Critical English Online

The indigenous Pakeha: An interview with Michael King

It's difficult to imagine anyone better qualified to comment on New Zealand cultural identity than historian Michael King. Having interpreted Maori culture to Pakeha New Zealanders via such works as Nga Iwi O Te Motu and biographies of Te Puea Herangi and Whina Cooper, King has proceeded to interpret New Zealand Pakeha culture to Pakeha themselves through his memoir Being Pakeha Now and biographies of Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame.

This interview, conducted by Terry Locke, took place on the deck of Michael King's retreat at Opoutere on the Coromandel Peninsula overlooking the river estuary. In the background are the sounds of native birds and the occasional chainsaw and motor mower.

In your Sunday Star-Times essay "A Vision for the Millennium" you offer a view of New Zealanders as having two established cultures, Maori and Pakeha. You also use the words "identity" and "identification" which we will return to later. Let's start by scrutinising the word "culture"? What do you mean by it?

In the sense in which I was using the word "culture" in that context, and in the sense in which I use it when I'm talking about Maori and Pakeha culture, I'm referring to the devices we develop to help us come to terms with the fact that we know that we are alive and are destined to die.

Culture began when our ancestors started to tell stories to explain who they were and where they'd come from and to paint pictures on cave walls to illustrate the textures of those stories for the eye and the mind. These devices in their 21st century forms can be challenging and character building in the form of sport; they can be sheer distraction in the form of entertainment; they can help to bring us into harmony with the natural world through activities such as gardening, tramping or camping; they can engage our spiritual faculties through membership of religious bodies; they can have profound resonance in our consciousness and our experience through the so called "high" arts of music, painting and literature.

Culture can, as T S Elliot said, send the inner self into the most vigorous vibration, or it can simply provide the warmth of human companionship at the RSA Club on a cold evening. There are contours in these devices or activities which allow us to distinguish one form of culture from another and to identify more closely with one than with another. As Arthur Schlesinger writes: "Suddenly it came back to mind. Rhythms, patterns, continuities drift out of time past to mould the present and to colour the shape of things to come." But what they have most in common is that, at one end of the scale, they provide us with understanding of ourselves as particular people alive in particular places at particular times and, at the other, they simply distract us from realities we find too harsh to contemplate unrelievedly.

So very central to the project of establishing identities are the kinds of stories that we maybe don't so much tell ourselves, but to which we subscribe as embodying versions of ourselves.

Yes. That's part of the process and that's certainly a part that as a writer and a historian I'm immensely interested in. So for me, if I were to fine-tune a description of current Pakeha culture, one of the major ingredients of that would be to look at what our writers are currently saying and the stories they are telling us about ourselves.

Let's move to some considerations of Pakeha culture. In that the same essay, you describe yourself as part of the culture that has been here long enough now to transform itself in association with the land and the tangata whenua culture into something that is in effect a "second indigenous culture". What I see here is something of a challenge to the current rhetoric of bi-culturalism which would want to restrict the word indigenous to an attribute of Maori alone. Is that fair comment?

Yes, I think there's an assumption in some quarters that the word "indigenous" can only apply to Maori, particularly if you're talking about the bi-cultural model which we've used to release resources back to the tangata whenua culture, uphold the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and so on. It's been useful to have that bi-cultural model. I am now applying "indigenous" to Pakeha for two reasons: one, because I say that Pakeha culture, mainstream New Zealand culture, is no longer the same as its cultures of origin which were non-indigenous, and two, because I think a key element of indigenous as distinct from imported culture is its focus on the country and culture of occupation rather than the country and culture or origin.

So Pakeha culture, I would now say, is a second indigenous culture because it's become indigenous in the same way that East Polynesian culture became indigenous Maori culture by turning the attention of migrants away from their land and culture of origin and focusing their identity on their sense of commitment to this land. We can judge that from the time the earliest East Polynesian migrants arrived in New Zealand -- for one, two, or maybe three generations -- their attention would have been very much connected to the Hawaiki they had come from wherever that was. Eventually, however, over a period of time, the concepts, the vocabulary, the values they brought with them became New Zealand-centred and at that point Maori became an indigenous culture. I'm now saying that the non-Maori culture in this country, which I'm calling Pakeha culture, has been here long enough for that same process to have occurred.

