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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

RIP: Judith Binney

Judith Binney has died. Much praise and respect has been given to Binney for her works which include histories of the Tuhoe and of Te Kooti and the Ringatu. One of the best articles on her is at Reading the Maps:

Judith Binney did not achieve the breakthrough that is Redemption Songs overnight. Her first book, which grew from a PhD thesis, was a biography of Thomas Kendall, the early Anglican missionary who 'went native' and became an ally of the Nga Puhi warlord Hongi Hika. The Legacy of Guilt is written in the self-conscious, slightly fusty style common in PhD theses, but its adroit handling of a mass of primary texts showed that the young Binney had already mastered the traditional techniques of the academic historian.

The trajectory of Binney's research changed after she took a tramping holiday in the Ureweras in the mid-70s, and found herself wandering into the semi-abandoned Tuhoe settlement of Maungapohatu, which had been the capital of the utopian state that Te Kooti's successor, the prophet Rua Kenana, had tried to build in the Tuhoe heartland at the beginning of the twentieth century. Binney sensed the history behind the overgrown gardens and listing whare of Maungapohatu, and began to conduct interviews with Tuhoe kaumatua.

In the 1970s, Binney's embrace of oral history was a departure from academic orthodoxy. Even leading figures in the study of marginalised peoples had frequently deemed oral history an untrustworthy medium for research.
To read Redemption Songs is to be impressed again and again by Binney's judgement, as she handles her material. Consider, for instance, the following passage, chosen at random, which describes Te Kooti's flight into the King Country, whose rulers King Tawhiao and Rewi Maniapoto were not keen to host him, after his defeat at the battle of Te Porere near Tongariro in October 1869:

"Te Kooti had fled Taumaranui. Three days later Topia, Te Keepa and the combined force of 600 men finally reached the settlement, to find him gone.

Staff-sergeant Samuel Austin, who was with Topia's expedition, said that they were told by some women that Te Kooti had with him 90 fighting men, and about 200 women and children. He had also announced that he was going to the King, but after a short distance he had 'changed his route and took another direction'. This remark may well give the historical context for the oral story which Henare Tuwhangai narrated concerning Te Kooti's failure at Taumaranui. This story, in its structure, is very similar to that of Te Ra Karepa's earlier challenge, related in the previous chapter. This time, however, it concerns the mana of Rewi Maniapoto and a challenge at Taumaranui.

Te Kooti went to Taringamotu, a little settlement north of Taumaranui...and raised up two posts. One he named Rewi, and the other he named for himself. He ordered his men to fire at the post named for Rewi, and all 12 volleys missed. But the post he named for himself was smashed by the firing squad. The omens determined, he went [away]..."

Here Binney moves carefully between her fact-based meta-narrative, an exposition of an oral tradition relating to Te Kooti's appearance in the King Country, and an interpretation of that tradition which is neither literal nor dismissive.
Binney's just-released book consumed much of her energy over the last decade, and it certainly appears to compare in size and scope to Redemption Songs. It is a tragedy that Binney is lying in hospital only a few days after the launch of Encircled Lands, instead of helping guide us into her book, and through another part of our country's history. Get well soon, Professor Binney - we need you.


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