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2020 Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award: History of Ngāi Tahu, from Bluff to across the seas

Dr Michael Stevens (Ngāi Tahu) has received the Royal Society Te Apārangi Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award for his work on Ngāi Tahu history, which has brought the Indigenous history of southern New Zealand to international attention and emphasised the importance of seafaring and maritime mobility.

The award is presented annually to recognise innovative Māori early career researchers with a promising trajectory.

Mike’s work has spanned cartography, literacy, maritime history, and historiography. He has pinpointed and documented the immense importance of seafaring and marine mobility for Southern Māori and Māori-Pakeha, not just for subsistence or economic reasons but pervasively through family and social life, traditions and relationships.  His exemplary methods and deeply researched papers emphasise the individual as well as the widest national and transnational context.  He is shifting the boundaries of Indigenous historical research both inward to the person and outward to interactions across Oceania.

Mike is one of a small group of Māori scholars who have moved out of university appointments and into iwi-centred positions in order to develop fresh perspectives upon Indigenous histories. A self-employed historian, he works with and for various Ngāi Tahu institutions, including the Archive Team at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

Raised at Awarua (Bluff), which is a key heartland Ngāi Tahu village, Mike is deeply knowledgeable about the region: its history, geography, place names and whakapapa. His PhD, awarded in 2010, drew on this knowledge but extended it. This required archival research in Bluff, Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, London and Edinburgh. However, he continued with his mahinga kai obligations and marae duties over that time. This is a hallmark of Mike’s research methodology: to dive deep into libraries and manuscripts but remain a “known face” and share relevant discoveries with Ngāi Tahu whānau in accessible ways.

Even before his PhD was awarded, he published an article on muttonbirding in the prestigious Journal of Pacific History.

Mike’s “World History of Bluff” project, which will culminate in a monograph published by Bridget Williams Books, was made possible by Mike being awarded a Marsden Fast-Start. Although the project’s main output has been delayed by Mike’s departure from academia, smaller resultant essays in edited collections suggest that the larger book will add much to knowledge about the maritime aspects of colonial New Zealand and consequences for Māori, especially Ngāi Tahu.

The Judith Binney Trust awarded Mike a Judith Binney Fellowship in December 2019, enabling him to complete the World History of Bluff monograph. That same week, Mike was one of seven named investigators awarded a three-year Australian Research Council Discovery Project research grant entitled “Indigenous mobilities to and through Australia: agency and sovereignties.”

In 2015, Mike contributed an essay to a Māori-focused special edition of the New Zealand Journal of History. Drawing simultaneously on his PhD and subsequent Bluff-centred research, it offers an important historiographical snapshot of where Māori history is – and where it could go. In 2017 the New Zealand Historical Association highly-commended this article when it awarded the biennial Mary Boyd Prize for the best article on any aspect of New Zealand history published in a refereed journal.

In addition to his writing, he continues to share his findings with the community. He has given several evening talks on Te Rau Aroha Marae – often with other scholars he has arranged. These wānanga have been popular and well-attended. He has also presented his Ngāi Tahu-centred research on other Ngāi Tahu marae and wider public groups, secondary schools, and events throughout New Zealand. In addition, he has published articles in Te Karaka (a quarterly magazine produced by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu) and been interviewed on television, radio and online platforms. He also reviews and generates content for Kā Huru Manu (Ngāi Tahu online atlas: http://www.kahurumanu.co.nz/ and Kareao (online Ngāi Tahu archive: https://kareao.nz/. He is also currently co-editing the second volume of Tāngata Ngāi Tahu, to be launched in 2021.

On receiving this award, Mike said: “I accept this Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award on behalf of the Ngāi Tahu Archive and Te Pae Kōrako, the Ngāi Tahu Archive Advisory Committee. In so doing, I pay tribute to the committee chair, Tā Tipene O’Regan, for his advocacy and stewardship of the Ngāi Tahu Archive over the last forty years, and his longstanding personal support of my work. I also thank Takerei Norton, the Archive’s manager, and Arihia Bennett, the Chief Executive of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, who enabled me to extend my contribution to the Ngāi Tahu Archive team to a point where I was able to leave academia. I also need to acknowledge the Royal Society’s Marsden Fund, which made my “World History of Bluff” project possible, and pay special tribute to the Judith Binney Trust, whose considerable generosity is allowing me to complete that project’s monograph. Aku mihi nui ki a koutou!

However, my deepest thanks are reserved for those nearest and dearest to me—my wife and children, and parents and grandparents—for their enduring support of my historical research. I take this opportunity to express my particular gratitude for my Bluff-based childhood where my early interest in Ngāi Tahu whakapapa and history was recognised and nourished within and beyond our whānau, especially on our beloved Te Rau Aroha Marae. This award is a direct consequence of those kindnesses.

In closing, I am compelled to highlight that many of the Royal Society’s early members, including several of its founders, used Ngāi Tahu knowledge, and bodies, in the pursuit of colonial science. These activities frequently benefitted from, and helped actualise, processes by which Ngāi Tahu people and culture were made invisible in Te Waipounamu. For example, James Hector’s exploration of Milford Sound in the 1860s, and the Canterbury Philosophical Institute’s 1907 visit to the Subantarctic Islands, utilised veritable “Man Fridays” from Aparima and Awarua. So too did the surveyor John Turnbull Thomson and missionary Johann Wohlers, whose confident predictions of the extinction of Ngāi Tahu sit in the Society’s journal. But not only are we still here—as a people—our dynamic tribal archive is, among many other things, engaged in giving back those Man Fridays, and women, the dignity of their names and whakapapa. It is good and proper for the Royal Society to acknowledge our efforts in that regard, which this award does. We sincerely appreciate this recognition, which represents a growing maturity in both the Royal Society and New Zealand society.”

Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award:
Awarded annually to recognise innovative Māori early career researchers with a promising trajectory.

To Michael John Stevens for his work with the Ngāi Tahu Archive and historiographical advancements in Māori history.