The Anthropology of Being (Me)

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Paul Tapsell  as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Paul is Professor of Anthropology, and Māori, Pacific, and  Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago. His research interests include Māori identity in 21st century New Zealand, cultural heritage & museums, taonga trajectories in and beyond tribal contexts, Māori values within governance policy frameworks, Indigenous entrepreneurial leadership, marae and mana whenua, genealogical mapping of tribal landscapes and Te Arawa historical and genealogical knowledge.]

The greatest challenge of being an anthropologist is being me. From one decade to the next I have been a cross-cultural island of self-consciousness, framed by the cross generational memories of wider kin. Wisdom comes in many forms, but as I tell my students, at least those who turn up to class, it cannot be found on the Internet. Somewhere between my father’s Maori generation of desperately trying to be English and my children’s reality of being overtly Maori you find… me.

Raised in the tribally alienated rural heartlands of Waikato naivety (built on 19th century confiscations at gunpoint), my view of the world was one of barefoot summers by the ocean, while the rest of the year was underpinned by frosts, fog, rugby and ducking for cover in a rurally serviced school surrounded by affluent dairy farms and horse studs. Right from the start teachers placed me neither at the front or the back of the classroom. Kids in the front were mostly fourth generation descendants of English settlers, while at the back were the ever sniffling Maori who had no shoes and walked five miles to school across farmlands, one steaming cow pat to the next. And there I was, from age five, placed right in the middle, on the boundary between a white-is-right future and an uncivilised dark skinned past.

Weekends provided respite, often spent with my grandmother while dad mowed an acre of lawn on our tribal property back in Rotorua. She used taonga (ancestral treasures) to instil in me a deeper understanding of the proud history to which Maori belonged, decades before these stories found their way into mainstream classrooms. Taonga either at her museum or off the mantelpiece made history all the more real to me, especially when performed during death rituals on my ancestral marae (community villages) of Maketu and Ohinemutu.

Life in the 1960s-70s seemed so simple, so straightforward. You were either Maori (dark like dad) or English (lily white like mum). If you were Maori, society deemed you dirty, lazy and only good for fixing roads or driving buses. Whereas if you chose to be English, no matter your skin colour, you could participate in a national ideology of being “one people”, but only so long as you played by the rules. I did not play by the rules. My very left wing Irish grandmother filled my head with a whole different way of seeing the world. For her, colonial New Zealand was extremely unjust and Maori had been royally screwed by the English. She kept the home fires alight, becoming the most feared” Maori” in our village. In 1915 her husband and twenty-five other kinsmen had fought for God and Empire on foreign soil, killing indigenous people of another land in the name of an English King, but for what? To return home as second rate citizens, shot to pieces, and dig ditches on lands now owned by wealthy farmers? No, her world was now here.

Given this background my gravitation toward anthropology and later specialisation in museum ethnography (Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University) was always going to happen. I grew up as a member of a tribe famous for producing, protecting and prestating taonga across tens of generations, many of which are now found in museums throughout the world. My earliest formal memories were genealogically layered narratives (whakapapa) from elders who animated surrounding landscapes with great deeds of my ancestors. I was raised to be proud of my whakapapa. But when my grandmother died my world was tipped upside down. My parents shifted us away from perceived negative influences of tribalism to let the cities shape their children into more urbane citizens of modern integrated New Zealand. By the age of eighteen, I had dropped out of education and fled to Australia on a one-way ticket. Like so many other Maori, I wanted to be anywhere but here, anywhere but living in 1970s white conservative, backwater colonial New Zealand.

Over the next decade I found solace through professional sport and writing, providing me a useful vehicle by which to travel the world and experience a multitude of cultures as an outsider looking in. The more I engaged with others, the more I began to reflect on my own cultural self and childhood experiences of being Maori in a still racially divided nation. And then overnight England joined the EU (then known as EEC) and New Zealand was forced to radically reinvent itself to survive economically. Leveraging Maori identity became a horizon of new opportunity – a point of difference on which the government sought to market national uniqueness. Its flagship was an international touring exhibition of taonga, named Te Maori (1984-87), representing a new Aotearoa New Zealand: an island nation which dared to imagine a bicultural future built on the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. In the wake of Te Maori was born the Museum of New Zealand Project better known today as Te Papa: two cultures, one nation.

Beneath today’s flagging bicultural ideology still exists the unaddressed premise of being Maori: kin-accountability to source marae communities. It represents tribally ordered rights and responsibilities according to ancestral context. But where does such a philosophy of knowledge fit in a bicultural nation based on urban Maori ethnic identity beyond the horizon of New Zealand’s 766 tribal marae? The Treaty promised protection of such communities, but it now stands for the delivery of globalised tribal (Iwi) organisations based on laws of exclusive ownership at the expense of kin-belonging and inclusion. It was the genesis of these fascinating bicultural tensions that drew me back to university and into anthropology.

While my academic training was initially underpinned by post structuralism with a healthy injection of ethnicity, it was when I stepped outside the western paradigm of grid-ordered Cartesian epistemology that my engagement with the “field at home” became real. Some might refer to my approach as reflexive ethnography, bordering on neo-traditionalism. But closer inspection of my writings might also reveal a reorientation of knowledge according to a genealogical accountability to source, beyond any currently practiced Indigenous Methodology. Lets call it being “pre-indigenous”: a counterpoint to current globalised Maori organisations or “iwification”… I remain my late grandmother’s work in progress, continuing to challenge the status quo as I explore cross-generational consciousness through museums and taonga.

My ongoing challenge is to find effective ways to communicate to the field what it really means to be the Other when described from the position of my Anthropological Self. Two decades on and boundaries of misunderstanding in wider New Zealand are growing even wider. Who is doing useful anthropology of our cultural crisis when needed most? Maori urban dysfunctionality and tribal depopulation dominate our headlines. I threw myself into this fray a decade ago and today it has evolved into Maori Maps, a digitally born cross-generational reconnection gateway…

So with last thoughts of elders, grandmother and mentors, Sir Hugh Kawharu and Greg Dening: here I am again, at the boundary of difference negotiating being me with the rest of the universe.




Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

2 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Being (Me)

  1. Kia Ora, Paul – As a South Pacific anthro/archaeologist I really enjoyed your writing and words. I’m currently wrestling with the self, value, and relevancy when in the field both in the South Pacific and here with Indigenous communities in British Columbia. Do you mind expanding on your idea of ‘pre-indigenous’ relative to accountability, knowledge building, and perhaps relationality? Thanks, man.

  2. Paul, this is a marvelous piece of writing that beautifully captures the dilemma of a self whose identity is grounded in a tradition confronted with powerful alternatives that threaten to overwhelm it.

    On the one hand, I recall the small library of works on 19th and 20th century Chinese history where the relationship between tradition and the modernity embodied in the West is fraught with concern about what it means to be Chinese in a rapidly changing world. I think, in particular, of the late Joseph Levenson’s Confucian China and Its Modern Fate, in which the historian traces changes in the implications of key philosophical terms, ti and yong, usually glossed as *substance” and “function.” Before the nineteenth century, they were inevitably paired and seen as integral, complementary components of the same Chinese cosmos. Following the Opium War , they became dissociated, with ti referring to what was seen as an eternal Chinese essence and yong referring to practical matters, technology imported from the West. I find myself wondering if Maori concepts are undergoing a similar change.

    I am also reminded of the peculiarities of the tradition in which I grew up in southeast Virginia in the USA in the mid-twentieth century, where the founding myth is that of people who reject the “Old World” and immigrate to what they see as the “New World,” a place to reinvent themselves. Again an historian comes to mind, Michael Kammen and his Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. Here the central theme is the establishment of monuments, museums, historical societies, and organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, in efforts to shape a tradition in which post-Civil War American society could find grounds for unity.

    Both these works might lead you in interesting directions.

Comments are closed.