Adopting reading and writing – a story from the archives

In a book I mentioned recently, Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins discuss how and why Maori adopted the practices of reading and writing – and how early interactions between Maori and Pakeha on paper, as it were, can be understood in terms of the ongoing relationships between these groups today. It’s a really interesting book.

One section covers the creation of the first New Zealand book, ‘A korao no New Zealand’ (1815) [they think the r was lost at the printers from the intended word, koraro – :)]

In this section they describe the early adoption of these practices by Maori. They show how the value given to these skills by Maori might be better understood in the words chosen to translate the terms ‘read’ and ‘write’. Jones and Jenkins write:

The first New Zealand book can be seen as a remarkable product of Māori teaching. It was compiled mostly by Thomas Kendall, working with Tuai and other Māori, and printed in Sydney in 1815. The book was entitled ‘A korao no New Zealand; or, the New Zealander’s First Book Being An Attempt to compose some Lessons for the Instruction of the Natives’. Kendall used the little book in his school.” (119, italics in original)

Jones and Jenkins explain: “Words were required to name the practices of reading and writing. Someone – probably Tuai – found new meanings for old words as they interpreted the Pākehā teacher’s task, and made it meaningful:

Kapi ta karakea a koraro no New Zealand  It is good to read the language of New Zealand
[Ka pai ki te karakia i te kōrero (reo) nō New Zealand] [-p.128]

Kapi ta tue tue a koraro no New Zealand  It is good to write the language of New Zealand
[Ka pai ki te tuhituhi i te kōrero (reo) nō New Zealand]

The words ‘karakea’ (karakia; read), and ‘tue tue’ (tuhituhi; write) signal deep Māori interest in these two new skills. An English transliteration for ‘read’ and ‘write’ could have been adopted, as happened for ‘book’ (pukapuka) and ‘letter’ (reta), for instance. Instead, Māori used rich words already in existence, bringing the new practices of reading and writing emphatically in to the Māori world. The term ‘karakia’ might at first glance seem a strange choice for ‘reading’. ‘Karakia’ is popularly translated as ‘prayer’ and is traditionally defined as: ‘charm, spell, incantation; particularly the ancient rites proper to every important matter in the life of the Māori; to repeat a form of words as a charm or spell; to repeat an incantation over a person’. Karakia were most often spoken as chants, with an even meter or rhythm, and little tonal variation. They were intoned everywhere, from births, to planting, to wars, to the oral recording of deeds and other stories. Northern Māori [on whom this book focuses, because they were the first to involve themselves in this practice] addressed the gods regularly with karakia, usually morning and night – with a chanting sound. Karakia were also the basis of knowledge-holding in an oral society, and their words were readily learned and repeated; sometimes widely, sometimes restricted to a few.

The act of reading, then, had many apparent links with karakia. The people first experienced sustained reading by Europeans who clutched scriptures and intoned messages (such as prayers). The rhythmic patterns of such out-loud reading, and its spiritual significance to Pākehā, as well as its ability to contain important knowledge and repeated ideas, would have indicated to Māori that the practice of reading was a kind of karakia. Reading must have sounded like praying.

What about ‘tue tue’ for ‘write’? The traditional word ‘tuhi’ refers to adorning with, or delineating, marks. ‘Te tuhi’ is a word for the shapes, or drawn outlines, most commonly made to sketch out a tā moko (tattoo), a carving or a piece of weaving or painted decoration (tukutuku and kōwhaiwhai). When a shape is created and made on these surfaces, a meaning is inscribed; a message [-p.128] is left, about events, people and whakapapa. The messages of the tattoo, like those of the intricate tukutuku and the kōwhaiwhai, could be ‘read’. The double phrase ‘tuhituhi’ indicated the multitude of messages that writing left on paper. As writing was a form of adornment of the page, a continuous marking of the surface, a delineation of shape – indeed, a drawing – it is not surprising that the word used for the action of writing would be tuhituhi.

The significance of the terms ‘karakia’ and ‘tuhituhi’ (prayers and marks) brings reading and writing as practices into the centre of the Māori world – and their use in A Korao suggests a readiness by Māori to incorporate reading and writing into their range of representational tools. Indeed, quite aside from its significance to Europeans seeking to learn Māori language, A Korao can be read as an expression of cultural urgency on the part of Māori. They were interested in the practice of reading and writing; they needed to improve their communication with European traders and visitors. And vice versa. Engagement with writing was one way of doing this.” (pp.127-129)

Ref: Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins (2011) He Kōrero: Words Between Us; First Māori-Pākehā Conversations on Paper. Huia Publishers: Wellington

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Maori learners and education, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, Mono- Bi- and Multi-culturalism, Pakeha learners and education and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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