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An interview with Dame Anne Salmond

New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond, historian, anthropologist and author, walks in two worlds, and through her books has tried to bring greater understanding of the Maori experience and how it shapes us as New Zealanders.

Dame Anne Salmond, photo David White

Anne Salmond, eminent anthropologist and his­torian, has sailed the troubled seas of Cook’s Pacific, set herself adrift in a too-small boat with Captain Bligh and racketed around Aotearoa in a shiny retro caravan. She also knows how to stay put. We meet at the Devonport villa – modestly stately, serene and with good bones, much like its owner – where she has lived since the 70s with her husband, architect Jeremy Salmond, and their family. We were neighbours back then. Anne Salmond was the future Dame across the road (another, Cheryll Sotheran, once known as Te Mama of Te Papa, lived next door).

In those days, families had one car, you could raise children on a single wage and you couldn’t have too many macramé pot-plant holders. Salmond was teaching at the University of Auckland and producing dinner parties, books and babies in no particular order and with compelling efficiency. Already a matriarch in the making, Salmond was the one who, if your marriage was breaking up, might ask you over for a cup of tea and a gentle talking-to. My then mother-in-law reported seeing the internationally renowned Captain Cook scholar-to-be, very pregnant with her third child, gliding up the street in her kaftan, looking, she said, “like a galleon in full sail”. She was always going places.

One of the places she went, in 1980, was to Cambridge on a visiting fellowship. At Kings College she sat at high table and conversed with people who had known Bertrand Russell. “Kings had only gone co-ed about a year or two before, so had no female fellows,” she says. “They thought I was a wife who’d got lost.” In a way, given the gender politics of the times, that’s what she was. From the egalitarian provinces, she had no academic regalia with her. “This old chap one day said to me, ‘Do be a good chap and go and get a gown.’” She did.

“So he took me and ceremoniously walked me on the grass. Of course I’d read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and I was thinking, ‘This is fantastic.’” Amid the arcane rites of college life, she felt strangely … at home. “It’s got all these things about the ritual uncleanliness of women, the kaumatua, all these kind of ancient chants … It was like being on a marae. Seriously.”

It’s characteristic of Salmond, you soon realise, that finding herself at an ancient British university should simultaneously evoke two seemingly irreconcilable worlds: the Bloomsbury Group and Maoritanga. And that she soon has you seeing what she means. The college, the coterie and the marae are, on one level, institutions designed to get people together to talk to each other. She says at one point, “I think the purpose of scholarship is to look for the patterns in the world.”

Salmond has made a career out of the business of being on the cultural back foot. Her major works of the 90s, Two Worlds and Between Worlds, explore first contact between Europeans and Maori and the dangerous, exhilarating, transformational territory where worlds collide.

She grew up in Gisborne knowing as much about such things as most Pakeha. “I had no idea that the landscape I was moving around had different names and it had tribal stories all over it. We used to go for the school dances to Poho o Rawiri and do the gay gordons. That’s what I knew of that marae until I was 17.”

It took leaving, as an American field scholar, to galvanise her. “I had to give all these talks and I had to make up stuff when people asked me about Maori things.” Back home, she set about learning Maori. “Something clicked. It was almost like falling in love.”

As a very young academic, she began a collaboration – “it was a continuous exchange for the rest of our lives and probably beyond” – with Amiria and Eruera Stirling. Her travels with them around marae (the neighbourhood watched agog as the Salmonds managed through some sleight of hand to pack three children and all their gear into their blue Volkswagen Beetle) produced her first book, Hui, followed by Amiria in 1976 and Eruera: The Teachings of a Maori Elder in 1980.

When she talks about her immersion in things Maori, the process sounds more visceral than intellectual. “When you say it’s visceral, that’s one of the things I learnt with the Maori world. I learnt as much through the skin, through the soles of my feet. Through sleeping on the marae, through being caught up, sometimes, in really emotional situations because you love people.” She describes the way she absorbed the rhythms of Maori English when working with Amiria Stirling as “a sort of alchemy”.

Love and alchemy – not words you generally hear a lot in an interview with an academic. “When I worked on Amiria, I remember Bruce Biggs telling me it wasn’t anthropology.” In a way, it wasn’t. “It’s not the sort of anthropology where you stay objective and you stand back and you have what they talk about as the ‘imperial gaze’. That would be a total joke in my case. I never had anything like that relationship where you see people as your informants. There was no doubt about who was in control of the Maori world – it certainly wasn’t me,” she says. “It was always the case that I had to mind my manners.”

The motive for the study of Maori ceremonial gatherings, she wrote in Hui, was “a hope that it may somehow help to make the lives and hearts of Maori and pakeha a little less alien to each other”. That would involve diving into tricky territory where she wasn’t always universally welcome.

