Revealing mākutu

12 December 2018

Dr Nēpia Mahuika

Historian Dr Nēpia Mahuika has a received a significant new award to look at the history of mākutu.

He is the inaugural Judith Binney Fellow for 2019. The senior lecturer at the University of Waikato specialises in Māori and Indigenous history.

Through a Western lens, mākutu has too often been seen as witchcraft, described by some as the ‘black arts’, ‘black magic, ‘witchraft’ and ‘curses.’ Dr Mahuika  does not have a simple definition himself, but he is looking to examine its history from a Māori perspective and to broaden understandings of mākutu that have previously reduced it align with Pākehā perceptions. He says while it can be seen as the consequences of one's actions, the fuller spiritual and practical meanings are complex.

In his research, he will examine archival records including court records, contemporary newspaper reports, government legislation, and even media coverage, novels, plays and other fictional depictions that have sensationalised mākutu. Mākutu surfaces in the media on occasion, usually without much context. It was reported this year that  man who stabbed a Tauranga woman to death believed he had to save himself, his family and his iwi from a mākutu. The case of Janet Moses is often pointed to as bringing mākutu to public consciousness. In 2007, she died after what was described at the time as mākutu lifting ceremony in the Wellington suburb of Wainuiomata. Dr Mahuika will examine such portrayals, but also get a far fuller picture of mākutu’s historic significance, and its meaning today.

With the assistance of the Fellowship, Dr Mahuika hopes to publish a book on the subject in 2020.

The Fellowship was established by the Judith Binney Trust to support research and writing on New Zealand history. The Trust has also announced three other Writing Awards with inaugural recipients freelance writer Ryan Bodman; journalist and commentator Morgan Godfery; and independent historian Dr. Melissa Matutina Williams.

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