Te Kooti’s ‘subtlety, cunning, and treachery’

Buried halfway through Deidre Brown’s excellent article on the School of Maori Arts and Crafts (see here) is a quote from Sir Apirana Ngata’s book The Past and Future of the Maori (1893, at which time Sir Apirana was 19 years old).  Ngata speaks of Te Kooti as “the last and greatest representative of the worst side of the Maori character, its subtlety, cunning, and treachery, its cruelty and love of bloodshed and its immorality and fanaticism”.

That Ngata would make such a comment about Te Kooti is not surprising.  Sir Apirana spent a large part of his youth with his uncle Ropata Wahawaha, who led Ngati Porou troops alongside the British in their attempts to recapture Te Kooti at Makaretu and Ngatapa pa (not to mention his efforts during the Land Wars).  Both Ngata and Wahawaha were committed to working within the system, and while they were not for assimmilation, they did not share the views of what they saw as separatists such as Te Puea Herangi, Te Kooti, Wiremu Ratana and Te Whiti.

However, Deidre Brown uses this quote to reinforce her points about Ngata’s reasons for focussing so strongly on traditionalism in the School.  Earlier in the article she outlines how the use of the tradition was necessary to obtain political and financial support from the Govenrment of the day – effectively Pakeha viewed the traditional as ‘safe’ and non-threatening as it conformed to their ideals of “static, ordered, and loyal societies”.  Such expediency was reinforced by Ngata’s views about other movements which did not take a traditional line.  While Ngata sought to “introduce ‘traditional’ Maori work into ‘orthodox’ church buildings”, he saw the style of carving or polychromatic painting used in movements such as Ringatu as deviating from the traditional and leading to a degeneration of the culture.

Te Tokanganui-a-Noho is used by Ngata as an example of stylistic degeneration (see here and here).  We’ve seen in an earlier post how innovations at this meeting house allowed Te Kooti to perform miraculous appearances in front of large crowds, strengthening his spiritual following.  While innovations in a number of houses designed by the School of Maori Arts and Crafts were in direct repsonse to requirements under building regulations set by the Government, Te Kooti’s architectural developments were about enhancing the subterfuge, cunning and trickery which were an important part of his ‘brand’.

Similar architectural tactics were effectively deployed during the Land Wars in the construction and use of warfighting pa, but have otherwise been little used by the architectural community.  Most architecture which expresses Maori culture has adhered to Ngata’s approach, using styles and forms that are viewed as safe and non-threatening by the dominant culture.  Similar drivers undoubtedly continue to exist to support this, most notably funding approval.

However, Sir Apirana used the traditional approach at a time when the art of Maori building was close to disappearance – there were few master carvers and almost no tukutuku experts left.  Today is different with over 80 years of this approach being applied and no immediate or short-term risk of the art disappearing.  Now tradition is part of the furniture, difficult to move since it just fits in so well.

Adopting architectural tactics of subtlety, cunning and treachery would be seen as taking a step backwards, perhaps even raising questions of whether such tactics are well past their use-by date.  Ngata viewed the non-traditional development of Maori architecture at the turn of last Century as remnants of culture conflict from the Land Wars and confiscations by the Government, something that was consigned to the past and not part of the future.  Such a belief remains today in large parts of our society, effectively favouring an architecture which renders all cultural interactions safe and harmless, and being blinded to alternatives which may reveal that such a desired harmony is false.


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