She’s still calling for a change of heart. Lately, Salmond has been speaking out in the media about things like the perils of economic inequality. “It is clear,” she wrote in the New Zealand Herald, “that the policies and philosophies promoted by successive governments aren’t working.” She took issue with an editorial on the Occupy movement in this magazine. “As Stiglitz observes,” she wrote, quoting the Nobel Prize-winning economist, “although ‘trickle-up’ economics has been ‘extraordinarily successful propaganda’, it is profoundly amoral.”

She’s in danger of becoming, in her quiet way, that rare creature, often viewed with suspicion in this country, the public intellectual. “Yeah, probably,” she sighs. “Not very deliberately.” Why take it on? “Well, I love the country.”

And her habit of seeing patterns in the world has her worried about the concentration of wealth, power and influence with the very few. “What do you do when you see things happening that you know are going to have certain outcomes that are going to be desperately terrible for a lot of people? Do you just sit by and keep your mouth shut? That’s the problem. It’s not that you want to be out there blathering.”

This is not entirely a new thing. “When I first wrote Hui, for example, that had a plea for looking after marae. I guess all of my books have had some sort of argument to them. In that case it was very much about a tradition that, in that stage of our evolution, was relatively invisible to a lot of New Zealanders.”

And recently she was having a tidy-up and found a piece she had written for ­student magazine Craccum in the 80s, when she was part of a push to have a marae at the university. “It was called ‘Institutional Racism at the University of Auckland’,” she says, laughing at the audacity. “I really nailed my flag to the mast.”

Still, it’s not a role in which she’s entirely comfortable. “I was talking with [filmmaker] Gaylene Preston about how we were brought up to be good girls. You’re not really supposed to stick your head up too far because you know it’s likely to get knocked off. The expectation that you will mind your ps and qs – that’s quite hard to get past.”

She’s not an economist, she hastens to add, before anyone else can. But she didn’t get to be such a fine interpreter of the earliest encounters between Europeans and the people of the Pacific without absorbing a lot about Western thought. It all goes back to the Enlightenment, apparently, and the tendency to see society as stratified. “Captain Cook has become an icon of imperial history. He epitomises the European conquest of nature, fixing the location of coastlines … classifying and collecting plants, animals, insects and people,” she writes in her magnificent The Trial of the Cannibal Dog. “You had civilised people at the top and then you had the agriculturalists, then the hunters and gatherers,” she says. “The agriculturalists were barbarians, and the hunters and gatherers were savages … You went down more or less to apes.”

Her books deflate these notions, while revealing figures such as Cook and Captain Bligh to be flesh and blood instead of quasi-mythical constructs. The impact of the encounters worked both ways, “transforming lives on the islands as well as on board ships and back in Europe”, she writes in Bligh.

“This idea that the West is a superior form of life and there’s nothing intellectual that Maori can offer – there’s no philosophy, no challenge or artistry – it’s just not right. People who say that don’t know anything. Because they think it’s not worth learning. And they’re the ones that say we shouldn’t teach Maori language to our children. How would they know? They’ve never made any effort to find out.” She can get quite indignant, in a quiet, reasonable sort of way. “I’ve spent my life trying to learn it and I would say it’s an intellectual stretch. It gives you a capacity to think about the world very differently, which is actually very adaptive.”

A missed opportunity, then? Salmond says things have been happening regardless, often under the radar. “There’s been a lot of quite deep transfer that you don’t notice. Because it’s all just around you and you take it for granted.”

She cites the way we communicate, our music, writing and art … “It’s at the level of practice rather than argumentation, often. There’s been a lot of experimentation going on.” Which can lead to accusations of appropriation, as artists like Gordon Walters found. “Yeah, but I think in a way they’re not borrowing. They just are in a dialogue with, I’d say, Maori philosophy, rather than Maori motifs.”

Two worlds. It’s complicated. Salmond doesn’t talk about differing worldviews, as in the same world looked at from different perspectives. She’s been working with a younger generation of anthropologists, including her daughter, social anthropologist Amiria Salmond, who are exploring a more radical position. “It says te Ao Maori, which means the Maori world, is not another worldview. It’s actually another world. It’s a different reality. Which is the case.” It doesn’t say that they’re hermetically sealed from each other. “Obviously in a relational model it doesn’t work like that … But different things happen, there are different poss­ibilities and the way in which you think and behave is quite different.”

Salmond should know. In a 1982 interview in this magazine, she talked about her work with Eruera Stirling. “After a while I understood more of the tapu of traditional knowledge. It became natural to miss a session if I had a period and later on to keep the manuscript away from food.” Does this difference extend to saying the physical laws of the world are different? There’s a long pause here. “Just the way the world works is different,” says Salmond.

