Celebrating anthropological research in New Zealand: Jeff Sissons

One of the great mysteries of Māori cultural history is the absence of tūāhu (shrines) from New Zealand’s archaeological record. Tūāhu were the closest equivalents to the temples and marae of Eastern Polynesia. Associate Professor Jeff Sissons has received a prestigious Marsden grant to research the mysterious disappearance of tūāhu. Over the next three years he will investigate whether this gap in Māori historical knowledge is due to the removal of tapu by rites that were performed in the mid-nineteenth century.

Earlier this week we spoke with Jeff about his project.

What drew you to your topic?

After completing The Polynesian Iconoclasm: Religious Revolution and the Seasonality of Power I wondered whether the dramatic conversion events in east Polynesia might have had parallels in New Zealand. I think I have found these in widespread rites for the removal of tapu, first from chiefly bodies and then from parts of the landscape. The first of these rites triggered mass conversion to Christianity south of the Bay of Islands and the second may have been associated with the destruction of tūāhu.

Why is it important to study this now?

The research is important because it opens up a rethinking of mid-nineteenth century Māori cultural and political history, recovering distinctive forms of Māori agency that have continued political relevance.

What are you reading at the moment?

I'm reading Danny Keenan's recent book, Te Whiti O Rongomai and the Resistance of Parihaka. An anniversary reading because Parihaka was invaded on 5th November 1881.

Jeff Sissons and local leader Ato Fogier standing in front of a ruined Marae in Moorea.

Jeff Sissons and local leader Ato Fogier standing in front of a ruined Marae in Moorea.

Jeff is the author of five books (The Polynesian Iconoclasm: Religious Revolution and the Seasonality of Power, 2014; First Peoples: Indigenous Cultures and their Futures, 2005; Nga Puriri o Taiamai: A Political History of Nga Puhi in the Inland Bay of Islands, 2001; Nation and Destination: Creating Cook Islands Identity, 1999; and Te Waimana, The Spring of Mana: Tuhoe History and the Colonial Encounter, 1991) and numerous journal articles. His research specialties include colonialism and cultural change, Māori cultural history, and Cook Islands cultural history. This is his second Marsden-funded research project.