Aroha Harris

Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi

Mahi: Lecturer, History Department, University of Auckland


In your discipline, what is methodology and why is it important?

The meaning of 'methodology' can be vague and elusive. In my view, in my discipline, methodology is the analytical frame through which I choose to view any research or historical problem I work on. That frame is built from the philosophies and principles that underpin how and why I choose the work I choose, and that guide my approaches to it. Though this explanation seems simple, usually I retreat from discussions about methodology. I think it's because at some point, methodology requires a declaration of basic beliefs: an admission of those philosophical - and frequently very personal - reflections that give me my interests, my work, my viewpoint and my commitments. I too often find myself exposed and vulnerable by that aspect.

Despite my reticence, I do think methodology is deeply important to the construction (and destruction) of history. In effect, methodology determines and controls who constructs history and how, which in turns gives us the histories that fill our nation's bookshelves. It gives us not only what we remember about ourselves and our past, but also what we forget. This situation presents a key problem for Māori history and Māori historians, and keeps us engaged in nuanced, fraught, and exciting history debates - both internally to Māori scholarship and externally between Māori and western scholarships.

Māori historians are currently engaged in a wider call to decolonize research methodologies, as espoused by Linda Smith. It is an activity concerned on one level with re-honing the Māori tools of historical enquiry, and on another with finding a historiographical location for its results. Locating history is a task for all historians, and for Māori it partly consists of escaping the past. That is, Māori historians are involved more and more in writing histories that help Maori escape the past into which they have found themselves written; the dominant historical discourse which tends to locate Māori history in the context of British colonialism and expansionism. Escaping the past may be one of the reasons that so many Māori scholars have intellectually repatriated to their tribal homelands; as tribal historians they return to and reinvigorate the indigenous historical trajectory that pre-dates colonisation.


Māori scholars also escape the past by writing Māori history up from under the great weight of New Zealand historiography, like Ranginui Walker has in 'Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou'. It is a huge task because New Zealand history has been written into New Zealand's sense of itself. It is a task mostly undertaken on contested ground, where Māori historians currently reject the role of historically accessorizing an unapologetic colonial narrative. Colliding with Western scholarship is therefore an occupational hazard.

Maāori history can also be written from and on its own ground. Yet, even those histories will methodologically wrestle with western academic approaches to history-telling, especially the apparent privileging of documentary sources. Histories produced as part of research programmes designed in the context of claims to the Waitangi Tribunal provide some examples of the wrestling that can occur. The main body of evidence accessed for this type of research is the government's official records, with some topics more reliant on it than others. Those records can be analysed and interpreted to support Maori claims, it's true. But I perceive a major problem nonetheless, one of methodological proportion: If the state's narratives dominate the sources from which these histories are written, what does that mean for Māori and history? To what extent is the Māori voice excluded from history? And to what extent does any exclusion inadvertently add even more weight to state's narrative? Is it sufficient that claims-related histories show the Crown to be in breach of the Treaty and claimants as prejudicially affected, or is silencing the Māori historical voice too great a price to pay? Furthermore how powerful will those histories be, as history, for Māori in the long-term? What will we know about ourselves from histories in which our narratives fail to register?

The problem is not insurmountable, but it requires consideration for methodologies other than those that privilege texts. It is insufficient to use Maori history to accessorise 'proper' histories with anecdotes, waiata, and whakatauki, or to simply police the use of Māori words and phrases. Conveniently, my kaupapa du jour assists here. It advocates the effective use of Maori narratives accessed through oral histories, an approach that has gained some currency amongst indigenous peoples. What is important about oral histories is that they are grounded in the Māori world, and told with Māori voices. As long as histories drawn from the state's record continue to take precedence, that voice will struggle to be heard. Yet there are long-standing and important Māori historical narratives; interested in daily life, concerned with local needs, and immune to the dictates of historical methods. Furthermore, they are accessible narratives, and they become more and more accessible the further into the twentieth century historical research extends. These Māori narratives ought to be accessed by historians (in the broadest sense of the word) trained in the methods of oral history and with the cultural cognition to work with Māori oral histories in particular. In that sense, oral history need not be mere recitation; it can be comprehensive and structured collections of life histories, analysed and written into history. Yet the potential of oral history has sometimes been down-played, reduced to the role of offering perspective or examples of personal experience against the administratively constrained views of the state. In fact, oral histories offer much more: an access to understanding the concurrency of Māori and state narratives. Apparently inseparable yet clearly discordant, they are the narratives of peoples who arrived in the present by way of separate historical trajectories. At the moment, one narrative, and its trajectory, is at risk - straight-jacketed and un-remembered by the other.

The challenge to history is to work with Māori narratives in a way that allows them to influence the historical representations currently being produced. It means giving Māori voice a turn with the historical microphone, without reducing it to the role of back-up singer. It requires clear and material commitment from teachers, commissioners and producers of history. And it demands critical understandings of methodology; its function, its form, and its power.