The legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai is one of the great love stories of the thermal regions of Aotearoa and of the Maori world. So great was her love for him, the story goes, that Hinemoa braved the midnight waters of the lake, Rotorua, and incurred her family’s wrath to claim her heart’s desire, Tutanekai. The lovechild of a chief’s wife, and, therefore, not Hinemoa’s social equal, he was an inappropriate match; but she wanted him, and she got him. Films have been made about it, and many songs have been written. Tourists continue to applaud the tale, still recounted in song and dance on the concert party stage and in cultural theatre.
As a descendant—one, indeed, of many, many thousands—I grew up with Hinemoa. My grandmother portrayed her in the 1914 film version, the first full-length feature movie made in Aotearoa. She has always been part of my life. As a child, I puzzled about how she went to him; my kuia commented on this, too. It seemed unusual in a tribal environment where we were continually reminded that men took the lead, took the initiative, as right. Obviously, there was something else going on here.
This is how the story was told. In Grey’s Polynesian Mythology, first published in 1855 and adapted from the manuscripts of Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikaheke, young Hinemoa is wilful, determined, but essentially feminine. She defies her parents’ wishes, and while Tutanekai passively waits, she swims across the lake to his arms.
Decades later, A. W. Reed (1974) produced Myths and Legends of Maoriland, presenting yet another version of this story. Written in more modern language, it reinforces the notion of heterosexual romance, with the frisson of the forbidden.
Recently, in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Maori Myth and Legends, Margaret Orbell (1995) has presented the same narrative. This is ironically enhanced by the cover picture, a portrait of Hinemoa painted by a Maori woman artist, who is also a descendant. In many of the carved meeting houses of my community, Hinemoa is one of the few women represented visually; and I took note of this, too, as a child. There were so many versions of her; I wondered, who was she, really? What was she like?
Making it to university, I was determined to read the original Te Rangikaheke manuscripts written in Maori. And I wept over what I discovered. Tutanekai enjoyed a particular relationship with a special male friend, his “hoa takatapui”—translated by Williams as “intimate companion of the same sex.” This word has since been claimed by the Maori gay and lesbian community as our word for us. He was nowhere near as impressed by Hinemoa as the romantic Victorian narrative had construed in Grey’s English translation. The Te Rangikaheke version of this story, though recorded by a missionary-educated elder of noble birth, raises many questions about sexualities, relationships, and the nature of desire in the precontact Maori world
I felt as if I had found the Hinemoa who had been waiting for me on an island in my own lesbian consciousness, and across the dangerous midnight waters of tribal tradition, constructed romance, and heterosexist orthodoxy, I had to swim and claim her.
To describe her as a lesbian would be imposing a construct upon Hinemoa that is as ill fitting and inappropriate as Grey’s colonizing romanticism. Instead, I set out to celebrate her as I imagine her to have been: a woman of courage and strength; a woman conscious of the many erotic possibilities offered in her world; a woman who chose a man who preferred his own sex—just as she preferred hers. A woman who was a warrior, and a lover.
Here is a retelling of her story…