If it’s a bit of a leap from such delicate matters to our flawed economic system, Salmond is the one to make it. The more relational approach of the Maori world, she thinks, has much to offer. “I’ve never believed in free-market economics, because it’s obvious to me that people don’t in fact live like that. They’re not cost/benefit calculating machines. The thing about Maori philosophy that is really intriguing is that it doesn’t replicate the world as isolated entities. It replicates the world as networks of relationships. So whakapapa, genealogy, is the model.”

It’s a view that has real relevance, she thinks. “The world is changing. People are travelling like crazy, the internet is moving like that, global exchange of commodities … It’s a totally relational means of communication. The idea of the individual as an isolate increasingly seems an illusion.”

At one level, it seems what Salmond is saying is that we should keep our eyes and minds open, explore all that’s to hand. As historian Michael King once wrote, “… one would have to say, having access to Maori experience and Maori role models is one of the features that distinguishes Pakeha culture from its cultures of origin”.

Her immersion in things Maori hasn’t meant abandonment of her own culture. “Not at all.” In fact, she has been increasingly exploring cross-cultural connections. A documentary screened on Maori Television in 2011, The Scotsman and the Maori, recorded her voyage, with her daughter, around her great-grandfather James McDonald. The artist, photographer and filmmaker also worked deep in the Maori world. “I used to look at his notebooks in my grandmother’s garage when I was a kid staying in Wellington. I’d dig into the cartons where there were quite a lot of his papers and sketches and photographs.”

So it’s all in the family. Of course, she says, there have been difficult times. In an interview she did on a return visit to Cambridge, she spoke of “times when people have said no white people should be writing about Maori life … And those have been very violent debates in New Zealand. Very violent.”

When her books Amiria and Eruera were re-released in 2005, historian John Wilson took Salmond to task for not addressing these issues in the new preface. “It is, perhaps, difficult for her to confront, even now, the pressures that made her retreat into history (just as Michael King moved sideways into Pakeha literary biography).”

If the politics of that time hurt her, she’s not saying. “But at the same time I don’t like confrontation.” And there was the odd fracas. “Titewhai Harawira,” intones Salmond. Of course. “I was at a Maori leaders’ conference and she didn’t think it was right that a Pakeha should be there. She sort of said so.” A friend from Ngati Whatua came to the rescue. “She told Titewhai off and said, ‘No, Ani can stay.’ In the Maori world, hopefully in those sorts of battles you don’t have to fight them for yourself. Because if you find yourself having to fight them for yourself, you’re in trouble.”

If no one had spoken up for her? “I would have left that room. When people don’t want you there …” But she doesn’t see her move into history as a retreat. You could read it as an advance, into studying the complex space between worlds she found herself inhabiting as an anthropologist working in her own land.

Anyway, she says, there was never any question of surrender. “When it came down to people saying Pakeha should get lost and all that, I couldn’t. You forge relationships with people like Eruera and Amiria – you don’t do that in such a way that you can then walk away from it.”

These days, those sort of battles in the past, she feels a certain freedom. “I feel less constrained than ever, in a way, because what’s to prove? What do I care?” She is, after all, a Dame; a recipient of a Prime Minister’s Award; an inaugural Fellow of the New Zealand Academy for the Humanities … “It’s not that,” she insists. “Your own profile and that sort of thing doesn’t really matter.” It must help get the letters to the editor published, surely. “Not necessarily,” she remarks dryly.

Some things remain the same. She’s still teaching and has a new book on the go, for which she has a Marsden Fund grant, about Maori philosophy. “It gives me the opportunity to talk about what was going on in science at that time in Europe and the kinds of ideas that drove the explorers. Then you can track that through into the present and into the future.” She wants it to be a contribution to an international discussion. “New ways of thinking about the future.” It will throw a wide net, touching on conceptions of health, justice, land use … “I’ve been working on it all my life, in a way.”

Salmond talks about the path she’s taken with an air of inevitability or, at times, a sense of destiny. “I think he was a matakite, one of those people who can see into the future,” she says, of Eruera Stirling.

“A lot of people will think that’s a fantastic thing to say. Actually, my experience in the Maori world is that there are people like that and he was one. He wanted to reach out and try to explain about an ancestral Maori world to other New Zealanders and I think he wanted me to do the same. That’s partly why he taught me.”

Prophecy, second sight – this is wild talk, coming from an academic, but she’s entitled. She has put in her time in both worlds, each of which has its share of the fantastic.

Part of what makes Salmond’s scholarship so compelling is the sense of a deeply personal voyage of discovery she’s on, still learning through the soles of her feet. “The sort of experience I’ve had in my life, of course it changes you. It’s not an objective study. It’s a way of being,” she says. There’s no walking away. “For me, it was not an option. I would have had to cut half of myself out.”

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