Skip to main content
EssaysHistoryMāoriNonfictionSociety

Knowledge is a Blessing on Your Mind: Selected Writings 1980 – 2020
by Anne Salmond

'It is impossible to overstate the social and political value of this book.'

By November 24, 2023No Comments
Advertisement

In 1964, a young Pākehā anthropology undergraduate at the University of Auckland met a rangatira from Te Whānau-ā-Apanui who would change her life. He was Eruera Stirling, who viewed knowledge as a treasure: ‘Knowledge is a blessing on your mind’, he said; ‘it makes everything clear and guides you to do the right things in the right way’. It is no surprise that Eruera’s words form the title of a book that makes things clear and gives – without any arrogance or certainty – guidance for all New Zealanders on doing the right things in the right way.

It is impossible to overstate the social and political value of this book. And it is hard to avoid superlatives faced with the breadth of Anne Salmond’s scholarship and commentary represented in its 600 pages. A collection of articles, blogs, talks and essays, the book is a sort of Festschrift, a sample of Salmond’s extraordinary work over the past 40 years, her stimulating and creative insights into a wide range of topics, from institutional racism at the university to casting heads in the Pacific, from ‘why did Captain Cook die?’ to Māori epistemologies, to thinking like a fish. Her personal bibliography covers eight pages.

Many readers here will at least know of distinguished professor Dame Anne Salmond, whether from her books, television documentaries, articles and media commentary, or because she was their teacher at the University of Auckland. The sheer volume of her writing can be daunting for some: even her very readable, award-winning historical-anthropological books on Aotearoa and the Pacific are inches thick. But she also regularly writes short articles on Newsroom and other digital platforms, taking seriously the responsibility for making informed public comment that comes with her academic distinction and her status as a Member of the Order of New Zealand.

For readers seeking a quick introduction to Salmond’s writing, this collection is the place to start. A taste may awaken the appetite for more, but this alone is a rich feast. For those already familiar with her work, here it is in compelling summary and well worth revisiting.

The 17 chapters are all reprinted and updated from other sources (published from 1981 to 2019), each with an absorbing, freshly written preamble to contextualise it in the events of the time of writing, including Salmond’s own family life and the roles played by her children and beloved (late) husband Jeremy. There are photos, too. One of my favourites is reproduced on the back cover. It shows Salmond as a young student sitting beside Eruera Stirling. He looks directly at the camera, a serene and beautiful face, seemingly content in Salmond’s company. Her grin is wide with delight. An intense educational relationship and friendship between a young Pākehā woman and an esteemed Māori elder knowledgeable in the old ways was unusual then, and even more so now. It may, in fact, be unique.

Stirling and his wife Amiria taught Salmond over two decades, starting in 1964 when he said: ‘Where we sleep, you sleep; what we eat, you eat; where we go, you go too’. In her essay ‘A Scholar’s Life’, Salmond writes that she doesn’t know why Stirling chose her to be his student, to take her to countless hui, to teach her about te ao Māori, whakapapa, philosophy, language, and culture. He was a man of brilliance and insight, perhaps also a matakite, one who could see the future. Maybe he could see the future in young Salmond, that she would bring the Māori world to the Pākehā at a time when most Pākehā remained almost entirely ignorant and often dismissive of Māori knowledge and communities.

Salmond has more than fulfilled Stirling’s prediction. I think he would have been thrilled with this collection and what it represents. She does not say as much, but the close relationship with Eruera and Amiria may have provided her with the confidence and knowledge, the permission, even the requirement, to write and speak as she has. Who can criticise someone who has been chosen by the best? Some young Māori have publicly attacked her for writing about te ao Māori; I imagine Eruera and Amiria would be unimpressed with such dismissal of their astute decision-making. Many of my own students (Māori and Pākehā) ask the question: what right does she have, as a Pākehā, to write about the Māori world? The answer: it is a kaupapa conferred on her by the rangatira who were her mentors, friends and teachers.

In any case, as becomes very evident in this book, she is not writing about te ao Māori as an old-fashioned anthropologist might. This is the beauty of Salmond’s work from a Pākehā perspective: she is not writing about Māori for Pākehā consumption, for an imperial knowledge-grab from the Māori world. Rather, her words enable Pākehā (and other tauiwi) to become more fully who they are, here in this place, on this whenua, in this history.

The Māori world has been and remains a rich site of engagement for all of us in Aotearoa, and Salmond makes clear that – to ‘do things the right way’, to improve the sad state of our social and natural environments – two worlds, two knowledge systems, must be enabled to sit together, and to weave together. That possibility is our strength. To ignore or dismiss Māori knowledge, or Māori ways of being and doing, or to insist that they become fully comprehensible in Pākehā modernist terms, is to continue towards the destruction of the land, the water and the human and animal communities of Aotearoa.

