Battle of Orakau recounted by Ihimaera

In Sleeps Standing Moetu, Witi Ihimaera examines the Battle of Orakau.

Witi Ihimaera with Hemi Kelly
Penguin Random House NZ

Witi Ihimaera’s contribution to this relatively short book is a novella framed by contemporary characters. In fictionalised form, they tell the story of Moetu, who acted as "father" to the children and nursing mothers in the battle of Orakau, in which a band of about 300 Maori men, along with some women and children, were trapped in the makeshift pa for three days by a force of soldiers six times their number.

Moetu is a wonderful character, and vividly drawn. As the battle rages on around him, in its strange, mixed way, he carries on imperturbably, somehow much wiser and more mature than his years, and acknowledged by his elders for being so.

It was a curious and possibly unnecessary battle. The Maori had very few bullets and resorted to using peach stones and wood in their guns to keep the British soldiers at bay. At one point they were offered peace by the military but refused to take it. In the end, in spite of having proclaimed that they would sooner die than give up, those still alive made a run for it; many of these survived and eventually found their way back to their various tribes.

The novella is printed in English on the right-hand page, and in Kelly’s Maori translation on the left. It is followed by some other eyewitness testimonies from those involved in the battle. These are as vitally written as the novella, though the details vary —  in the midst of a battle no-one will know exactly what’s going on.

The book’s inclusion of Kelly’s translation, a number of other pages in Maori, and various photographs of the people involved makes it a short read for English-only speakers. However, the value of the Maori translation is that it enables those whose grasp of the language is not yet strong to check their understanding of what they’re reading from the opposite page.

For non-Maori speakers, the book gives a different perspective on a battle that’s not always been presented from the Maori side. (Incidentally, the battle was the subject of one of New Zealand’s earliest full-length movies, Rewi’s Last Stand.)

- Mike Crowl is a Dunedin author, musician and composer.

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