Indigenous Stories

“The stories were of people and whanaungatanga, of the plaiting that gives strength to the basket, the weaving that gives the basket beauty, and of koha that makes the basket full.”

-Patricia Grace, Potiki

I grew up in the United States, and our education in Native American culture was pathetic at best. What happened to indigenous people in every colonized country (so, most countries) is heartbreaking. My introduction to the violence of colonization was a book I found in the library in elementary school about an indigenous community that encounters European invaders. In the indigenous community, everyone had a sacred name that could only be invoked a few times during their lifetime. The main character’s sacred name was used when they were introduced to the Europeans, and the Europeans abused it throughout the novel until the main character lost their spirit. This was one of the few books I read as a child with an unhappy ending, and it stuck with me.

I’m always eager to learn more about indigenous cultures, and I found a book of Australian aboriginal fables by A.W. Reed at a secondhand store. I’m 90% positive that the author is not aboriginal himself (the back says that Wells was interested in aboriginal culture, which always brings to mind the kind of white person that collects tribal masks), so I wanted to pair this with a book written by an indigenous author. Fortunately Potiki, Patricia Grace’s novel about a Maōri community threatened by commercial development, has just come into print in the UK.

Despite the questionable authorship of the Australian aboriginal fables, I found them very entertaining to read. The underlying idea behind all of the stories in this book is that all animals were once humans, and they turned into animals when they acted in poor judgement or were faced with difficult choices. Reed organized this book by animal, which I found really interesting, because there were multiple origin stories for each animal. Several of the stories encouraged women to accept their role as wives and mothers; in one fable, two sisters who attempt to live independently of their tribe are frightened back into a traditional role by the end. The sentences in this book were unremarkable, since everything was meant to be informative and moralistic, but I was intrigued by the shift in narration at the end of the collection. Most of the fables are written in the third person, beginning with phrases like, “Long, long ago”. The last story, however, is entirely in dialogue, and it has a scene: a grandmother is gathered around a fire with a group of children in her community, and she is warning them to behave themselves. The grandmother uses the children’s uncle as an example, as he fell prey to the evil Yara-ma-yha-who, and she is characterized vividly. She has “high-pitched laughter”, and she looks “mournfully” away when she is asked why she couldn’t protect her relative. Whatever Reed’s motivations were, he chose a moving way to end the book, since the image of young children around the fire reminds the reader that these fables not just stories from “long, long ago”; they are part of an existing culture.

Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki is a beautifully written and very satisfying account of victory against white corporate culture. It’s hard to accept that it was written almost forty years ago, because indigenous groups have still received so little compensation. The novel is about a farming community near the coast in New Zealand, and their land is threatened when the local government wants to open a resort with access to the coast. Grace writes chapters from different members of a family. The mother, Roimata, worked as a teacher elsewhere in New Zealand before she returned to marry her childhood sweetheart and live and work off of the ancestral land. The father, Hemi, decided to dedicate his life to farming after he is laid off at the factory where he worked. They have three children, and one adopted son, Toko, who is physically disabled and spiritually gifted; he foresees the onslaught of environmental carnage. Grace’s short and lyrical novel covers environmentalism, cultural genocide, the effects of world wars on indigenous communities, mental illness, and physical disability. It works in Maōri mythology as well, and begins with a beautiful passage of carving the people’s ancestors for their meeting-house. The ending is bittersweet and uplifting. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about Maōri culture, or who wants to read a story in which the indigenous community is not destroyed.

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