Ngā Taonga Tuhituhi: Written Treasures Exhibition at Auckland Central Library

Yvonne Tahana, “Exhibition Reveals Early Maori Writing,” NZ Herald (29 Nov. 2010) [slightly ed.]

Researchers have unearthed some of the earliest examples of Maori writing and drawing ranging from simple alphabet practice to a flirtatious letter.

Education professors Alison Jones, from The University of Auckland and Kuni Jenkins from Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi have been researching early engagement between Maori and Pakeha between 1793 and 1835.

Their samples focused on northern Maori because of the area’s first contact history and has turned up gems including an archival record of Ngapuhi chief Hongi Hika, famous for introducing musket warfare, practicing letters aboard a ship headed to Sydney in 1814.

In the top right hand corner someone has inked the words “written by Shunghee on board the Active.”

“That’s his only legacy,” Professor Jenkins said. “As soon as I realised who it was . . . I thought ‘oh my God.'”

The samples were good starting points for discussion about how Maori and Pakeha were sounding each other out and learning from each other during the period of massive change.

Hongi’s rendered name “Shunghee,” was a good case study of how the educationalists had learned more about the time from the simplest of documents, Professor Jenkins said.

Both professors believe 200 years ago the “h” sound in the name was probably more of a breathed guttural sound, whereas today it’s a soft ‘h’.

The period is also seen through the eyes of Titeri and Tuai, believed to be in their late teens or early 20s, who travelled to Britain in 1818 most likely with the hope of persuading settlers to move to New Zealand.

The men write about the industrial revolution, seeing “iron running like water,” and going to the zoo. One sends a letter with a lock of hair to “my dear girl Mary Ann.” Titeri could not write, but dictated his letters, then copied them from a slate on to paper. “He says when he gets back to New Zealand he’ll send her a mat, it’s so sweet,” Professor Jones said.

Eastern Ngapuhi Maori have already seen some of the works. For Professor Jenkins watching the reaction of grassroots people was magic. One bought a magnifying glass on his third trip back to see the work.

The work is being exhibited at Auckland Central City Library from Mon. 6 Dec. to Fri. 10 Dec.

The details of the exhibition are on the Auckland City Libraries site; there is a talk on Wed. 8 Dec 10.00am – 12.00pm at the Whare Wānanga, Central City Library, level 2 (map).

(The material was previously exhibited at the Whitiora marae on the Purerua Peninsula in the Bay of Islands.)

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