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In/Visible Sight: The Mixed-Descent Families of Southern New Zealand.

In/Visible Sight: The Mixed-Descent Families of Southern New Zealand, by Angela Wanhalla. Vancouver, British Columbia, University of British Columbia Press, 2010. xii, 208 pp. $29.95 Cdn (paper).

From the late eighteenth century Europeans began to be drawn to the shores of New Zealand. Whalers and traders (and, after 1814, missionaries) followed hard on the heels of the first white explorers. The story of their encounters with Maori in the north of the country, and especially at the Bay of Islands, is relatively well documented.

Owing to the absence of literate observers, much less is known about the other area of most significant early contacts, along the coastlines of Southland and Otago. It was here that the local Ngai Tahu population mixed freely with the incoming whalers, especially after the establishment of shore-based whaling stations from the late 1820s.

Attracted by the economic benefits available, many southern Maori flocked to the stations. There they established mutually beneficial relationships with the whalers that were further reinforced through customary marriage alliances. And although the whaling industry soon faded into insignificance, many of the whalers remained behind, forging vibrant mixed-descent communities that survived into the twentieth century.

Angela Wanhalla tells the story of one such Otago community, located at Maitapapa, on the Taieri River. Drawing upon analyses of the North American fur trade and the sexual bonds with indigenous women to which it gave rise, Wanhalla argues that, notwithstanding the material advantages arising, many of the marriage liaisons formed in southern New Zealand were long-term relationships based on mutual love and attraction. Young Maori women sometimes exercised considerable agency, even to the point of rejecting potential suitors favoured by their tribe as the most economically beneficial. And yet for all of that, the lure of European men --many of them former convicts from the Australian penal colonies--was such that by 1844 nearly two-thirds of young Maori women in the southern districts were estimated to be living with them.

Thanks to ongoing inter-marriage at Maitapapa, by 1890 around 90 per cent of the population could claim mixed Maori and Pakeha (European) descent. Yet much had changed since the 1840s. In particular, the proclamation of British sovereignty over the islands of New Zealand at the start of that decade opened the door to vastly increased European immigration, organized along 'systematic' lines. In a series of sweeping Crown purchases, Ngai Tahu title to nearly all of their vast South Island estate was extinguished in exchange for some small monetary payments and a few token reserves.

Wanhalla writes that New Zealand's historians have been far more concerned to document Crown and Maori interactions than to recount the more intimate experiences of individuals, families and communities. Yet her book provides a compelling case study of the impact of government policies on a small and rural Ngai Tahu community. Confined to a miserly 2310-acre reserve following the Otakou Purchase, the people of Taieri found even their ownership of this land steadily eroded after 1868 as a result of legal titles awarded to individuals through the mechanism of the Native Land Court and succession laws which resulted in increasingly uneconomic land parcels with each passing generation.

The drift away from Maitapapa that began in the 1890s had become wholesale desertion within a few decades as the former residents scattered in several directions. A once flourishing mixed-descent community was no more by the 1930s. Yet Wanhalla's argument that inter-marriage contributed to such an outcome through the erosion of former cultural ties to Maitapapa seems less convincing than the weight of evidence she presents as to the impact of grinding poverty, land loss, and lack of economic opportunities.

While urbanization and outwards migration contributed to a loss of cultural knowledge in which the formerly prominent mixed descent families of Maitapapa became "invisible" within wider Pakeha communities, Wanhalla draws upon oral histories of descendants to demonstrate that this process was only ever partial and intended as a strategy of survival. Many members of Ngai Tahu--sometimes dismissed as 'the white tribe'--were able to more easily assimilate into European communities than other Maori due to their long history of inter-marriage. Yet physical appearances aside, the extent of cultural loss may in some cases have been no greater than that for many other Maori who moved to the cities and towns after 1945. One of the largest internal migrations of the twentieth century in per capita terms seen anywhere in the world, the mass movement of Maori after the war weakened tribal identities to the point that many urban Maori today can no longer even name their own iwi (tribe), let alone speak the Maori language. It was urbanization rather than inter-marriage that most seriously threatened cultural identities in most cases.

Yet as Wanhalla ultimately writes, In/visible Sight is not really about loss but is "a story of survival" (p. 161). The large number of South Islanders (including Wanhalla) who today proudly proclaim their own Ngai Tahu ancestry is testament to that. Her work shows just how successfully Pakeha and mixed-descent people were integrated into the Maitapapa community before its eventual dispersal. More European with each passing generation according to official racial classifications based on blood count, the people of Maitapapa nevertheless continued to identify strongly as Ngai Tahu. That ready ability to absorb newcomers has been a key to the survival of Ngai Tahu and their resurgence in the early twenty-first century. It might also help to partly explain why a distinctive mixed-descent identity similar to that of the Metis never emerged in New Zealand. Historians of cross-cultural encounter and relationships will find several other fertile points of comparison and reflection in this fascinating book.

Vincent O'Malley

History Works
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Author:O'Malley, Vincent
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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