Public Lecture: Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies Friday 18 November 2022

Professor Te Maire Tau

Friday 18 November 2022

Can we add to the work of Jan Vansina?


National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa

Lower Ground Floor, Aitken Street Entrance, Wellington

5.00pm Welcome – Mihi Whakatau

5.10pm – 6.10pm Keynote Address

6.10m – 7.00pm Refreshments

Professor Tau is the Pou Whakarae of the Ngāi Tahu Centre at the University of Canterbury and is giving the opening public lecture for the National Oral History Association of New Zealand | Te Kete Kōrero-a-Waha o Te Motu and the Stout Research Centre, Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington oral history conference. Professor Tau took up the Director position of the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre in 2011, having previously been a Senior Lecturer in History at the University. As a specialist historian on oral traditions, tribal genealogies and indigenous knowledge systems, Te Maire was used as an expert witness and historian for the settlement of the Ngāi Tahu Claim. Since then he has had a number of publications dealing with oral traditions and the relationship between indigenous knowledge systems and how they intersect with western science. Te Maire’s research interests include the philosophy of knowledge, oral traditions, myth, indigenous development and history.


It was not so long ago that oral history lacked widespread respect and credibility within the Western historical discipline. Jan Vansina’s Oral Tradition as History was an important step in changing this, with his proposed model for the interpretation and categorisation of oral history based on his studies of peoples and traditions in Central Africa. When completing my master’s thesis on oral traditions, I used this model with reference to Māori oral histories, while also incorporating David Simmons’ template for Māori myth. Subsequently there has been a huge growth in the merit and use of oral tradition in academia, which has begun to move forward into the study of Mātauranga Māori. However, recent misuse of oral traditions to make mistaken claims, including that Māori made voyages to Antarctica prior to European contact, means we must take careful stock of how our traditions and histories are used and interpreted. The question must be asked: Have we really learnt anything? What is the path forward for approaching our oral histories with both respect and rigour?