Best of both world: Elsdon Best and the metamorphosis of Maori spirituality. Te painga rawa o nga ao rua: Te Peehi me te putanga ke o te wairua Maori.
Thesis DisciplineMaori Studies
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis is a study in the history of ideas in late 19th and early 20th century New Zealand: it examines the writings and correspondence of the Pākehā ethnographer, Elsdon Best, and his principal Tuhoe source, Tutakangahau of Maungapohatu. His intellectual influences are analysed, especially the writings of Edward Tylor and Max Müller, and their views on socio-cultural evolution, human progress, and a myth-making stage in humanity's development. Such mentors combined to produce Best's over-riding literary image: the mythopoetic Māori. The study charts his transformation from field anthropologist to government ethnographer at the Dominon Museum (Wellington), arguing that Best is the father of received versions of Māori culture. The work traces Tutakangahau's history in published sources and official correspondence, to evince the political reality in which Māori were fully engaged. This conflicts with Best's romantic vision of the surviving "oldtime Maori" as yesterday's men. By writing of Māori as primitive survivals, Best managed to both exoticise and detemporalise his subjects. The sources are his articles, correspondence, notebooks and published monographs; in Tutakangahau's case, letters and reports in the AJHR. The thesis questions the political argument that Best has misrepresented Māori, presenting him instead as the author of modern visions of Māori authenticity. Best sought a lost Māori being (ontology), obliterated by colonisation; the essential, pre-contact Māori psyche he described has remained active and pervasive in subsequent literature. His views have been absorbed into a reconstructed authentic Māori being, based on tradition - particularly in the post WW2 Māori renaissance. Many advocates of such essentialism seem unaware of the presence of Best's image of Māori authenticity in their writings. The study argues that there is no possibility of a late 19th century Māori epistemology unmediated by Pākehā influence. Through an evidential examination of Best's use of sources, a metamorphosis of views on Māori spirituality is observed taking place in the period. The thesis concludes that the post-mortem rejection of Best's methods and conclusions have led to an under-estimation of his underlying influence in the literature.