In Potiki, Patricia Grace portrays New Zealand natives as their lives change due to colonization. For the Maori people, their homeland is surrounded around nature – the water, hills, and mountains. Their survival and happiness are both based on nature, so when that is threatened by the “Dollarman”, they do everything they can to fight for their land. The Maori in this story are a close-knit group of people, and we see that in the way they interact and the stories that some of the characters tell describing their love for one another. In this story, Grace creates strong, resolute characters to show how important it is to save what you believe most in and value the relationships between loved ones.
Grace does an excellent job setting up the first part of the novel as an introduction to Maori culture and allows the reader to place themselves within the community of Maori natives and get a taste of life in New Zealand. This opens the readers’ eyes to the beauty of Maori life, traditions, and the importance of community. One way that the relationships between the people represent their homeland is through storytelling. The Maori appreciated and cherished their stories that were passed down through the generations and it truly defined their lifestyle. Roimata explains about the importance of storytelling in chapter 5:
“And although the stories all had different voices, and came from different times and places and understandings, though some were shown, enacted or written rather than told, each one was like a puzzle piece which tongued or grooved neatly to another. And this train of stories defined out lives, curving out from points on the spiral in ever-widening circles from which neither beginnings nor endings could be defined.” (41).
Roimata describes here the significance that stories had upon their community: they wove together and connected people to one another because they all had something to relate to. Many of the stories were related to or about nature, which shows their appreciation and love for their land. Storytelling was a significant part of their homeland, and although their lives are threatened to change in the second part of the novel, they will always have their stories. Their stories change based on their experiences, but it is comforting for the reader to realize that despite what the outcome of the Maori is, they will always have this part of their homeland to hold on to.
The second half of the novel is dedicated to the timeframe in which their land is threatened – with the introduction of the Dollarman to the bulldozers approaching the hills prepared to destroy them. The emotions of the family truly come out within Part Two and the reader is able to connect to their strong feelings and sympathize with their imminent loss. For example, in chapter 14, Toko explains how his family feels after speaking to the men. “Right then I saw what the man saw as he turned and looked at the three of us and as my eyes met his eyes. I saw what he saw. What he saw was brokenness, a broken race. He saw in my Granny, my Mary and me, a whole people, decrepit, deranged, deformed.” (Grace, 102) Grace uses imagery of crumbling and decaying, which is a perfect way to express their internal feelings and place an image in the reader’s mind.
I was able to view this novel through an ethical lens asking the question of whether or not it is ethical to steal and destroy land from its original inhabitants. When I first considered this question, I disagreed with it, but as I continued to read, I felt stronger for their cause of saving their land. As the book moved, I felt a stronger understanding for their feelings and supported their beliefs. When the men purposely drowned the land with water to break the people, I grew angry for them. When the men deliberately lit the wharenui on fire, I was disgraced and could not believe the depths that the men would go to for money. The characters and their emotions truly made me sympathize for the people: not only the loss that they physically experienced, but the loss that they felt internally. I also looked more closely at their spirituality and their fear of having those that have passed on disturbed while the ground is destroyed by the men. Grace showed in the first part how important the burial process is to the Maori people, so along with my own beliefs, I could not imagine disturbing the peace of the dead for the sake of commercialism. I respect the priest, Hoani for having such a calm and tranquil outlook on the movement of the earth, especially in chapter 19. “We must put the hurt aside, and we must approach the burial ground of the wharenui without anger.” (130). This is a very mature statement, and I understand his purpose of trying to preserve their faith and happiness. I also respect other Maoris who wisely responded to the fire saying “you build from people and you build from the ground” (137) when they learned that they lost the entire building.
This story gives light to the difficulties that native people face due to colonization. The Maori cherished nature because it was what they were most internally connected to, and when it was taken away, it hurt them deeply inside. Although their physical homeland was stolen from them, they do recognize that they have their internal homelands as well: their stories. Even at the very end of the book as James is narrating, he states that they still told their stories of all the emotions that they experienced throughout the novel. “And the stories were also of the land and sea, sky and fire, life and death, love and anger and pain.” (173). The reassurance of storytelling helps them hold on to something that they were always able to keep, which comforts them. It is interesting how James separates love, anger and pain by the word “and” to emphasize the distinct emotions they felt continually throughout the novel: the love for one another and their land, the anger they felt towards the Dollarman and the pain they felt as their way of life was significantly altered. Potiki was an excellent portrayal of the destructive effects of colonization on a group of people, yet sheds light on the importance of always keeping an internal homeland.