Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Changing Land and Changing Stories

The end of the novel, “Potiki,” suggests a strong connection between the physical land on which we live and the art of storytelling. Both the land on which these characters grow and the stories they tell are shared between everyone yet can never belong to any single person. The land that the Maori cultivate and the intricate stories they pass from generation to generation may seem as if they are actually possessed, or even “owned” by these people, but the novel’s characters reminds us otherwise. As connected as Roimata’s family and tribe are to the land, they draw a similarity between the stories they tell and the physical terrain that is forced to be distributed and take on the qualities of the new settlers. Both the Maori’s stories and land take on the secrets and memories of the people, but are eventually shared and passed on to another generation, culture, or age of people.

Growing up in an old school house, I have always been fascinated by the thought, “Who stood on this exact spot of land before me?” Built in 1866, my family’s house still contains traces of its use as an elementary school, with two original chalkboards and multiple student engravings found on windowsills in our living and dining rooms. My sister and I have found button-up leather shoes, wooden rulers, and even a small tree house in our backyard left behind from the schoolchildren over 100 years ago. While the thought of moving here may have frightened me when I was three, I have since developed a greater appreciation for the history and small artifacts left behind in the place where I now call home.

What first attracted my parents to our house was the surrounding historic community where it is located. In addition to the school, there is the original general store, cobbler’s shop, firehouse, and barn that comprised the first town. Today, a historical committee maintains these buildings and seeks to preserve their original appearance. The committee holds routine meetings and other events for the surrounding residents to attend and discuss means of continuing this preservation. While not every town member attends, there still remains an established respect and reverence for the land. While there are permits, regulations, and a variety of historical society laws that limit what can and cannot be built in the area, the unspoken respect for the land is what remains most powerful. Our community sees the land as its own unique story, a part of history that remains despite the incessant construction of “mcmansions” and Hollywood-sized homes. Rather than a mere backdrop to the neighborhood, the land is itself the focal point of where we live. As much as our house tells a story, it’s the ground upon which is was built that holds even more.

Toward the ending of “Potiki,” Roimata says, “The hills did not belong to us any more,” yet “at the same time we could not help but remember that land does not belong to people, but that people belong to the land” (110). Perhaps one of the most startling assertions this novel makes is that land owns us as human beings, not the other way around. We do not actually “own” the land as a for-sale sign may lead us to believe, but rather, the land gives us permission to relish it. Roimata and her husband, Hemi, along with the rest of the Maori people demonstrate a sort of gratitude toward the earth and all that it offers, specifically the ocean. The land takes on a character of her own in this novel as Roimata remembers, “We could not forget that it was land who, in the beginning, held the secret, who contained our very beginnings within herself” (110). When the settlers encroach upon the Maori’s land, Roimata seems to suggest that the land decides what is best for the current people and what comes next in the world. “It did not seem right to us,” she says, “to sit on land that no longer belonged to us” (98). At the very least disappointed, Roimata still resolves not to show anger or hostility for what is happening to her people’s homeland. Her ability to accept this reality demonstrates a reverence and respect for the land as if it was the land’s own decision. The land determines what is best for Roimata and when her life story will change.

In speaking of his father, Toko, too, expresses this sense of communion shared with the land and sea. “My father Hemi,” states Toko, “said that the land and sea was our whole life, the means by which we survived and stayed together” (98). Very similar to a story, the land and sea weave together what the characters know and remember about their past and present lives as a culture. The land and sea take on a part of the culture’s identity, much like their tradition of oral story telling. “We were busy telling and retelling the histories of a people and a place,” says Roimata, “and learning or relearning a language which was our own, so that we could truly call it our own again” (107). Remembering and sharing stories is as important to the Maori’s physical land. Despite one being intangible and the other being tangible, both parts of the Maori’s culture can never actually be “bottled up” and owned by a particular possessor. They are in a sense fleeting and unable to be labeled according to one specific individual’s ownership.

Both the Maori’s land and their stories are a part of their everyday life, but they also extend past the present day and onto the generations that follow. “What Toko said was true,” states Roimata, “the stories had changed” (103). Just as physical pieces of land in our own culture pass from different owners, renters, or even within the same families, the land carries traces of the people who walked and lived upon it before. Similarly, the stories we tell change as we share them with others and embark on new adventures, challenges, and accomplishments in our life. The land and the stories that the Maori people shared could never remain exactly the same, yet their presence was as integral to their identity. Neither was ever "claimed" or owned by a single person, but rather shared among the group as what defined their home.

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