THE YEAR THAT
Dame Anne Salmond, 71, professor of anthropology, author and former New Zealander of the Year, explains why 2017 has been the culmination of her life’s work so far
Dame Anne Salmond
This year has been amazing. I’ve been shooting in York, London, Oxford and Newcastle for Maori TV’s Artefact documentary series, which has meant a new way of communicating. It’s a way of exploring many of the ideas in my new book, Tears of Rangi, in a new way. It feels very liberating, because you can use sound and images and talk with lots of other people.
The book is subtitled “experiments across worlds” and it’s about the innovative and sometimes tragic but often quite exciting ways in which Maori and Europeans from the beginning of our shared history have engaged with each other. The possibilities for that to carry on into the future are exciting.
It’s taken more than 50 years of study to get here. It goes back to when I was about 16, when I first became entranced with Maori ways of living. I’ve never lost that fascination and sense of wonder. I’ve been able, with the new way of working this year, to grant it its own power, in the sense where, as a scholar, I don’t feel the need to claim final authority over any of the interpretations and understandings I have. I can just say, “Look here’s the best I can do from where I started, 55 years or so ago. Here are the stories that explore these understandings. Make of it what you will.”
With my discipline, anthropology, one of the things you tangle with all the time is how you make sure that the voice of the others comes through. The problem is mitigated when people can speak for themselves.
For a long time, people have talked about world views as though we just have different views — Maori or modernist — and the world stays the same. But it’s more profound than that. People are inhabiting different realities.
I’ve been involved in te ao Maori [the Maori world] since I was a teenager. It has often been my experience that reality felt different when I was working closely and spending a lot of time with Amiria and Eruera Stirling, my mentors. Eruera was a tohunga, and the reality he inhabited used to stretch mine a lot at times.
Anthropology is a discipline from Europe and there’s always been a tension in it about whether we are imposing ideas from somewhere else on to Pacific people. What this new approach allows you to do is say, “That’s absolutely the case.” Everyone is part of these engagements, but there are other people who have their own way of being in the world. The job is to understand that as well and as deeply as you can, but there’s no claim of final authority, which for me has been a real freedom.
I’ve had a wonderful time and so much fun and excitement and sometimes a sense of sheer trepidation and fear. Doing all this has been the most extraordinary adventure, and this is the point I’ve got to.
Other people have their own way of being in the world. The job is to understand that as well and as deeply as you can.