Hard to tell…

Years ago as a relatively new interpreter, I worked at an outdoor education centre in Ohio that did living history programmes. The most popular programme was an Underground Railroad programme where school kids played the part of escaping slaves. As they travelled north toward Canada, they met a variety of characters, some nice and some not so nice to them. During our staff training, I was uncomfortable with the programme. We were expected to threaten the children with guns, lock them in a shed, and treat them roughly. I thought it was going too far—these were kids, after all! Living history or not, was it really necessary to rough them up for the sake of interpretation? I had a talk with the director, and though he was quite comfortable with the programme, he agreed to allow me to play characters that were not required to threaten the children with firearms.

African American slaves picking cotton in Alabama

What I didn’t count on was our audience. These little children arrived with no understanding of the history of slavery in America, and often with a wall of inherited prejudices against African Americans. Within a month, I was one of the most ruthless slave hunters on the programme, luring the children into my confidence, then turning on them as I pulled a pistol from my skirts.

For me, slavery was one of those “hard to tell” subjects—a subject that for me was too emotional, too inflammatory, too…well…shameful to tell in graphic detail. But for my audience it wasn’t a difficult subject at all. In fact, it wasn’t nearly difficult enough for them. I realised that my job was to turn my nation’s history of slavery into an emotional, inflammatory, and shameful subject for these children. To these kids, slavery was dates and names to be memorised—dry and unemotional. My job as an interpreter was to make it emotional for them; make it personal.

As interpreters, we need to tell the hard stories. They are often the most important ones to tell. And sometimes those stories will necessarily evoke negative emotions. We can’t shy away from that. There is power in those emotions. A power we can harness.

Next month interpreters will gather in Christchurch to spend a weekend sharing our triumphs and troubles as we search for powerful and positive ways to tell difficult stories. I encourage you to join us, whether you’re a war-scarred veteran of “hard to tell” stories, or a fresh recruit facing your first “hard to tell” story. You’ll find more information about the weekend, plus a registration form on the INNZ website.


Stories in the Landscape

About ten years ago I was in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with my grandson. The rich collection of the Dutch masters is spellbinding, gallery after gallery of finely detailed paintings. My grandson was only two years old then yet we were in the Rijksmuseum for three hours. What held his attention? Certainly not the large portraits of wealthy merchants. It was the landscapes. Probably the fact that his grandfather was able to spin stories into and out of the paintings kept his interest, a little bit of ‘Where’s Wally?’ as we looked for cows and dogs and trees, boats and birds. Even his parents became involved as he retold his landscape stories.

A herd of cattle crossing a ford - Rembrandt

A herd of cattle crossing a ford - Rembrandt

Life in New Zealand is about stories in the landscape. The landscape of the central North Island is one of the most richly painted in New Zealand, with volcanic ashes and ochres, verdant forest greens and ever changing lake blues. Local iwi paint cultural landscapes of mountain gods, rivalry and challenge and of peaks so sacred that one dare not gaze upon them when passing. It’s a dynamic landscape very different from many others in New Zealand. Less than 2000 years ago the landscape palette changed in an instant as Taupo erupted and the region was heavily brushed in pumice and ash, grey and beige.

mt ruapehu erupting

Mt. Ruapehu, Tongariro National Park, in eruption June 1996

In 1995 and 1996 ago a rewriting of the central North Island landscape began with the eruptions of Mt. Ruapehu. The effects are still being felt. Eventually, after an eleven year wait, the expected lahar from the Crater Lake rumbled down the Whangaehu River, adding more pages to the story of the central North Island landscape.

There are hundreds of stories in the landscape told each year by volunteers who freely give their time to assist conservation staff in carrying out their duties. Some volunteer their time as part of an organised club or society and that effort has cleared much of Tongariro National Park of invasive exotic wilding pines. More than forty years of puffing, grubbing and cutting down this inva­sive pine so that future generations do not tell stories of a pine-clad park.

Ali Beath

A volunteer with a dead rat - one less predator in our forests

Throughout New Zealand others come to plant, guide visitors through our heritage sites or teach the art of fishing. Some look after our huts while yet others measure, plot and record so that we can monitor the health of our forests and kiwi. All have stories to tell. We owe them a debt of gratitude.


The Pukawa Wildlife Management Trust is a self-started community group that won a conservation award for their efforts

We can’t change the past but if we listen carefully to the stories in the landscape then surely we can try and make the right decisions for the future.

