Simone Oettli-van Delden
Sleeps Standing Moetū by Witi Ihimaera with Hēmi Kelly (Vintage, 2017), 221 pp., $35
This book defies simple definition. Its inputs are multiple. Primarily it is a book about the Battle of Ōrākau, the final and decisive onslaught of the Waikato land wars, in which 300 Māori men, women and children are estimated to have fought with outstanding bravery against 1700 or more British Imperial troops. The Māori warriors withstood constant bombardment by artillery for three days, from 31 March to 2 April 1864. Witi Ihimaera adds a contemporary touch by having the narrator Papa Rua and his sister, Hūhana, recount the tale to their nephew, a young Māori named Simon who lives in Australia and is keen to hear stories about his ancestors. Simon is particularly interested in Moetū, a nineteenth-century sixteen-year-old boy from the Rongowhakaata Iwi in Tūranga (Gisborne), because he and his pregnant wife want to name their unborn son after him.
Moetū’s name signifies ‘The-One-Who-Sleeps-Standing-and-Sounds-the-Alarm’. When he hears that their chief Raharuhi Rukupō is sending some of his best warriors along to support Rewi Maniapoto in the defence of his pā at Ōrākau, Moetū decides he wants to be one of them and secretly joins the retainers on a schooner, which is to take them round East Cape and as far as Whangamata. When he is discovered it is too late to send him back to the iwi, and he promises he will be their eyes ‘day … and night’ – hence the title of the book. The group reaches the Waikato on foot just in time to unite with Ngāti Maniapoto before the pā is attacked.
There have been many accounts of the battle of Ōrākau, but Ihimaera takes an entirely new slant by primarily using the perspective of the Rongowhakaata warriors. When Rukupō decided to send them, his people asked ‘Why go to a battle which we will never win?’ Rukupō replied, ‘It is a matter of honour.’ The regard for honour becomes a major theme.
The book gives a multi-layered fictionalised account of the battle, based on fact and supported by a medley of records ranging from historical documents to cinematic images. Its visual aspect is delightful. It includes maps and drawings by people who were present at the battle, portraits of the Māori warriors, and stills from the film about the battle, Rewi’s Last Stand by Rudall C. Hayward. The tale itself is preceded by a translation in te reo Māori and surrounded by prefaces, preludes, poetry and postludes. Even the story in English has an essentially Māori aspect in that it imitates the koru form: the circular turning in upon itself and then outward; gathering in every different relevant facet of information and turning it out again for the consideration of the reader. Although its form is therefore a definite shape, taken all together it embodies the confusion of the battle it evokes. The two sides, English and Māori, represented by the two languages, are both seen from a Māori point of view. Ihimaera says the story is ‘a continuation of my engagement with writing historical fiction in New Zealand … Up to and including The Trowenna Sea, I included historical material in the work. Then in The Parihaka Woman I used footnotes. In Sleeps Standing, the history stands alongside as well as in the fiction.’ In his brief introduction to the eye-witness accounts he stresses that he is ‘a fiction writer and not a historian’, but that primary documents are crucial to his work and that ‘it is hugely fulfilling and humbling to discover accounts written from a Māori perspective by Māori informants’.
From the beginning of his brilliant career, which started with the publication of Pounamu, Pounamu in 1972, Ihimaera has pledged to write for the Māori people. At the time he chose to write in English because young Māori were not generally encouraged to speak their own language. Nevertheless, he has always used te reo for particularly intense or poetical moments, usually providing a translation incorporated within the text. This is the first book in which Ihimaera has arranged for a page-by-page translation. According to Ihimaera, Hēmi Kelly’s translation adds a dimension to the story which the English version can never have.
Kelly is a lecturer in te reo at Auckland University of Technology. He is of Ngāti Maniapoto descent, a member of the iwi that originally settled at Ōrākau, and who had their land confiscated after they lost the battle. In his introduction Kelly points out that Ihimaera specifically aims ‘to honour the people of Ngāti Maniapoto’, but the book also honours the Rongowhakaata Iwi, in particular Ihimaera’s father Te Haa, whose name is given to the leading Rongowhakaata warrior. In addition, it is ‘written and published to acknowledge the extraordinary decision, supported by the Crown in 2016 and enacted in 2017, to honour the New Zealand Wars with future commemorative events’.
The primary historical source for Sleeps Standing is the book The New Zealand Wars: A history of the Māori campaigns during the pioneering period. Written by James Cowan, it was funded by the Department of Internal Affairs and published in 1922–23. Like the latter, the novel is notable for its ‘comprehensive and sympathetic use of both Māori and Pākehā oral and written sources’. Cowan is reputed to have been more sympathetic towards Māori than most of his contemporaries, and, growing up among Māori in Kihikihi, he was inspired to write about the New Zealand Wars because his father’s farm included the land on which the Battle of Ōrākau was fought. Ihimaera states: ‘James Cowan requires a special acknowledgement. Throughout my research I realised how important he was to Māori of the time. His work as a Māori historian shows amazing breadth and depth and sympathy and he should be better known.’
In Sleeps Standing the narration is multi-layered. There is a constant and amusing rivalry between Rua and Hūhana as they vie for the position of best storyteller: the winner gets to do the talking. Hūhana claims the right as she is the eldest, which leads to humorous comments from Rua, but he takes the opportunity whenever he can to contribute his own knowledge. Ordinary everyday events interrupt the story and consequently determine who tells it. The battle scenes are recorded in an omniscient, impartial but authentic oral style, very different from the jocular verbal interaction of Rua with Hūhana and Simon. Unless specified, it is impossible to tell whether Rua or Hāhana is telling the tale. This gives it a universal quality.
The warriors at Ōrākau were doomed from the start. They were fighting to defend a quickly constructed and unfinished pā, and the British troops prevented most of their supporters from reaching it. They did not have time to bring in enough food and water before the battle started. By the second day their water had run out and by the third day the Māori were starving. They also ran out of ammunition for their muskets and used peach stones instead. The British platoons kept up a constant and heavy assault using rifles, cannons and hand-grenades, but the Māori fought on regardless. When the British Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron ordered his men to negotiate a truce, the Māori warriors refused. And when Cameron suggested that, at the very least, he might be permitted to provide a safe conduct for the women and children, Ahumai Te Paerata spoke up: ‘If our husbands and brothers are to die, what profit is it to us that we women and children should live? Let us die with our men.’
The story follows the adventures of Moetū, whose job it is to look after about thirty children. Those who were old enough to help in battle did so, and after a retreat was planned, Moetū was instructed to return the children to their different iwi. He has many adventures on the way, but copes with them in an inventive and resourceful manner. Ihimaera is serious in intent, yet playful in manner. He evokes a warm and deep respect for the heroic actions of not only Moetū, but all of the Māori warriors. The action is advanced through dialogue, both in the battle and in the contemporary scenes. This renders the book very lively. One could say Ihimaera is inventing a new genre, somewhere between historical fiction and a dramatic play, allowing him to incorporate various perspectives. It results in a provocative multimedia text which asks many questions not only about genre, but also about the nature of history and translation.
SIMONE OETTLI-VAN DELDEN is a teacher, writer and photographer. She is presently doing research for a book about Witi Ihimaera and lives alternately in Wellington and Geneva.