It is the story of a Maori community’s struggle to regain control of their ancestral lands. Having had their land acquired to build an airfield during WWI, these landholders were dispersed into rental accommodation so that it became almost impossible to sustain their culture and traditions. But as is so often the case in land rights matters, a dispirited and apparently ‘broken’ people were rejuvenated by a charismatic leader who used the legal system to facilitate the return of the land – not all of it, but enough for those who wanted to, to resume farming and rebuild community life.
A pragmatic people, these Maori accepted that even though they did not agree that their land had been ‘improved’ by the building of sports grounds and club-houses, they had to pay recompense for these ‘improvements’ – and since they didn’t have any money, they had to forego the return of some of their land. It was the use of this adjacent land for the development of a resort that is the focus of Potiki.
Potiki is an education for people like me who know very little about New Zealand or the Maori culture. From this book, I learned that a meeting-house called a wharenui is central to Maori life: it is where the community meets to discuss and solve problems, and welcome visitors. It is not a sacred building, but it is where rituals take place. And it has to be right in the centre of the community.
So when the adjacent development needs an access road right through the meeting-house, the small community is vulnerable to great pressure. There are fruitless negotiations; there are implied threats, and eventually both sides take the law into their own hands.
Potiki makes no pretence at being even-handed. Roimata, her husband Hemi and their children reject the values that lie behind development but the developers are not only unempathetic, they have (to put it mildly) no redeeming features. Although the community farms at subsistence level and they themselves have some anxiety about the future of their children, they attach no importance to amenities for tourists. They already have a view, they say. They can already go fishing, they say. They can already see wildlife. There is no need to build a Disneyfied resort to please visitors, and it offers no benefits to their community because they (the Maori) never get the good jobs anyway. Some of this writing strays into didacticism, in my opinion.
Nevertheless it is an interesting book for discussion. The diverse perspectives within the Maori community, and their rejection of mainstream culture offer opportunities for lively discussion:
- The small community offers a supportive environment for people who are often marginalised in mainstream society. Mary is intellectually disabled; Toko is physically disabled; and Manu has epilepsy. They do not go to school, except for Mary who spends her days cleaning and polishing it. Does this limit their choices, or is it an alternative which offers greater dignity?
- Is it enough for these children to learn ‘Maori’ science instead of the real thing? Is folk knowledge idealised?
- When, if ever, is environmental vandalism justifiable?
- I had no previous experience in reading the Maori language, but I didn’t have too much difficulty working out what was meant from context. However, Aarti at BookLust felt that the use of Maori language was a deliberate strategy to alienate non-Maori readers. Patricia Grace, she says ‘seems to have meant for non-Maori people (pakehas) to feel lost and out-of-place in the reading’. Is it too risky for an author to use a minority language in the global book market?
- Toko is said to have a special kind of ‘knowing’, Are the ‘spiritual’ elements of the story convincing?
- Roimata seems to be a kind of bridge between Hemi’s view that the farm is ‘enough’ and her older children’s desire for more. She loves Hemi and understands his contentment but she sees the reality too: there is dignity in working the land but there is also its shabbiness, the subsistence diet, the vulnerability of their position and the shabby clothing. Is it possible for a lifestyle like this to survive in the 21st century?
- James and Tangimoana – who did go to school and on to university – bring back skills learned in the wider world for the benefit of the community that are crucial in their battle to take on the developers in the media and in the courts. What are the risks for traditional communities in encouraging their children to learn the ‘system’ so that they can use it when they need to?
Contemporaneous with reading Potiki and the battle of the Te Ope people to regain their land rights, I was also reading Ochre and Rust by Philip Jones about the transitional period between Aboriginal Australians as masters of their own destiny and their subsequent relegation to an underclass of white colonial society. This marvellous book uses museum artefacts from this period as a springboard for exploring history in a remarkable way which – like That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott - shows that there were some men of good will on both sides of these vexed issues. Much as I admired Potiki I did find myself wishing that it had been a little less polemical…but perhaps some stridency was necessary in order for Grace to get her point across in the 1980s.
Potiki won the 1987 New Zealand Fiction Award.
Update April 25, 2012
Curious about why this review is suddenly getting so many hits, I went exploring via Google. Ah ha! It’s been chosen as a senior secondary text for students in New Zealand - and I am so pleased to see that in this case anyway students are being offered entry into the wonderful world of adult books instead of YA.
Author: Patricia Grace
Publisher, Penguin 1986
Source: Personal library.
PS It so happens that I finished reading and blogging this book just as news broke of the catastrophic Christchurch earthquake. To donate to the relief appeal, please visit Red Cross Australia, or Red Cross Britain. The Red Cross site in NZ is obviously swamped at the moment, but Australia and Britain are running dedicated appeals and the money will definitely get to where it’s needed.