Maori Literary History

At the University of North Georgia Press, we are interested in enlightening our readers on the literary history of different nations. The Maori tribe of New Zealand’s literary beginning and growth is unique in that, since the beginning, the development has been slow. It was not until the seventies, that Maori literature obtained wide-spread popularity, but since then it has seen an enormous boom.

The beginning of New Zealand literature commenced when the Maori people called this island home around one thousand years ago. Like most cultures, the original Maori literature was shared orally through “laments, love poems, war chants, and prayers” (Christian Karlson Stead, 2014). The Maori people also shared the folklore of their gods.

In 1642, European pioneer Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand. Shortly after, in 1769 James Cook also made the voyage to the country. These two expeditions initiated the beginning of the European presence in New Zealand. A friendly greeting was not granted by Maori people when Europeans arrived; Maori people contracted several diseases to which they were not immune. The Europeans feared that the entire Maori population would die out,  so they began to collect Maori legends and preserve them in their original Maori language. These legends were shared among the Maori and Pakeha (European) people, which led to a greater sense of shared cultural identity.

The marae, which is the meeting place of Maori people, was the hub of the tribe’s literary history. In this spiritual space, oral stories were told, and striking performances entertained all who were in attendance. The Maori literature shed light on how the past affected current issues or circumstances. Maori stories seek to reinforce the innate values of their culture, one being mohiotanga, which is the share of information among all. However, without proper copyright guidelines, authorship was not always given to the correct individual.

After World War II, Maori authors wrote in English and were not usually fluent in the Maori language. It seemed as though the Maori literary traditions were lost forever. But, in the 1970s, the notion that Maori literature was solely a historical record ended. Maori authors wrote in English but discussed Maori issues. Books such as Once Were Warriors (Alan Duff, 1990) describe, in a dark way, how “Maori must take responsibility for their own failures and find the means to correct them” (Stead, 2014). The book describes a ‘modern’ Maori family which is poverty-stricken and full of misfortunes, some preventable and some not. According to Craig Cunningham, he states that the novel (which was later turned into a film) is, “ongoing argument between both younger and urban Maori and older rural Maori about what in fact it means to be Maori” (2013).

In recent years, New Zealand has seen an increase in literature written in the Maori language. A survey conducted by Statistics NZ (2013) discovered that only eleven percent of Maori people speak their native tongue fluently. But, authors have been making an effort to translate their pieces from English to Maori in order to further preserve their heritage.

The Maori literary history has come a long way since its oral beginning; however, Maori authors are still writing to preserve their heritage and share their culture with the rest of the world.