Perhaps I could also say here what I identify as some of the ingredients of that Pakeha culture, which is another way of showing that the nature of those ingredients and the mix of them is now no longer the same as the cultural baggage that the Pakeha colonists brought with them.

Yes, do. What are the characteristics of Pakeha culture?

When I use the word Pakeha, I'm referring to those things that relate to New Zealand but which are not specifically Maori or Pacific Island in character. I'm referring in other words to mainstream New Zealand culture, which is not unaffected by things Maori, but which is not in itself Maori. I prefer to use the term "Pakeha" because it's positive as opposed to non-Maori, which is negative; because it's an indigenous New Zealand expression; and because the words "European" or "Caucasian" are no longer accurate or appropriate and of course the word "Caucasian" never was.

In identifying my own culture as Pakeha, I do so as one who has always taken it for granted that I belonged in this land. It's true that there was in my childhood a notion that we could have been displaced Irish, but that receded as I grew up. My people, predominantly remnants of the Irish diaspora, came here to a country where the first indigenous people had made a treaty with the Crown that permitted colonisation and gave us those two streams of people with rights to be here, tangata whenua and tangata tiriti, to use Eddie Durie's characterisation of them.

After several generations of my family's occupation of this land, my own sense of belonging to it and hence the flavour of my own culture, includes the following ingredients: a strong relationship with the natural world intensified by living by the sea, boating, fishing, tramping and camping; an engagement with the history of the land which began with my boyhood encounters with kainga, whaling and battle sites around Paramatta Harbour; a relationship with the literature of this country, especially the writing of such people as Robin Hyde, Charles Brasch, Frank Sargeson, Eric McCormick, Keith Sinclair, James K. Baxter and Janet Frame; and a relationship with Maori people, Maori writing and Maori history, which affects my view of all the preceding ingredients.

There's also an accumulation of other New Zealand attitudes, values and habits which accrue to one I suppose, like iron filings to a magnet. They include things like the rugby culture which every male of my age was touched by, although it's not as much of a factor for a younger generation. Concern for the underdog, an unwillingness to be bullied or intimidated by class or status, not undertaking to do something without seeing it through, a quality that Dan Davin referred to as a "power behind the scrum that one felt was sometimes lacking in one's more fastidious English colleagues." It also includes having New Zealand heroes and heroines.

The total effect for me of all those ingredients is that this country and its experience and its traditions are in my bones. I have no other home, no other place where I want to live or could live with the same sense of belonging and enrichment. And it's been intensified, I suppose, by not just living here and experiencing those things, but by other events and sets of circumstances such as travelling overseas, where one very soon gets the feeling that you have a sense of affinity with places like Europe and the United Kingdom, but you don't actually feel at home there. Also, while travelling, there's that absence of New Zealand voices and viewpoints and sense of humour that again you're most aware of when you haven't got it all around you.

Another factor, I have to say, that intensified my identification with New Zealand was my encounters with people such at the Te Ahi Kaa group, who would insist that I and my people are tauiwi or foreigners in this land. I've also mentioned in that millennium piece Doug Graham's comments about lakes, mountains and rivers and his suggestion that Maori people have spiritual feelings for them but Pakeha people don't, a view I wholly reject. Now all these things have contributed to or intensified that feeling I have that my culture is not European. It's something different, it's Pakeha, and it's something which I now would define, as I say, as a second New Zealand indigenous culture.

It's interesting to me that in creating your list you've done something similar to what Elliot did in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture. I'm demeaning it by using the term "recipe", but it's rather like a set of factors. It seems clear to me that you're on the one hand challenging certain stereotypes -- you're challenging the type of stereotype Doug Graham's offering of the Pakeha who simply saw land as no more than something with a dollar value to it. At the same time, it seems to me, you're also challenging certain stereotypical views that might be offered by certain Maori radical groups. You're putting in its place something that could also be challenged on the grounds that it's too neat and it's too homogeneous and, in fact, out there reality isn't quite like that. Even the term "culture" itself may in fact be breaking down currently because of the extent to which we're maybe more like patchwork quilts than something as homogeneous as what you're suggesting.

