What Drives Dame Anne Salmond

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4 December 2023

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On the release of a new book that revisits some of her best pieces of writing, Dame Anne Salmond pays tribute to the one person who has been her main inspiration.

Esteemed anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond is a national treasure who has helped Aotearoa New Zealand understand our cultural history through her writing and her life-long love affair with Māori.   

At 78, Salmond, winner of New Zealander of the Year in 2013, has recently been reflecting on her ground-breaking work as an anthropologist, environmentalist and writer with the release of her new book, Knowledge is a Blessing on Your Mind; Selected Writings, 1980–2020. It’s a collection of forty years of Salmond’s key written work about the Māori world, Te Tiriti and the wider Pacific and embedding her writing with her life, her relationships, her travels and friends.  

The collection includes Hui: A Study of Māori Ceremonial Gatherings, Eruera: The Teachings of a Māori Elder, and more recently, writing about race and Te Tiriti.   

“I’ve led a joyful life. It hasn’t been an angst ridden journey. It’s been a lot of fun,” she says.  

“It was wonderful to retrace my journey, going back to the beginning and remembering all of the relationships I’ve had, the people that I’ve known and the things that I have been involved with.”  

But the release of her new book comes with a tinge of sadness for Salmond. One of her biggest supporters, her husband Jeremy Salmond, one of the country’s leading conservation architects, died earlier this year. He encouraged Salmond to write this book, and passed  away before the book’s release.  

Anne Salmond

“We were together for 54 years and extremely close. It’s like losing half of yourself. He was a major personality in his own right, a gorgeous man who was very much loved by everyone. It’s been a very tough year,” she solemnly says.  

 “When you’re with someone for a very long time, and your lives weave together. you become a unit in a very deep way.”  

Jeremy shared Salmond’s love for history and the environment and often took many photos she used for her work.

Born in Wellington and raised in Gisborne, Salmond is a Pākehā New Zealander who has always had a special bond for Māori and their history.   

She says her connection to telling Māori stories stemmed from her great-grandfather, James McDonald, who was born in 1865, and was a photographer and filmmaker who had a close friendship with prominent Māori politicians Sir Apirana Ngata and Sir Peter Buck. James filmed, photographed and used cutting edge technology of the time to document Māori history because he feared that the culture was vanishing.   

Salmond shared her great grandfather’s passion, and also inherited his notebooks of his work.  

She went on her own journey of discovery, learning how to speak Māori, after she spent a year in the US as an AFS exchange student.  

“When I was in the US, I had to do a lot of talks about Aotearoa. That’s when I realised I knew very little about Māori, that I was completely ignorant. When I returned, I was fascinated with the culture and I learned te reo Māori.”  

Salmond has a close connection to the University of Auckland, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1966 and a Master of Arts in anthropology in 1968. She later became a highly acclaimed Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Māori Studies. She gained a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 with her thesis titled Hui – a study of Māori ceremonial gatherings.  

Salmond not only became a lecturer in Māori studies, but she was also involved in some of the major activist activities in the 70s that impacted Māori. including Bastion Point and was pregnant when she marched across the Auckland Harbour Bridge during the infamous 1975 land march led by Dame Whina Cooper. Her close friendship and working relationship with kaumatua Eruera and Amiria Stirling helped her build close connections and relationships in the Māori world.  

Despite her extensive work, Salmond has never claimed to speak for Māori. Her passion has always been around her willingness to observe and document.  

“I don’t claim any type of authority,” she says.  “What I share is a journey and sense of wonder, and excitement. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been surrounded by elders and kaumatua with a great deal of mana, and I’ve had a korowai wrapped around me to protect and support me.” 

These days, at 74, Salmond is still working, focusing her time on environmental projects. As with anthropology and Māori culture and history, she has excelled in writing, research and in practical work in the fields of conservation and preservation.  

“I work on environmental projects because of my four grandchildren. I want them to have a future and a world to live in.”

This is public interest journalism funded by NZ on Air.

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