Māori Association of Social Science Conference: Reflections


Māori Association of Social Science Conference: Reflections
Emerald Muriwai McPhee

Last month we were privileged with the opportunity to take our Māori researchers from the Wairua, Affect and National Days project down to the Māori Association of Social Science Conference. The conference theme was Nui te kōrero: Rewriting national narratives which was fitting to both our project and the current thinking space we are in as the project draws closer to our official end date. We ran a workshop on A wairua approach to research and I presented a short piece on Privilege and Denial of the Nation’s Foundation.

Appropriately, the conference started in the wharenui (Te Herenga Waka Marae) with reframing the narrative of Aotearoa’s beginnings with keynote speaker Dr Aroha Harris who introduced us to Tuki’s map:

Tuki's Map by Tuki Te Terenui Whare Pira (1793)

Tukitahua of Ōruru and his cousin Ngahuruhuru were kidnapped from their home in Northland  and taken to Norfolk Island in hopes that they would teach criminals about flax weaving. Unbeknownst to their captors, Tuki had minimal knowledge of flax preparation and instead he attempted to explain where he and his cousin would like to return to. Tuki drew a map of Aotearoa in chalk on the ground which was later replicated into the map above. Tuki's map is the first written Māori map on record as prior to colonisation knowledge in Te Ao Māori was transmitted through oral histories. Tuki's map illustrates the knowledge and values he personally held as tangata whenua of Aotearoa. One example of this knowledge is the spiritual inclusion of  Te Rerenga Wairua (noted as 'Terry-inga', i.e. Cape Rēinga) where Māori believe the spirits of those who have passed ascend to Hawaiki. 

Dr Harris reminded us that our stories needn’t start with Captain Cook’s map. She also reminded us to be aware that much of New Zealand’s taught and written history is taught from Cook's map - rather than from our pre-colonial indigenous history. Cook’s map is highly regarded and yet it represents a commerical and colonial interest in the resources Aotearoa had to offer. In Cook's map there is no apparent presence of the people living in Aotearoa, whereas Tuki’s map details the relationships between peoples of the Hokianga Harbour. Despite having never circumnavigated the islands, Tuki’s map shows knowledge of the significance of Te Wai Pounamu (The South Island).

Chart of New Zealand, engraved by I Bayly (1773)

Like many Māori, this talk reminded me that many of us (albeit unintentionally) start our histories at colonisation; in Harris’s words “history is one of the tools of the coloniser”. It is important to acknowledge that reclaiming, retelling and connecting with our pre-colonial narratives is a difficult journey we invest in and for many perhaps, a lifelong process.  Dr Harris illuminated that we, as Māori, possess complexity and sophistication, which equips us to understand the multiplicity that informs our diverse ways of being Māori today.

Many of us are aware of the histories of problematic misrepresentation rising from the stories we’ve been told about ourselves. To many, our existence is resistance. This opening kōrero was refreshing and drew us out from the mainstream national narratives we find ourselves entangled with.

Presentations from tauira, early career academics and experienced academics continued throughout the three days of the conference. The real value of such a space was the interdisciplinary collaboration that brought us together from what can often feel like lonely siloes of Māori knowledge and development. We heard about the intersection of what it means to be Māori and to be an athlete, or to be an urban Māori, what it means to engage in politics, iwi and hapū level engagement, the history of certain waiata, (re)education and many challenges encompassed in modern indigenous struggles. Uniting these presentations was the idea of voice and a critical awareness of indigenous identity against a context of competing deficits which we have been framed against for centuries.

The second keynote speaker, Professor John Maynard, highlighted the necessity of populating literature with missing narratives of indigenous histories. He spoke about his pride in cultural identity and history, which he sourced from his whānau history through his grandfather’s involvement in the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association. Professor Maynard also reminded us of the importance of young indigenous people being able to see heroes and positive, relatable representations of their own people.    

A collection of some of the 12 books Professor Maynard has published in the past 14 years

The depth and breadth of Professor Maynard’s outputs was impressive but it was what he found most rewarding about publishing that struck a chord. He described his books being passed around families and communities, well-loved and read by those who could see themselves in his stories. It makes a difference when your story is being told from within.

The final keynote was Dr Jo Smith who spoke about narratives of nationhood emerging from Māori television from 2004 to 2014. Dr Smith talked about settling the ‘otherwise beige’ nation state and how Māori television plays a role in framing/agenda setting – not telling us what to think but telling us what to think about. Coming back to Tuki’s map Dr Smith reminded us that many Māori organisations still operate within a ‘Cook oriented’ framework due to Government legislation. For Māori Television this takes the form of answering to competing demands – to authentically represent and support Māori and also to be relatable and understandable to non-Māori through 'benevolent biculturalism'. 

Māori Television Logo

Dr Smith's talk reminded us of the value of critically assessing who is setting the agenda, who is occupying the mainstream and how Māori can 'write back to the absence' of representation across so many areas of society. Opening the final day of this multidisciplinary conference with this talk was important, it drew attention to the presence of established and emerging Māori  academics who, at this point of time, may be one of the few (or only) indigenous people holding their ground in our respective fields and disciplines.


Just as the conference was drawing to an end I had the opportunity to present a brief analysis of some Waitangi Day content from the Wairua, Affect and National Days project. It was a privilege to hear the reflections of other indigenous scholars in the room who presented some useful suggestions and additions for our forthcoming analyses of this data. Most valuable of the feedback was the sense of indigenous solidarity and understanding - we were on the same page and coming from a critical standpoint which centres our worldviews as the default, the given and the perspectives that are most relevant to our peoples.  

Overall the conference experience was engaging and decolonising. Working across disciplines and interacting with indigenous academics of various levels of experience was a privilege as well as a reminder of the sophistication of our peoples and the critical work that we do. Whether we are resisting oppressive misrepresentations or writing back to the absence, MASS provided a safe and cohesive space to discuss, present and indeed, rewrite the diverse narratives we share as Māori in Aotearoa.