Native American and Indigenous Studies Association

The premiere international & interdisciplinary professional organization for scholars, graduate students, independent researchers, and community members interested in all aspects of Indigenous Studies.

kia ora naisa whanau

he uri au o te atiawa - i'm alice te punga somerville and i'm a member of the naisa council. i live and teach in aotearoa and, like chris, have committed to blogging on this site. after agreeing to blog i found i had uncharacteristic writer's block, and found that marking a gigantic pile of exams was a great way both to procrastinate and to make better use of my time than staring at the screen of my computer.

luckily, in indigenous studies the stories come to us: for better or worse, there's always something going down.
i wanted to blog today to bring a specific nz-based situation to wider attention, and to ask some questions (all rhetorical, which is code for 'i don't know what the answers might be') at the end.

a couple of weeks ago witi ihimaera, one of our most prominent maori writers, was publicly found to have plagiarised passages from a range of texts in his most recent (his 12th) novel 'the trowenna sea' -

i won't provide too much detail - google 'ihimaera' and 'plagiarism' and see what there is to see.

(in case you don't recognise his name, he wrote a book 'the whale rider' in the mid-1980s on which the film 'whale rider' is loosely based. if you buy me a beer in tucson i promise to describe in mind numbing and potentially very boring detail some of the finer nuances of the departures from the original novella to the film to the 'international' version of the novella published after the film - hehe now isn't that tempting?)

the upshot of the situation here is that a book reviewer found the plagiarism, the reviewer reported on it, witi publicly apologised, witi's employer the university of auckland dismissed the case of plagiarism because it believed the unattributed copying was unintentional, the story died down, one week later witi received a nz arts laureate award (worth $50K), and suddenly many prominent figures (as well as plenty of rednecks, if you google too much or listen to talkback radio) are expounding on either the horror of witi's plagiarism or the horror of akld uni's disinterest in taking an accusation of plagiarism seriously.

meanwhile, witi's most recent response is to offer to buy back stock and to work on a new version of the novel, to be released early next year.

i bring this case to your attention not in order to shame witi, or in order to inspire or demand any kind of explicit response of either the defensive or the offensive variety.

i bring it to you because i find that being an indigenous scholar in indigenous studies can be a tricky place, and this place is made more tricky in cases like these.

my first instinct is to say the opposite of 'the mainstream' which, while feeling emotionally comfortable to be swimming upstream, actually amounts to allowing dominant voices to shape my own. indeed, if those dominant voices had decided it was a storm in a teacup i would have felt an urge to argue that we should be able to have highger expectations of our writer than this and that when one works at a university in a professorial position one should be even more sensitive to the complexities of academic integrity. on the other hand, if they had decided that this is a giant issue and witi has singularly wronged the world of literature (and perhaps the nation) as we know it, i would have called for a 'reality check' about the relative lack of harm than has been inflicted and about the way that plenty of non-Indigenous writers are enaged in these sorts of scandals and this is another example of (what we call here in Aotearoa) 'Maori bashing' in a clear and reprehensible form.

but as i have said, either of those responses is as un-complex and reactive as the voices to which i would believe myself to be responding.

what i crave - and this is where indigenous studies comes in - is space to think this matter through. space to throw around the various strands that are connected in this single case. space to try out ideas and have them critiqued and have the chance to advance better ones.

witi has claimed, in the most recent flurry of media attention, that he was trying to push the boundaries of how indigenous people engage with history and to expand the formal possibilities of the historical novel (or at least that's what i think he was saying) - and i would like to be able to have space to be able to think about such claims about indigenous uses of history in the company of other people who have shared political and intellectual commitments but whose knowledge of various other indigenous literatures and histories will enable me to think better, think harder, think more carefully about this one situation.

my 'home' discipline of literary studies is not up to the task of providing this kind of space, or at least not here in aotearoa. while it is tempting to weigh in on debates being held at the level of mainstream media, these are not in fact debates but energetically flung soundbites which must not interrupt the important work of selling advertising space or gaining votes, depending on who is funding a particular news outlet.

i think indigenous studies is that space i am craving this week, and i think this situation raises, at least for me, a question about what kind of space we are committed to creating in our own work, our own communities, our own institutions and this organisation.

witi ihimaera is the person who taught me for my first ever course at university, and he showed me this world of indigenous literature which i fell in love with and broke up with my law degree in order to pursue. i say this because there are always so many layers of connection and disconnection and these are necessarily difficult conversations. i am not being naive or romantic about a space of indigenous studies which is uncritical, ever-loving and more concerned with either loving or demonising people. indeed, i believe indigenous studies is the space - the place - where we can find the room to do the more difficult thing: to recognise the temptations and genealogies of simplistic thinking which define things and people as all good or all bad, and to explore all of the vast space in between.

yes, this is a bit like a sermon. sorry about that. what i wanted to do was to tease out a few ideas about how indigenous studies might enable us - enable me - to do better thinking and teaching and writing than if it didn't exist.

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