Connor is twelve now, a rugby fanatic, and a proud participant in the Rugby World Cup victory parade for the triumphant All Blacks where he got to dance with Piri Weepu and hi-five Ma’aa Nonu. Stories to tell his grandchildren, and so the cycle turns.

As we left the Rijksmuseum on a crisp September afternoon we passed under the fine stoned archways where a Russian brass quintet painted a resonant musical landscape, the sound of trumpet, oboe and trombone richly filling the stone enclave. Connor bobbed and swayed to the music and I couldn’t help thinking of how important cultural landscapes are to young minds. But that’s another story

Sheltering the stories – Whakamarumaru te kōrero paki

Interpreting cultural and heritage values in a modern world

We are only a week away from gathering in ‘Te Maru’ (Timaru) – The place of shelter- and for those of you not joining us here’s a taste on what you’ll be missing!

Whether it’s in a museum, visitor centre or the very landscape we walk within, stories of people – of life and loss, love and family, exploration and settlement – are sheltered. Protected and kept alive via memory and artifact, memorials and landmarks – and most importantly by interactions between people.

Our annual workshop this year is being co-hosted by Te Ana: Ngāi Tahu Rock Art Centre, which officially opened on December 10, 2010 at the historic Lands and Services Building in Timaru.

Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

Photo courtesy Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

Eight years in the making, the centre is a place to discover the local Ngāi Tahu stories of food-gathering, of whakapapa, of rohe (land boundaries), of wahi tapu, of rest and rituals in cave shelters nearby.  As you enter the centre, you are invited to follow in the footsteps of the ancestors, to explore the place of Māori rock art in the world, both past and present.

Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

Photo courtesy Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

Its development is a story in itself, and we are privileged at our workshop to have the tale presented from two sides:  Amanda Symons curator, and Ashley and Faith of Story Inc

You can see more images of Te Ana on both the Te Ana Rock Art Centre and Story Inc websites.

Māori heritage is not only of the past – it is a continuum of life that continues to unfold today. The most recent tangata whenua exhibition to open at Waikato Museum “Ngaa Pouwhenua – the Land, the People, the Dreams” aims to to bridge the gap between historical ‘Māori’ exhibitions and current Iwi practice. Ngaa Pouwhenua asks Iwi members of all ages what it means to be Tainui today.

Ngaa Pouwhenua exhibition, Waikato Museum.

Ngaa Pouwhenua exhibition, photo courtesy Waikato Museum.

Moana Davey, Tangata Whenua Concept Leader at Waikato Museum, will be sharing with us her experiences with developing Ngaa Pouwhenua, which tested the true meaning and value of partnerships between museum and Iwi.

Ngaa Pouwhenua exhibition, Waikato Museum

Ngaa Pouwhenua exhibition, photo courtesy Waikato Museum

She will be just one of the hosts on our ‘World Café’ panel, talking about the challenges of ‘Interpreting cultural and heritage values in a modern world’. Our other confirmed hosts are Kate Woodhall of Te Papa, and Mandy Home, of Arowhenua Runaka.

Aoraki / Mt Cook.

Aoraki / Mt Cook photo S Webb.

Ko Aoraki te maunga
Ko Waitaki te awa
Ko Waitaha, ko Kati Mamoe
ko Rapuwai, ko Kāi Tahu nga iwi
Ko Te Hapa o Niu Tireni te wharenui
Ko Arowhenua te marae

We would have no workshop without the willingness of people to share their stories with us. And we look forward to hearing from you, our network members as part of the weekend’s show and tell session on Sunday.

For those of you who can’t make it to Timaru due to time, geography or other commitments, we’d love you to still share with us your own experiences with cultural story-telling. Go to our Facebook page to upload a photo, video, link or status report on our wall.

Ka kite anō au i a koutou.

Postscript:  Māori heritage is foundational and central to all New Zealand heritage

Recently the Treaty Tribunal released its report on the Wai 262 claim. Lodged in October 1991, the Wai 262 claim is about the place of Māori culture, identity and traditional knowledge in New Zealand’s laws, and in government policies and practices. It marks a new more positive phase of partnership between Crown and Maori,beyond grevience and into a future-focused relationship.

It also concerns the place in contemporary New Zealand life of core Māori cultural values such as the obligation of iwi and hapū to act as kaitiaki (cultural guardians) towards taonga (treasured things) such as traditional knowledge, artistic and cultural works, important places, and flora and fauna that are significant to iwi or hapū identity.

For more info go to: http://www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz/news/media/wai262.asp