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Why Dame Anne Salmond is talking taonga

Dame Anne Salmond. Photo/David White

Veteran historian and anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond proves an amiably erudite and low-key host in a television series. 

A television series called Artefact presented by an anthropologist may sound a dry and dusty proposition. For Dame Anne Salmond, distinguished professor, writer, environmentalist, public intellectual and New Zealander of the Year 2013, who is clearly not daunted by much, it was a scary proposition.

“I’ve never done anything like it before,” she says, of her intrepid journeying for the six-part series, in which she seeks out, here and abroad, Māori artefacts and taonga with eloquent stories to tell.

Salmond had agreed to be involved in the project in some way, but before she knew it, she was auditioning as host. “We did a little pilot, just yarning about what the series might be about, to show Māori Television and New Zealand on Air. Just out in the hallway there.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

We’re talking at the Auckland villa she shares with her husband, architect Jeremy Salmond. It has a nice, wide hallway. “And then, gosh, we got the money.”

This was new territory for Salmond. Artefacts, she says in the series’ introduction, are “portals to the past that allow us to travel in time and place”. She’s more used to doing her time-travelling – voyages to the age of Captains Cook and Bligh, to first encounters between Europeans and Māori – in books, not with a film crew in tow.

The first episode explores some of the myths around Polynesian navigation and makes a strong case for skilled “star travellers” who didn’t just wash up here by accident. Salmond accompanies whānau from Uawa (Tolaga Bay) as they are reunited with a carving of their ancestor, Paikea, whale rider, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Paikea is wheeled out of storage, shrouded in plastic, an object of historical interest. The interaction between descendants and their tipuna indicates that he is much more. “We talk at home and think of you being lonely in a foreign land,” Paikea is told. “That last scene with Paikea, everyone was crying, the camera guys …,” says Salmond. “The curator from America was crying.”

Lance Ngata, from Uawa, greets the carving of his ancestor Paikea in New York. Photo/Maori Television

Charged presence

Artefact: the word hardly does justice to a charged presence of the taonga. That’s the point. “We talked about changing the title at times and then said no.” The idea was to challenge the assumptions underlying the word. “Is it an artefact or is it an ancestor? And how can it be an ancestor if it’s a thing? You assume, within the kind of rationality I was brought up in, that if it’s a thing, it can’t interact with you. You can look at it and you can measure it and photograph it, but it’s not going to influence your life or it doesn’t have its own being, personality. It doesn’t have the power to do anything in the world. It just sits there.”

Artefact quietly and powerfully demonstrates the limitations of that view. “All of us as a team didn’t want to do it in a way that was didactic or preachy. We just want to able to share it with people and say ‘Hey, come alongside.’”

As host, Salmond is engaged, amiably erudite, deliberately low-key. She was never out to be Simon Schama or David Attenborough. “I said early on that David Attenborough, if you watch his beautiful stuff, those plants and animals can’t talk. Works of art can’t, either. But if I’m going out there in the Māori community, those people can talk. They’ve got things to say and we really need to be making sure that they are the ones we’re focusing on. People like [artist] Lisa Reihana and [photographer] Fiona Pardington and the people in the communities.”

In an age of banging on, Salmond long ago learnt the art of listening. As a student, she travelled to hui around the country with mentors Eruera and Amiria Stirling. “Eruera said, ‘If you’re serious about wanting to understand te ao Māori [the Māori world], the marae is the university for you now.”

Now the old people are gone. “You had this other generation as your shelter, and all of a sudden, your head’s above the parapet. The wind is blowing and you’ve got to take what comes.” No, she didn’t get any grief for being a Pākehā woman fronting on matters Māori. “That can happen and it’s always a bit of a rock-back-on-the-heels moment when it does, but that happens to Māori as well, if you’re a Māori scholar navigating in the same space. You’re never just your own little self as an isolate booming around. It doesn’t work like that.”

She did raise the matter when Artefact was proposed. “I said, ‘Why me?’ If I had a hesitation about the whole thing it was around that. I was asked to do the thing and Māori Television then decided it wanted to do it.”

Tame Iti. Photo/Maori Television

Never the twain

In a way, she questions the asking of that question. “That whole dualistic habit of mind means Māori here, Pākehā there. So biculturalism is two little boxes and never the twain shall meet. You’re either in one or you’re in the other.” In Salmond’s writing about Māori-Pākehā encounters in works like Between Worlds and her ambitious 2017 book Tears of Rangi, subtitled Experiments Across Worlds, the action is often happening in the in-between.

“It’s sometimes going to be a Māori person in that middle space and the relationships and things that happen on screen will be different. But I think they wanted to see what would happen if they put me in there. It was an experiment.”

Greenstone Television made Artefact and the team – she names director Peter Burger and Libby Hakaraia, producer Jane Reeves and many more – had her back. “That created a kind of alchemy around the shoots. Pete had this lovely way of standing behind the cameraman and smiling encouragingly,” she says, laughing. “You can’t see that on camera. I’m often talking mainly to the director.”

