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Encounters Across Time
by Judith Binney

Listening was the heart and soul of Judith Binney’s historical practice.

By September 27, 2023April 9th, 2024No Comments

Judith Binney Te Tomairangi o Te Aroha (1940–2011) was one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most important and innovative historians. Tūhoe bestowed on her the name Te Tomairangi o Te Aroha in recognition of her contributions to Māori and Tūhoe history. As an author, editor, contributor, and teacher, she played an influential role in reshaping the field of New Zealand history during her career, and the five essays collected here in Encounters Across Time provide a compelling picture of her evolving practice of history.

Born in Australia, Binney earned her degrees and pursued her career in History at the University of Auckland, where I now teach. She retired just as I took up my position in United States history, so I met her in person only twice. But in the two decades since, I have come to deeply appreciate and learn from her practice as a Pākehā historian of her time, who began her career researching Christian missionaries in New Zealand before embarking on ‘the hesitant journey of a historian into the world of Māori’.

She was educated and trained in Western European-oriented historical epistemologies and methodologies. But during her career, multiple challenges arose that transformed these Western ways of thinking and writing history. Binney’s historical practice and her many publications paralleled and contributed to that transformation, a development covered with insight and skill in Damon Salesa’s foreword to this collection. Salesa points to many of Binney’s attributes as a historian, and suggests that being ‘an alert listener’ was one of her greatest.

Listening is central to each of these essays, which Binney wrote, presented, and published over a period of twenty-five years from 1985–2010. Binney, her collaborators and co-authors all listen. She listens to the descendants of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, Rongowhakaata leader and founder of the Ringatū faith; of Rua Kēnana, the Tūhoe prophet who claimed to be his successor; and of their followers. They, in turn, share family stories, communal memories, and oral histories and traditions. They share their own listening and their own lives.

For Binney, the experience is profound. By listening to Māori narratives of the past alongside reading the writings of Pākehā historians, ‘a gap in perceptions soon becomes apparent’, she observes in the book’s first essay from 1985. What she calls ‘juxtaposition’ becomes a critical aspect of her historical practice.

In juxtaposing Māori oral narratives and Pākehā written texts, Binney is working with what she calls ‘two forms of telling history’, and different kinds of sources for understanding the past. Because of their orality, Māori histories and sources previously had been doubted and often disregarded by Western-trained academic historians as means of accessing the past. This, in turn, privileged the voices and perspectives of Pākehā settlers and colonial authorities in histories of New Zealand. But Binney was part of a generation of scholars in history, anthropology, and other disciplines here and overseas who learned from Indigenous peoples and scholars and changed that.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, oral histories and oral traditions of waiata, whakataukī, and whakapapa came to be understood as invaluable sources for historical research. Binney and her co-authors also used oral interviews, which involve conversation and dialogue, and historical photographs. These sources offered narratives that contrasted with and challenged existing academic histories. ‘Through juxtaposition, the visible limitations of settler accounts – their stereotypes and their silences – are exposed’. This process, she argues, creates ‘illumination’ and ‘is the essence of the historian’s craft’. It is also why practising history with integrity matters: illuminating the past fully in order to inform the future we envision and seek.

This book makes clear how much Binney valued and learned from Māori histories and sources. It also makes clear how much she owed to and appreciated those storytellers who invited her in and shared their stories. ‘I first encountered this form of historical memory among Ngāi Tūhoe’, she recalls. She pays tribute to Robert (Boy) Biddle, Heta and Mau Rua (two sons of Rua Kēnana), the Reverend Hieke Tupe, John Ru Tahuri and Tama Nikora, who first provided her with a gateway to their knowledge and world.

Over the five essays, she returns again and again to the same shared stories, conveying them at different moments in time and interpreting their meanings in new contexts. She likens the form of these narratives to a fan, with the core story at the handle end and later tellings extending out from there. When Binney first hears these stories, their origins date back at least one hundred years. As they are told and retold to her over three decades, ‘the stories had shifted’. They do, because one of their purposes is ‘to connect a crucial aspect of a remembered past with present concerns’.

One story is of Te Kooti’s diamond hidden on Maungapōhatu, the sacred mountain of Tūhoe. The diamond, Binney explains, ‘carries a multitude of meanings’ depending upon the speaker and where, when, and for whom the story is being told. It signifies protection, hidden wealth, the mauri whenua and mana of Tūhoe, the Lamb of God as sacrifice and salvation, power and authority restored, and Te Ao Mārama, the world of light and knowledge. The versions Binney retells of the story of Te Kooti’s diamond may vary in details or meanings emphasised. Yet they all are ‘narratives born of injustice’ that ‘hold out hope, and sustain the belief that, in due time, … resolutions will be found’. This ‘predictive form of telling history’ anticipates justice to come and has influenced Māori decisions and actions toward that end.

Māori aims of achieving a measure of restorative justice through the Waitangi Tribunal process form a backdrop to the stories Binney relates in this book. The first essay appeared the same year, 1985, that the Tribunal’s purpose extended to historical breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Binney’s research and recording of Tūhoe history later informed the Tūhoe Claims Settlement Act 2014. The fourth essay here, ‘History and Memory’, engages in depth with oral evidence and testimony presented by claimants to the Tribunal and with how vitally important this process of hearing and validating Māori histories is. Remembering this past is not just about reversing forgetting but also about restoring justice.

In addition to being a good listener in her practice, Binney exhibits in these pages another attribute of a good historian: humility. Although she accrued many personal and professional accolades over her life and career, she was aware that many, many gifts of collaboration made her work possible and that her work was open to reinterpretation by historians to come.

She conveys that humility and awareness here, reinforced by her use of the passive voice. Redemption Songs, her 1995 biography of Te Kooti ‘grew out of listening to…the families’ oral narratives. It grew by a kind of inevitability’. When, upon the biography’s launch, she was honoured with a whakamanawa ceremony at Te Wainui, the marae of the Hāhi Ringatū, Binney saw it as ‘a mark of recognition for the source of the knowledge with which I’d been entrusted. The hau, the spirit within the gift and the generative force of life, was being returned to its home’.

Encounters Across Time

by Judith Binney

BWB Texts

ISBN:  9781990046148

Published: October 2023

Format: Paperback, 200 pages

Jennifer Frost

Jennifer Frost is a US historian and Associate Professor of History at Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland. Her most recent book is "Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment.