KEI MUA KO NEHERᾹ: THE PAST BEFORE US
—Notes from a field journal
It is arguably true that the past is a story about grandmothers. Part of my own past can be found in a spiral-bound 8B8 exercise book with a red cover that my mother keeps in a drawer by her bed. A couple of years before her death my grandmother bought the exercise book from the corner shop down the road and in her cramped, arthritic hand, she wrote the story of her life.
“Tell me a story!” I would demand as a child. My grandmother would close her eyes for a moment and then she would begin,
“Once upon a time, when I was a girl…”
Sometimes her stories lasted the whole afternoon and through to bedtime and I would wake early the next morning to insist on a change in the plot as I lay tucked beside her in bed.
“Tell me a story.”
“What shall I tell you a story about today?”
“Tell me about when you were a girl.”
“Do you want a happy story or a sad story?” she would ask.
“A happy one.” I would tell her, “But it can be sad for a little while if you want.” I would add generously.
“Righty-o then. Once upon a time, when I was a girl…” And so it would begin.
I remember her childhood in the Waiotahi Valley near Opotiki and the smell of sheep in the woolshed. I remember, because she told me, the games she played with her older brothers and sisters on the farm — those people who I knew only as frail and elderly great-aunts and uncles. I remember, because she told me, the 1918 influenza epidemic and the deaths at the Waiotahi pā. I remember the shift in the family fortunes— the Great Depression and the foreclosure of the farm. But I do not remember when I stopped asking my grandmother to tell me stories.
The Through Our Eyes photographer-participants tell a story of the past as a series of movements of people across a landscape. History happens for them when they open the family album and see the uncle who shifted to a different town to look for work or the cousin who moved back home from the city after a long absence. History happens when Koro sits the baby on his knee and remembers the past or when the aunties get together to share the family gossip. In those moments, history is simply families in motion.
I think this is important. My husband is a Treaty historian and he recreates the past each day as he sifts through Deeds of Cession and Certificates of Title written by candlelight in 19th-century script. For him, professionally at least, the past is about memory and that which can be independently verified. Speaking on the witness stand in front of frowning Crown lawyers— he cannot say as I do — that the past is about the things we have forgotten or only half-remembered. He cannot say that the past is a story about grandmothers.
But records of the past are important. The Marae is an archive of history and memory and the young people took a great many photographs of wharenui and urupā for the Through Our Eyes project. Several of the photographer-participants have learnt about the past through the carvings and the waiata and the stories told in the wharenui. They have learnt that the past is not over. Not by a long shot. It surrounds them in the wharenui and when they look in the mirror. It is embedded in their everyday lives and shapes their pathways into the future.
Yet the past is enticingly slippery, especially when it lies in wait for us beneath a carapace of public memory. We see it dressed in ceremonial robes for state events or stored on microfiche in city libraries. We hunt it down on nostalgic journeys through ‘historical’ villages and museums and sometimes glimpse it— fleetingly— from the corner of our eye when the viewing hours are over and the tourists have all gone home. But the past is so often a story about other people— about dead kings and prime ministers— as remote to our photographer-participants as the surface of the moon.
This is also important. The past is full of famous people and sometimes they get in the way of history. They leave a litter trail of documents and facts which are interesting in themselves but which do not explain the past. For example, I know for a fact that Richard John Seddon was born in 1845 and that he later became the Prime Minister of New Zealand. I know he died while still in office in 1906 on a return journey to New Zealand from Australia. There is a satisfying number of hits when I ‘google’ his name on the internet, but equally, I cannot ‘google’ my grandmother or her family and get the same results. I can tell you that Seddon was in power when women got the vote but I cannot tell you about the gaps that appear in the story about my grandmother’s childhood in Waiotahi, nor explain the odd silences that surround certain family memories.
One of my great-aunts kept a diary during the years that she lived in Waiotahi with my grandmother and the rest of their large sprawling family. I have often wondered if she kept these careful records for some imagined daughter who would in turn tell these stories to her own children so that nothing would ever be forgotten and that the daughters of each successive generation would look after the journals and ensure that they were passed on. In any event, she had no children of her own and when she died in 1976 she left her possessions, including her diaries, to my mother.
When my mother arrived for the funeral, she discovered that the journals had perished. Another of my great-aunts, one of my grandmother’s older sisters, had put the lot into a backyard incinerator and set a match to them. “Oh,” she said, when my mother asked for the diaries, “You don’t need those.” Even now I regret their loss.
So the past is often about the stories that we don’t tell — the letters that get lost in the post or memories that are consumed by a backyard fire. The past is often about the things we don’t talk about and events we would rather forget. Yet many of those half-remembered histories reverberate across time and they have the power to affect each generation in new ways. The past is about the choices our grandparents made and how they coped with loss. It is about how those past losses shape our lives in the present and how we mend the broken threads. How we make amends.
But the past is also about time— how we experience it and how we define it. For the Through Our Eyes photographer-participants, time is both fast and slow. One photograph of a child on a swing describes time as a sense of the past in rapid motion. The photographer shows us a moment of stillness captured in a sweep of playground movement.
Time is also the slow passage of hours. Young people often experience time as an interminable period of waiting. They wait in queues in school corridors and classrooms and we caution patience in their rush to adulthood. We tell them there is a time for everything and then leave them cooling their heels in the holding pens of adolescence. In several photographs, time seems to be held captive by the slow drift of afternoons.
One photograph shows a clock-face reflected in team portraits of school alumni.
Another photograph shows a group of young people sitting in a classroom at the end of the school day.
And in another picture, through a schoolroom window, we spy a school girl at her desk.
Time also has a way of looping in on itself in ways that appealed to the photographer-participants. In one image of a landscape at sunset, the photographer-participant explains that the day is over— it is past. Tomorrow the sun will rise again. In the twilight moments between day and night, the past and the future are safely merged within the land. Time loops in on itself.
In the weeks before my grandmother died, her memories of her childhood at Waiotahi grew stronger and on several occasions she believed herself to be back there. When I visited her she often seemed to be preoccupied with the most wonderful party that was going on in the garden at Waiotahi— no matter that the party had taken place nearly 80 years before and that most of the guests had since passed away themselves. It didn’t matter. It was glorious. I imagine the women in tea-gowns and straw hats strolling across the lawn. So at the end, my grandmother started telling me stories again. Time loops.
The past is important to the young Māori involved with the Through Our Eyes project. It connects generations of people across time but it is also a pathway to the future. It is a battle waged against the dragging hands of the clock and a story told on the Marae. Like me, they do not think of the past as a remote echo of history. They see it as a slow unfolding of memory told to them by an older relative.
My mother still keeps my grandmother’s life-story in the drawer by her bed. It is 48 pages in length but it does not tell the whole story. My grandmother had a long life.
Based on notes from a field journal
Photographic images: Permission for the use of images on this site has been negotiated with the individuals and groups involved. Research involving photographic images received institutional ethics approval and participation in the project for young people under the age of 16 years was subject to parental/guardian consent.