunal is not unlike Binney's research methods. "There is a lot of cross-testing of sources, which is why I think the tribunal process is strong and why it takes such a hell of a long time."

Binney is unfazed by Tuhoe activist Tame Iti's antics in greeting the tribunal by firing a gun at a flag. She didn't witness the events at Ruatoki this year, but saw something similar at Waimana in November 2003, with Iti dressed, as he was at Ruatoki, in a 19th-century bush-fighting costume and brandishing an old gun.

"It was a fine piece of theatre - a theatrical display about the taking of the land by force."

Binney's next project is to rework her report about the Urewera - In Circled Lands - into an accessible book.

"It's a big job cleaning up the text, getting the big ideas out and getting rid of a lot of the clutter. But some of the clutter, the detail, has taken me such a long time to find to prove the point, you're reluctant to get rid of it.

"What to some people would seem like briars and blackberries - these are the things which absolutely demonstrate the large argument."

Hacking a trail through such prickly terrain is Binney's legacy. Just as Kendall sought to bring written language to Maori, Binney brings her Pakeha tools to aid her journey - photographs, tape recordings and a historian-trained eye.

What has she had in return? Of Te Kooti she writes: "It was the generosity of the Tuhoe which first enabled me to understand the Maori colonial experience, and which opened my eyes to different ways of seeing and interpreting history."

It is those differing views which affect the meaning of events.

She gets misty-eyed recalling reading the diary of a young Pakeha soldier who died fighting Te Kooti in the battle at Te Porere in October 1869.

"That young man was fighting against enemies he has very black and white ideas about. He is fighting for God, king and country. He is fighting for civilisation. He is fighting for a better life for himself and the children he might have - all perfectly good values."

But, as Binney points out, the Maori people he is fighting have good values too - fighting for their land, their lives and against injustice.

"There are many stories in one story and my view as a historian is to help people to understand there are more stories than one."

* Legacy of Guilt: A Life of Thomas Kendall is published by Bridget Williams Books