Yes, I'm very much aware that I'm making a relativist statement that applies to myself. I'm not for a moment saying that those ingredients that make up what I regard as my Pakeha culture are precisely the same as yours or anybody else's. But what I'd want to go on and ask people is who their heroes and heroines are, what the stories are for them that embody the ethos of their values and their culture. I'd like to see what comes out of that kind of discussion. I'm very much aware that everybody's individual recipe, as you put it, is going to differ in both the nature and the proportion of the ingredients. But having said all that, I think it's a wide enough paradigm for the things that I've shared to be identified with to a greater or lesser extent by other people. When you're talking about culture, it only makes sense if you are clear about whether you're talking about the macrocosm or the microcosm. I was talking about a subjective microcosm. But there are various models you can apply to what's happening in New Zealand at the moment.

The bi-cultural model, with two major cultural streams, has real meaning and has been very useful for particular purposes. It's been very useful for Maori to make a case that they were a major element in the New Zealand equation and they hadn't received a fair allocation of resources or attention. And it's useful if I want to make out a case for myself as another kind of indigenous New Zealander to talk about Pakeha culture, and say that Pakeha culture is owed the same degree of respect as Maori culture.

But you can put all that aside and take other kinds of models which might in future have more relevance and more meaning, specifically the multi-cultural model. One of the consequences of both the Maori Renaissance and the Treaty of Waitangi claims process has been that Maori culture has become more assertively diverse. Many Maori not only derive their sense of identity primarily from their iwi base; they even do it from their hapu base. That's one of the reasons why the whole idea of something like a nationwide Treaty of Waitangi fisheries settlement has proved to be so very difficult to implement. If I as a Pakeha sit in on a multi-tribal Maori situation and listen to arguments, there's plenty of grounds for feeling that what separates the Ngapuhi person from a Ngai Tahu person is much wider than what separates a Maori person from a Pakeha person.

On the Pakeha side of the frontier there's also a case to make for the culture being a patchwork of cultures from other places. I've just done, as you know, a biography of Janet Frame, and one of the things I became very conscious of was that Janet Frame is a Scottish New Zealander, because of the fact that her grandparents were part of the Otago Scottish settlement. Whenever Janet looks at New Zealand, or produces metaphors about New Zealand, they still have that Scottish flavour that metaphors from my Irish background don't have. It is possible to break New Zealand culture down to these much more finely defined ingredients. But having said all that, I still think there are valid generalisations you can make about two major cultural streams, a Maori or a Polynesian stream, and a Pakeha or predominantly European stream. In the context in which we're talking now, it makes more sense to me to do that.

So what you're saying is that in terms of the broad brushstrokes, we can clearly identify two major strands. And as a historian who has had a lot of conversations with a lot of people, you feel that those conversations tend to bear this picture out.

Yes. You can put yourself very quickly in a situation where that bicultural model becomes very stark and still very real. One would be to take a Pakeha person who hasn't been exposed to Maori language or tikanga maori and put them on a marae. Whether they're of Irish, Scottish, Chinese or Indian background, they will be in the same sort of difficulty because they're not culturally equipped to deal with that Maori situation. Similarly, you can take a Maori person who's been brought up in more of a Maori environment than a mainstream New Zealand cultural environment and they will have difficulties coping with that mainstream. So in those situations, the truth or the reality of the bi-cultural model is still apparent.

Let's just go along with the thesis for a minute and ask how central is sport?

Oh it's central both in mainstream culture and Maori culture. Sport is one of those things that provides two ingredients that are very important to culture: the sense of distraction and entertainment -- that level is very high; and the ability to do something with people who are like you and to do it as a team with a degree of communal cooperation. It's of interest that rugby was introduced into New Zealand by English immigrants, but that Maori took to it with relish and were so good at it, because there are elements in Maori culture that fit perfectly the kinds of qualities you need to be successful in a rugby or a rugby league team.