There were some mad adventures. Once, she and Burger found themselves driving through the Maniototo in torrential rain. “We came to this river, just a creek but it had gone right across the road and ripped the tarseal off. Pete stopped the car, put his gummies on, got out and was just about swept away. I could see him thinking, ‘Oh my God, if I drown with Dame Anne …’”

“I better not say too much,” she says. “Health and safety.”

The logistical nightmares involved in getting access to some taonga made the relational way Salmond works come in handy. “What I was sometimes doing was just opening the door, using my networks.”

Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan’s mangōpare dress. Photo/Maori Television

Or, in the case of the British Museum, using High Commissioner to the UK Sir Jerry Mateparae’s networks. The Artefact team were almost refused the chance to see the cloak of Hongi Hika in the museum’s collection. “Then the networks got activated and in about five seconds we were in. The curators wanted it to happen but some of them wanted to charge phenomenal sums of money for people to see their own ancestors.”

The series threw up some terrific yarns. The team went by helicopter to Anaweka on the west coast, south of Golden Bay, where, in 2012, a waka estimated to be 600 years old was unearthed from the sand dunes by a picnicking farming family. “We dug a little bit, next thing a turtle appeared,” says Tony Nicholls. “Six and a half metres later …”

They loaded the find onto the tractor and took it back to the farm. The authorities soon heard about it. “After giving me a bit of a tune-up, they took possession of it,” he says. We see the ocean-going mataī waka being preserved in a chemical bath. Its last voyage was probably sometime around 1400. An incredible story. “So Kiwi, wasn’t it?” says Salmond. Indeed. Dig it out, chuck it on the tractor.

One of the series’ star artefacts is a frock: the striking, subversive black-and-white dress with the mangōpare – hammerhead shark – motif worn by long-serving Labour MP Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan. The episode Threads that Bind offers film of the moment, during the Queen’s 1953-54 visit to Aotearoa, when Tirikatene-Sullivan’s father, Eruera, takes off his kahu kiwi, the kiwi-feather cloak given to him by the Maori prophet TWM Ratana, and gives it to his daughter. She dances.

“Everybody’s doing the haka and he just takes it off and puts it on her shoulders and away she goes,” says Salmond. “And the Queen there watching.”

Clothing and mana: political activist Tame Iti eyeballs the camera as he models the clothes he wears with a huge sense of theatre. “He has long understood, and played with, the power and politics of clothes,” says Salmond’s voice-over. “He is a true lover of fashion.”

At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, artist Rosanna Raymond ascends a staircase in her Backhand Maiden guise, her bark cloth dress discreetly colonial from the front and literally cheeky when she turns around. “They cleared the Met for us,” marvels Salmond. “Do you believe that?”

Rosanna Raymond as the Backhand Maiden. Photo/Maori Television

Time of change

Artefacts. “They speak to all New Zealanders,” says Salmond emphatically, in the show’s introduction, “and tell us as much about our present and future as our past”. The series arrives at a time of significant change, as shown by such things as the backlash against increased use in public life of te reo.

“The thing that’s so heartbreaking about that,” says Salmond, “is that you have these people who are very sure that te reo Māori is useless and say it with all the authority of having been a Reserve Bank governor or of being an industrialist or whatever. And they know absolutely zero about it because they’ve decided in advance it’s not worth knowing anything about.”

It’s a refusal to contemplate another way of thinking. “It’s not just a language that’s cute to be able to talk. It’s actually a different habit of mind.”

Salmond is also heartened by a new openness to a richer way of seeing the world. “Things like the Whanganui River [Claims Settlement] Act, Te Awa Tupua, can go right through Parliament and you’ve got a river that’s got a legal personality and its own rights. I mean, where does that happen?”

The series’ final episode, The Call of the Huia, considers what’s been lost, using Fiona Pardington’s photographs of stuffed specimens of the extinct bird. It’s also a call to arms about what needs to be saved.

There’s a visit to the Salmonds’ property, Longbush, now Waikereru Ecosanctuary, near Gisborne, where bush is being replanted and native birds and animals reintroduced.

“It’s about not destroying the things that are so beautiful about this country, like the waterways and the birds and the bush, the sea …” The treasures of the past have their place in that ecosystem. “Actually, they are part of your own living life-support system.”

The past. Artefact is also about the way it won’t stay put. Open your eyes – and your ears – and there it is. It’s been there all the time. “We went up to Kororipo Pā with a descendant of Hongi, to the missionary settlement, with a descendant from there,” recalls Salmond. “I said to him, ‘What do you see when we stand here?’ He closed his eyes and he said, ‘I hear the voices of the old people.’ It was amazing, this moment when I was talking about seeing and he just shut his eyes and he was listening.”

ARTEFACT, Māori Television, Monday, 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.