9 Aug 2018

Debunking the myth about the Moriori

From Afternoons, 1:16 pm on 9 August 2018

There's a prevailing myth that is often brought up in conversations about our history - that Māori killed off the Moriori people in New Zealand. 

This statement is often repeated even by well known New Zealanders - former National Party leader Don Brash, who has again been making waves, comes to mind. 

Don Brash speaking on The Panel at RNZ. 7 August 2018.

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Many Kiwis, particularly Pākehā, assume it's true, but researcher Keri Mills has laid out the facts in a piece for The Spinoff and tells Afternoons' Jesse Mulligan the story was used to justify Pākehā colonisation of New Zealand. 

“What I’m trying to attack is this idea of a pre-Māori people that existed in Aotearoa New Zealand before Māori arrival and that Māori wiped them out,” she says.  

“These awful ideas about racial heirarchies are really clear throughout this whole story … and it was used initially to justify Pākehā colonisation on the basis that ‘superior’ races displace ‘inferior’ ones.”

She says the story, which was taught in New Zealand schools right up until the 1960s, is not backed up by the evidence.

“There is no archeological evidence of any people in New Zealand before Māori arrived.

- Listen to Maui Solomon talking about Moriori life and what it means today

“This comes from radiocarbon dating of archeological sites, analysis of volcanic ash because that gives you a time layer in the soil, DNA analysis of Māori women, of Pacific rats, and research on Māori canoes which all establishes pretty clearly that Aotearoa was settled for the very first time by East Polynesians around the 13th century.”

She says there was some recent controversy about rat bones being dated to an earlier period, but that’s largely been discredited by scientists as inaccurate dating. 

“And even if there is some evidence of just some people here before earlier, there’s definitely no evidence of an extensive population that were around when Māori arrived.” 

She says it’s true the Moriori are a people, but they live on the Chatham islands and “who probably came via Aotearoa and arrived around 1500-ish”. 

An ancient Moriori tree carving.

Moriori tree carvings in the Chatham Islands are taonga.  Photo: FACEBOOK

“It’s possible they came to the Chatham Islands from eastern Polynesia in a separate migration but it’s very clear that they’re of very similar stock to Māori.

“Very similar material artifacts, very very similar languages - could almost be categorised as a dialect of Māori, it’s mutually intelligible - and very similar geneological traditions of whakapapa.” 

She says it’s also true that some Māori did kill some Moriori, but that was one group of Māori who had themselves been displaced by Europeans. 

“In 1835, some Taranaki Māori who had been displaced during the musket wars - so they had been sort of Taranaki down to Wellington and were unhappy living there - they were looking for somewhere else to go. 

“Went en masse to the Chatham Islands and started to tāwari the land - walk around it, claiming it - and after a period of unsettled living together, violence erupted and Taranaki Māori killed about 300 Moriori and enslaved the rest.”

She says it is a terrible thing that happened, but is far from a justification for colonisation and does not fit the arguments that have been suggested in the past.

“It fascinated me how many people have written back saying ‘well okay so maybe there wasn’t a pre-Māori people but there was still this violence and so the argument still stands that somehow Pākeha colonisation still stands because there were some instances of Māori violence in the past. 

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Members of the Hokotehi Moriori Trust in Rehoku, the Chatham Islands.  Photo: Supplied / Hokotehi Moriori Trust

“The simple fact that people are quickly switching shows that they’re looking for some kind of justification and are kind of willing to leap from one argument to another.

“If something’s taken out from underneath them they’ll just jump to another place.” 

She says it’s also untrue that the Moriori were all killed off. 

“There was a lot of mythologising about the death of Tommy Solomon in 1983 as the last full-blooded Moriori. 

“Tommy Solomon and many other Moriori have many descendents and they are a distinct and surviving group, with their own language and traditions and they live on the Chathams and they live on the mainland.”