Alan Duff has just written a book called Maori Heroes, where he tries to connect with Maori young people. He's done it as a result of the interaction he's had with children through the Books in Schools scheme and the book is half about sports heroes: basketball players, rugby players or rugby league players; the other half are the people we would expect to see, the traditional types of leaders or cultural performers. It's another example of how strong sport has become as part of current Maori culture. Of course, it's been both a source of reconciliation and a source of further conflict between Maori and Pakeha. I'm very conscious, for example, that until you get the period of the Maori urban drift after the Second World War, the only context in which most Pakeha New Zealanders knew of Maori was either as rugby players or as warriors -- soldiers in World War One and World War Two. So it gave them a way of being part of national life without having to actually step out of their Maori cultural context. One could also say, though, that there have been times when rugby or rugby league has been a way of working out some of the conflict between Maori and Pakeha, and racial or cultural feeling has been strong.

On the subject of the America's Cup phenomenon, I'd contend that it's neither sport nor something intrinsically New Zealand. A strange thing happens in the television age, and it also happened in the case of the death of Princess Diana. There's a loop of communication going on, telling people that certain things are happening and that they ought to feel a certain way about them. It involves a lot of promotion, a lot of hype. Then, once the phenomenon's over, they tend to get forgotten very quickly. That's what happened with the America's Cup. In the global culture, we're open to this sort of manipulation. Those kinds of things are not necessarily representative of our culture. They're one of the symptoms of globalisation. They're not things I see as central to New Zealand life. But I know other people would probably argue strongly against that, that position.

That same kind of hype was evident in the build-up to the last Rugby World Cup competition. There was that same degree of media inflating an expectation. Because of the sponsorship deals that were done for the last World Cup, there were all those advertisements which created a huge expectation that New Zealand could not lose the competition. It was therefore an enormous shock when they did. It was a national trauma for a few days.

I want to change tack completely, because there's a question I really wanted to ask you as the man who's been the biographer of Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame, arguably the two most important New Zealand prose writers that stayed in the country. I'm just wondering to what extent your view of New Zealand cultural identity is being, shall we say, warped, by looking at New Zealanders over a long period of time through the eyes of two people who have to be described as eccentric.

Well, they were both representative and eccentric. One of the things you have to say about choosing subjects for biography is that you've got to choose a subject and a life that energises you and engages your attention. That doesn't just mean someone who did something worthwhile. It also means somebody who provides you with scope for a more substantial, and a more interesting narrative than, say, a very ordinary mainstream person. I mean, it may be possible to write a good biography of the gentleman who runs the Four Square Store in Whangamata. He's a very nice man and he gets on well with everybody. But I suspect a writer would really be scraping to load each chapter with enough interest for people to want or to need to go on reading it.

One of the things that makes eccentrics valuable to a writer is that, because they're eccentric, things happen in their lives that are of more intrinsic interest than the doings of non-eccentrics. Also, eccentrics have a way of concentrating both personal and cultural qualities. To take Frank Sargeson, for example. He was a homosexual male at a time when homosexuality was against the law. And he was regarded for most of his life with great suspicion by his neighbours. Yet he was also representative. He was the one that introduced the New Zealand idiom into world literature in English; he wrote about people who were the ordinary New Zealander of the 1930s and 1940s, the shearers, the rousabouts, the jockeys and so forth; and the very things that made him suspect in addition to his homosexuality, like growing avocados and capsicums, putting oil and lemon on his salad instead of mayonnaise, eating wholemeal bread, making his own yoghurt, were all things that by the end of his life had become mainstream. So that's something that happens with an eccentric person. They can be eccentric because they are too far out front, but not because they're outside their culture. They just happen to be leading it and pulling it in a certain direction. I think you'd have to say Sargeson was one of those sorts of people.

Frame is rather different. Although, as I said, there are things about her life that are immensely representative of New Zealand's Scottish culture, Janet also has qualities that would make her an outsider in whatever country or culture she lived in, particularly her difficulty in interacting with people, her wish always to be the observer who's pulling back the curtain and looking out, and her ability to be focused most on the extremes of human despair, pain and grief. So I don't see Janet as exemplifying New Zealand culture as much as I see Sargeson. But nonetheless, in her own way, she still does, partly because of the cultural background that made her the kind of person she is, and partly because even in writing about New Zealanders on the margin she can teach us things about ourselves, particularly about a kind of Puritanism and a kind of conformity that was typical of the years in which she grew up.

