Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Ātiawa, Taranaki) was born in Wellington, raised in Auckland and currently teaches Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her research is about locating, contextualising, and analysing texts written by Māori, Pacific and Indigenous people. Her first book was Once Were Pacific: Māori connections to Oceania (2012). In ‘Culvert: the slipperiness of place’ Alice reflects on eels that continue to swim through streams, visible and hidden, despite the contested and changing arrangements of place.
The story of Māori writing has roots in New Zealand St, a small residential road that stretches along the edge of a small ridge up from the Parramatta River where Samuel Marsden had a seminary for young Māori men in the early nineteenth century. New Zealand St is in Poihākena; New Zealand St is in Parramatta, now a mere sub-city in the sprawl of Sydney, but Parramatta is really the Darug place known as Burramatta, the gathering place of eels.
I don’t live in New Zealand St; I also don’t live in New Zealand. When people ask where I’m from, I tell them Wellington; when they ask where I’m from from, they think I’ll give them an answer from another place, but I give them an answer from another time: we were there before Wellington was there. Some people can’t see how you can be in an Indigenous place and a city at the same time. Darug people understand.
This is the third time I’ve left New Zealand; like Hinemoana’s eels — ‘salt fresh salt / the opposite of salmon’ — people like me keep crossing oceans and finding other rivers. I keep moving home with the intention of staying — honest I do — but then off I go again. This time I live right next to the Burramatta in a third floor apartment where I write stories about Māori writing; stories about Māori writing are always stories about Māori. This is one of them. (One story. One Māori.)
There’s a link between Burramatta and Puke Ahu: eels. A Pākehā scholar at home, Richard Manning, has written about the need for secondary school history teaching in Wellington to include some aspect of local histories. For his doctoral research, Manning brought together high school history teachers and local iwi representatives to talk about the difference between Local, Māori and New Zealand histories. He writes about their visit to Waitangi Park where the former Waitangi lagoon was mightily disrupted by two events: the major 1855 Wellington earthquake, and the laying of pipes during the nineteenth and twentieth century projects of public works which means the Waitangi stream now exists almost entirely underground through human-made pipes. Much of Wellington city was erected on land that was partially reclaimed and partly drained.
But water always goes somewhere. Water that is diverted under the ground through pipes is called a culvert. This is a story written by Burramatta about a culvert that’s really a world.
Manning focuses on the Waitangi stream which used to run from the harbour, past Waitangi (no, not that Waitangi) Park next to the national museum, all the way up through Te Aro valley which was planted and built in a way that made it a large village or pā. He cites a Te Ātiawa interviewee who relates, ‘People were also quite surprised to find that though there’s no stream, because it’s all in an underground pipe now, there’s still a large quantity of eels living in the Waitangi stream.’ The Waitangi stream, although no longer visible, still flows under the land and up the valley — it’s just that now it flows in pipes. And, because the stream was always a specific gathering place of eels, when the water started to flow in pipes instead of above ground, the eels kept on swimming up and down the valley just like they always had.
The Waitangi stream still runs beneath some parts of the city, and it’s not the only one. When I say this I can’t help but recall an elder of my own who came to visit me in my office when I started a job in the English department at Vic and she pointed out to the street which lay there heavy and grey nine floors down from my office and said ‘that’s the Kumutoto stream — whenever you’re here remember this is Kumutoto and it runs down the hill and out to the harbour.’
Manning spotted the watery metaphor: the history of Wellington needs to be resurfaced. But I also like the slippery metaphor. ‘No one told them’ joked the elder, referring to the eels. No one told the eels to start acting differently just because the environment was unrecognizable and the banks of the stream were now uniformly curved. When the interviewee says, ‘They hadn’t learned the history of that stream or that the stream’s now in a pipe’, Manning assumes the interviewee is referring to the people who hadn’t learned these things, but it seems to me this could equally mean the eels.
No one told the eels to stop acting like eels, not when we found our lives were radically changed by two hundred years of turbulent change; no one told the eels to stop acting like eels, even though our usual pathways have become more narrow than before; no one told the eels to stop acting like eels, when we found ourselves in and around other rivers that are gathering places for our kind.
Maybe we produce our Indigenous worlds by our various modes of continuity. Maybe there’s a way that finding out about our own eels and pathways can give us ways to see the ones in other places. Like Burramatta. Maybe Māori writing makes visible these worlds that, for some, are unknown because they’re happening in pipes that are really rivers. No one told the eels to stop acting like eels just because the world had changed, but maybe the inverse is also true: as long as the eels keep acting like eels and connecting like eels (as long as they keep swimming up the pipes and then heading off on ocean-wide migrations and returning home again) maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all. You can’t beat Wellington on a good day… but you can swim underneath, around and beyond it.