Maori Oral Tradition

D. F. McKenzie

Among those who currently affirm Maori rights and protect Maori mana, those more conciliatory towards European attitudes stress the complimentary ease and speed with which Maori are said to have become literate, those less conciliatory and more radical the supreme importance of the oral tradition and virtual irrelevance of the European 'book'. In practice, the oral mode rules. By compelling those who speak eloquently to substitute a mode in which they are less fluent, literacy can function insidiously as a culturally regressive force. Such at least is how many Maori experience it.

As Jane McRae reminds me, there are few Maori writers and very few who write in Maori, but the tradition of oral composition and exposition continues, it is the only tradition with 'literary' structures or styles, and the 'sound' text is usually all there is to be read. Even within University Departments of Maori Studies, the book is suspect. Manuscripts and printed texts in libraries, publications by Europeans on Maoridom, are seldom consulted; oral etiquette, debate and transfer of knowledge on the marae are what matter. Such conditions encourage the spontaneous, orally improvised, dramatic recreation of shared stories for themes and an evolutionary concept of texts; the fixed text, catching in print an arbitrary moment in the continuum of social exchange, demands a different sense of history and its own literal re-play. (From "Oral Culture, Literacy & Print in early New Zealand: the Treaty of Waitangi," 19).

Postcolonial Overview New Zealand Australia

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002