Is puritanism still part of this Pakeha culture you talk about?

I don't think we're a homogeneously puritan culture to the extent that we could be said to have been up to the 1950s. When New Zealand was a relatively closed society, there was little immigration from outside the UK, there was little world travel, there was extreme view of sexual prurience and a considerable pressure that everybody conformed to in their own, ordinary suburban lives. My poor grandmother, my father's mother, till the day she died at the age of 96 still washed her front door step every day with a brush because she thought the neighbours would not think well of her if her wooden, front doorstep wasn't gleaming. That's very much something that came out of New Zealand of the 1920s and the 1930s. Those things have dissipated, I think. What we've got now is not a homogeneous puritan society. But we've got pockets of puritanism, of different kinds, some of them associated with religions, particularly the evangelical sorts. We no longer have the sort of blanket puritanism that Frank Sargeson wrote about.

So we've outgrown Little Bethel?

I think we have. But I'd be cautious, because historians are very much aware of things working in pendulum swings. I suspect that a combination of elements such as the aids epidemic, other sexually transmitted diseases, the problems of teenage pregnancies, may be edging us towards another swing back towards sexual prurience. It's interesting to note it in the reaction to John Money, the New Zealand sexologist in Baltimore, who being obsessed with sex and writing about sex and doing sexual therapeutic work, was scorned and not highly regarded by New Zealanders in the 40s and 50s, became a hero in the 60s and 70s, and is now a villain again. This is partly because people are suspicious of some of the things he did therapeutically and clinically, but also because people no longer see sexual liberation as being the wholly good thing that many people thought it was in the 60s and 70s.

At no stage have you suggested that this Pakeha culture you've identified is anything other than dynamic and evolving. How do you see it evolving in the global age? Do you see it retaining its shape?

I really don't know. If you're concerned about New Zealand culture, one of the things you're very much aware of is that the more powerful cultures, and I mean particularly the more commercially driven cultures in larger countries like North America and those in Europe, can produce cultural products like books, CD's and music videos far more cheaply and in much greater quantities than New Zealand industries can. There's always a danger that we're going to be swamped by these kinds of things and the very measures that the Labour Government is now taking to modify the commercial model of New Zealand television is an acknowledgement of this problem, and an acknowledgement of the fear that we could be very easily colonised again by global culture, particularly American global culture, which could remove anything that we might recognise as having a New Zealand flavour or significance. I think we're only going to preserve that New Zealand flavour by actually taking the deliberate steps that a small country needs to take to ensure that it has an indigenous cultural industry. It won't be supported from the marketplace alone, because the market is not big enough.

So I'm not confident. Still, I look at my kids who have far more lines of communication to the outside world than my generation had, and yet they're very emphatically New Zealanders. They're very loyal to things like New Zealand musicians and New Zealand writers. I'm not quite sure where all that's going to settle. I hope we're going to have the sense to take what steps we have to take to protect our indigenous cultural voice, and I'm using indigenous in that sense to refer to both the Maori and the Pakeha voice.

It's really thanks to people like yourself that young people today have a much better, I was going to say clearer, window onto the past than I had when I was at school because many New Zealand texts and documents were simply not available to us.

Yes, I would hope that's a factor and in my more optimistic moments I think that it is. We knew nothing about that kind of umbilical cord that connected us to our origins. Kids now, particularly through secondary and tertiary education, have got far more opportunity to know these things if that opportunity is taken. There are some marvellous young New Zealand writers, for example, coming through the ranks. The Sargeson Trust has this fellowship which we offer each year. We used to offer it to one person a year and we would have, initially, three or four applications a year. We now get deluged by applications. They're almost all by young people, predominantly by young women, so we're having to split the fellowship so that worthy people get opportunities. People like Kapka Kassabova, Charlotte Grimshaw, Catherine Chidgey, Sarah Quigley. There are very, very good things happening in New Zealand writing that are an expression of New Zealand experience and people tracing New Zealand footsteps. That's very exciting and one of my grounds for optimism.