The theft of modernity: rethinking indigenous relations with the west

Over the last century, we have come to perceive of indigenous people in a way that consistently denies them their modernity. Studies of colonialism, in their concern to emphasise the unequal power relations involved, have tended to obscure the active roles indigenous people took in imperial markets and politics. Change in indigenous lives has become seen as largely an accommodation of western intrusion. This perception – of the west's capacity to generate change to which others only respond – is what I call the 'theft' of modernity. The aim of my work is to stimulate a reorientation of our thinking, by bringing complex colonial histories of interaction and engagement into view. I do this by looking at the central role played by indigenous people in the creation of art and heritage industries, and the distinctive nationalisms they evoke.

By the 1870s, tourists were flooding to New Zealand and North America (amongst other places) to see striking indigenous architecture, such as Māori meeting houses and Northwest Coast totem poles, which was becoming synonymous with place. In both regions, carvers produced miniaturised versions for tourists to purchase. Particular to Rotorua was an emphasis on the provision of services, such as guiding to geothermal sites and the performance of haka. Photographic media advertising guides and performers was key to this market. If ethnological science created racialised images of generic human types, tourism in Rotorua was generating its opposite: not only were guides named on their photographs, they frequently autographed and distributed them.


'“Kathleen”, Māori Guide, Rotorua, N. Z.', c. 1905. (Postcard, collection of the author).


Portrait of Te Paia (Guide Sophia) by June Northcroft-Grant, at Tamaki Tours Office, Rotorua, New Zealand, 2002 (photographed by the author with permission of the artist).

Critiques of voyeurism abound in the literature on colonial photography of indigenous people, yet fail to account for its significance in Māori lives and livelihoods. My project details why these images were so economically important; conveys their ongoing ritual significance in ceremonies such as funerals; and explores why this portraiture style keeps reappearing across a variety of contemporary practices, from advertisements in Māori news media, to costumes of haka performers, to fine art.

As well as a popular tourist destination, Rotorua became a sort of Māori capital where visitors were received by state representatives. Here, for over a century, bureaucratic elites including the British Royal Family have been presented with astonishing numbers of Māori heirlooms. My research argues that through the presentation of valuables marking political and ritual status, Māori were aligning their lineages with foreign ones. This was to extend an established Polynesian political practice into a western one. As a strategy, these presentations fell short of their immediate objectives, yet their presence in collections acknowledges a history of diplomacy. This raises questions not of indigenous ownership and repatriation but of political intention and effect: what did these presentations intend to bring about and what might our acknowledgement of them now achieve?

Dr Elizabeth Cory-Pearce
University of Cambridge

Elizabeth was awarded an Early Career Fellowship grant in 2011.