Each chapter is rich with fresh insights. The chapter on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Salmond’s brief of evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal in 2010, is a primer on this, the ‘only document’ that records the ‘agreements reached between the rangatira and the Crown in 1840’. We are given crisp and gripping insight into both the text of Te Tiriti and the English language draft, which Salmond describes as ‘two different documents, with very divergent histories and implications’.

Her preamble to Te Tiriti chapter suggests a development in Salmond’s thinking since the brief of evidence. She notes that Te Tiriti:

describes a multilateral set of alliances among different parties named in the document – Queen Victoria, the rangatira, the ‘hapū’ (kin groups), ‘ngā tangata katoa o Nu Tirani’ (all the inhabitants of New Zealand), ‘nga tangata maori katoa o Nu Tirani’ (all the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand) and the Governor.

Such complexity demands we recognise the enduring networks of relationships of Te Tiriti rather than falling into simple binary assumptions of an agreement between the Crown and hapū. We are all involved, including newcomers to this land.

Binary thinking has led down some unfortunate paths, including the idea of ‘two races’. Salmond is scathing in her criticism of the relatively recent official introduction of ‘race’ into discussions about Te Tiriti, the genesis of which she explains. She provides an emphatic response to those who insist the New Zealand government is (and should not be) engaging in ‘race-based’ policies, or that Te Tiriti is a ‘partnership between two races’: race is ‘a colonial construct that is nowhere mentioned in the text of Te Tiriti’.

Salmond recalls the many senior Māori scholars and advisors she worked with to analyse the treaty documents, and reproduces the vivid arguments of rangatira to illustrate northern Māori understandings of the relationship between Māori and Pākehā at the time. Says Huhu, at Kaitāia: ‘Look at those men with the long feathers. I do not like them, I do not like that man nor that man with the long knife’ (pointing individually to the soldiers of the Mounted Police). Says Nōpera: ‘Hear all of you, White Men and Natives. This is what I like, my desire is that we should all be of one heart. Speak your words openly. Speak as you mean to act’.

Each man’s voice rings out of the page, each with different concerns and advice. Salmond reminds us, however, that these voices were recorded and translated into English by Pākehā whose understanding of te reo and tikanga may have been limited, and that Te Tiriti was not a Māori document, but a document in Māori. It was written by Pākehā ‘in good faith’ and discussed in a ‘world that was still predominantly māori (normal, ordinary, indigenous)’ and can only be properly understood within that context.

This is the message of the collection. The context of two worlds in Aotearoa is where we all live, where we must stand alongside each other. Salmond provides us with what we need today to more successfully to exist with, within and between worlds. She has been called a bridge, though I suspect she would prefer a metaphor of entangling, a many-stranded rather than simple, singular connection. She enables us all to sense and appreciate the entanglements of our worlds, including tensions and differences.

Eruera Stirling must have seen something special in Salmond: maybe it was her whakapapa. ‘McDonald Among the Māori’ tells of her great-grandfather, James McDonald, who collaborated between 1919 and 1923 with the great Māori leaders of the time to photograph and film Māori life. He created thousands of images recording Māori communities and individuals of the time. Later, McDonald and his family lived in Tokaanu, and he became an expert kaiwhakairo (carver) and a devoted student of Māori language and ancestral traditions. Salmond says that McDonald saw strong affinities between Māori and his Celtic background, and over time he became inextricably engaged with friendships and projects in te ao Māori. Exploring McDonald’s life, she contends, provides fascinating glimpses into the way ‘Scots and Māori identities became entangled, and the complex, often contradictory histories and relationships that have helped shape life in Aotearoa New Zealand’.

Eruera Stirling’s observation that knowledge is a blessing on your mind is a reminder of the sacred value of knowledge at a time in our history when knowledge sometimes seems less valued than opinion. Every chapter in Knowledge is a Blessing on Your Mind provokes thought, in the sense that ‘thinking happens in the mind-heart, te ngākau, where thought and feeling well up together’. I know I will return to these chapters again and again.

My other favourite photograph in the book is at the end. It is a portrait by Marti Friedlander of Salmond’s loved friend and mentor, the late Merimeri Penfold. Penfold gazes out directly with sharp intelligence, aroha, and generosity. The book ends with these words from a haka she composed:

He iwi kē, he iwi kē,
Titiro atu, titiro mai!

One strange people, and an Other
Looking at each other.

Knowledge is a Blessing On Your Mind: Selected Writings, 1980–2020

by Anne Salmond

Auckland University Press

ISBN: 9781869409906

Published: November 2023

Format: Hardcover, 608 pages

Alison Jones

Alison Jones is an educational researcher and a Professor in Te Puna Wānanga, the School of Māori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland. Her award-winning books include He Kōrero: Words Between Us: First Māori–Pākehā Conversations on Paper and Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds, both written with Kuni Kaa Jenkins, and the memoir This Pākehā Life.