Story blogs

Sovereignty of history: Maori taking back control of our stories

Maori authors who seek to incorporate their taonga into te ao mārama struggle to retain sovereignty over their stories. Many choose to publish their own works to ensure they control the narrative from start to finish.

The fibers of our body are made of whenua – earth, placenta. I think then the fibers of our minds are stories – pūrākau. Pū o te rākau, the pith of the tree, where nutrients are extracted from the roots to sustain it. And just as tree roots are like the landscape of our lungs, we exist as living stories.

Che Wilson once said that our stories don’t die, they just sleep. Whether it’s 10 years or a hundred years, eventually they wake up again. Stories that weave us into the social fabric of our communities, inspiring us to dream up new realities for ourselves while honoring our old ones.

We hear a lot about tino rangatiratanga in politics, health, land, governance, but what about sovereignty over our stories: who tells them, edits them, influences their content and where they end up, what Is it online or in libraries?

For many Maori writers, the sovereignty of history is freedom from outside influence, the ability to thrive independently of colonial power structures built solely for our muted participation. Rangatahi Māori writers, like 20-year-old Nadia Hineaorangi-Solomon of Ngāi Te Rangi, clearly know what this is like.

“The sovereignty of history is a landscape where you can grow your mahi without a Pākehā person touching it. You can bring them if you want, but can you get to this point without any input from Pākehā. We know they can, but can we?

Māori Mermaid, aka Jessica Hinerangi Thompson-Carr (Picture: Supplied)

Māori Mermaid (26, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāruahine), aka Jessica Hinerangi Thompson-Carr, suggests that story sovereignty is about “writing what you know and creating art inspired by where you come from. It feels like building and giving back to your people with your creativity.

From generation to generation, our literary landscape has transformed as each successive generation strengthens our sovereignty of voice and platform. Quickly catalyzed by social media, Hineaorangi-Solomon was able to write a poem illustrated by Māori Mermaid for #ProtectPūtiki that wove the threads of activism, digital publishing and tuakana/teina collaboration. Our efforts to tino rangatiratanga in our storytelling bear witness to these moments, transforming the ever-changing face of our literary landscape.

For non-binary Maori poet essa may ranapiri, 28, of Ngāti Wehi Wehi, Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga, Te Arawa, Waikato-Tainui, Ngāti Pukeko, the sovereignty of history is the ability to be sovereign within ourselves: control over our lives, power over our resources, and an unalienated relationship with our whenua.

This relationship with the whenua is fundamental to indigenous organizations, particularly Maori. Sovereignty of place is the foundation of our identities: whakapapa, rooting in whenua/whakapapa.

By defining ourselves as autonomous beings, we begin to see the lay of the earth and the resulting awa in what essa describes as our symbiosis with the natural environment.

“When we told stories, it wasn’t separate from everything else, it was part of our relationship with the world, with each other, with the land. And so the ideal is that we find that relationship in a more fully realized form, and in turn, the stories that are thrown back to us also take on a more realized expression of sovereignty.

essa may ranapiri (Photo: Supplied)

Since beginning her multimedia storytelling project NUKU three years ago, designer Qiane Matata-Sipu from Te Waiohua, Waikato, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Pikiao and the Cook Islands has been driven by the sovereignty of story.

“It’s speaking your truth unfiltered, uninterrupted, on your own terms, at all times.”

Matata-Sipu wanted to give the 100 Indigenous women featured in the subsequent book NUKU: Stories of 100 Indigenous Women power and control over their narrative. So when it came to bringing the book into te ao mārama, self-publishing made sense, she says. And with NUKU on its second print run, having nearly sold out the first print run of 4,300 books, it looks like the sovereign stories have an audience.

“It’s amazing to have absolute control over every part of the process,” says Matata-Sipu. “There are so many pros and so many cons that are almost equally weighted. For NUKU in particular, I just want to get this book into as many homes and hands as possible and so I’m aware of the benefits and the costs, making sure I’m never at a loss, but it’s not about neither do all that money.

Patricia Grace (Picture: Supplied)

Of course, we are in this position as Maori writers to create works with autonomy partly because of the groundbreaking and groundbreaking works of Patricia Grace (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa and Te Ati Awa). She began writing at a time when there were few published Wāhine or Maori writers in Aotearoa, let alone Maori Wāhine writers. At the heart of how she approaches her work is responsibility, to herself and her iwi, hapū and whānau.

“I have to be able to write what I want to write, the way I want to write,” Grace says. “That’s it, really. Not to be influenced, for example, by reviews or comments from other people, and with respect to criticism, not to leave any negative impact on the way I write. That’s not to say I won’t listen to advice or consider feedback. But at the end of the day, I have to take full responsibility for what I do.

This element of responsibility is integral to the task of writing as tangata whenua – we are connected through whakapapa to the stories that have been told and those that are yet to come. So how do we position ourselves along the twists and turns of our literary landscape? According to Whaea Patricia, the answer is simple: “As a Maori, having whakapapa means that you are your own authenticity.

Qiane Matata-Sipu (Photo: Supplied)

Each iteration of the above intergenerational haerenga across the landscape of contemporary Maori writing has brought us to the same point; our stories must be told by us, in our own way.

Where we are now, in the collective nature of our evolution, is the creation of an expanding macrocosm of inspiration. By witnessing the iterative movements of our peers, we are in turn influenced, inspired. We rise because that is who we are. This is hugely important to Jessica Hinerangi Thompson-Carr/Māori Mermaid: she wants to see more Maori get opportunities and access resources that will allow them to tell their stories without financial, academic or elitist barriers.

Similarly, essa speaks of the need to provide more opportunities for more Maori board members, publishers and decision-makers across the literary landscape, which “makes Maori not are not published.

For Nicole Titihuia-Hawkins, 34, from Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa and Ngāti Pāhauwera, the inclusion of a Maori editor in her first collection of poetry was key to allowing her autonomy to exist within the pages of WHAI (published by We Are Babies Press, 2021). She is also explicit about the role of the sovereignty of history in the literary landscape.

“Sovereignty of story is extremely important for Indigenous writers, especially when using traditionally Pākehā-dominated publishing options, because when we contribute stories to the literary landscape, we need to ensure that we have a full range of storytelling, not just clickbait, the same dusty old stereotypes or even what’s in vogue at the time in Pākehā publishing.

Sarah Clare Brown and Matt Brown (Picture: Supplied)

Things have changed dramatically since the days of newsprint, paperbacks and even blogs. The way we engage in storytelling has changed so rapidly that it is defined by its own denouement – ​​like the tail of a taniwha, the awa of storytelling within te ao Māori is still writhing , to move, to change.

Sarah Clare Brown, 39, of Ngā Puhi/Te Rarawa, is co-author of She Is Not Your Rehab alongside her husband Matt Brown. After going down the self-publishing route, the couple found out the hard way about the costs of trying to figure out the best way to tell a story. The work took over two years to write and required funding grants to produce – and despite its commercial success (four weeks to No. 1 on the bestseller list) it was still not a sufficiently financially viable to support their young family. Returning to Titihuia-Hawkins, she urges people to ask themselves why they write.

“Do you write to make your grandmother proud? Are you writing so younger versions of yourself can read what they need to get through? Do you write with the aim of being famous on Insta? Go back to your purpose and your audience to help you prioritize what matters most to you.

Social media has become the topsoil of the sovereignty landscape of Maori history, with this information infrastructure connecting us in a way that no other generation in history has. By creating visibility in our Indigenous literary landscape, we have more access than ever to each other, to our stories and to our sovereignty.

Audiences that once existed outside of the creative process are now frequently ushered into the privacy of a writer’s space. Previously, Maori writers incubated their stories under the ceilings of publishing houses that were rarely populated by ours. Now we see writers co-designing their stories not just with their audiences, but also with their own healing.

When Whaea Patricia started her literary journey with Waiariki, she was unaware of the parched land her works entered – she only knew what stories she wanted to tell and how to tell them in her unique way.

“I always felt I wanted to write about ordinary people living their ordinary lives. And I’ve always been interested in intergenerational storytelling – that interests me more.

In te ao Māori, storytellers are never separated from the communities in which they exist. With social media tying the writer-audience relationship much more intimately, writers now have access to instant feedback from their community. The publisher may be a house, but we have always existed as pa. Hearing the overwhelming resurgence of self-confidence in our journey to retain, maintain and reclaim the sovereignty of our history is so encouraging and so healing. I think of the late Pā Moana Jackson, who said that the greatest thing taken from us by colonization was our beliefs. Self-confidence seems to be the ultimate foundation of story sovereignty, and as it resurfaces in the landscape once more, we see the dawn of a new horizon.

Kai te mihi to everyone who took the time to share kōrero with me for this piece: Nadia Hineaorangi-Solomon, Mariwakiterangi Paekau, Jessica Hinerangi Thompson-Carr aka Māori Mermaid, essa may ranapiri, Nicole Titihuia, Qiane Matata-Sipu, Sarah Clare Brown, Nadine Anne Hura and Patricia Grace.

Many thanks to Rangimarie Sophie Jolley for her contributions and editorial support to this article.