On june 30, 1856, a little more than 100 years ago, a pakeha child was born in a small cottage on a lonely farm at Tawa Flat, near Wellington. His name was Elsdon Best. The Tuhoe people, of the Urewera Country, among whom he later lived, came to know him as “Peehi”. The cottage where he was brought up stood in a bush clearing; its walls were of pitsawn timber, and it had a shingle roof. The Tawa Flat telephone exchange now occupies the site.
In these humble surroundings the foundations were laid for Peehi to play an important part in the affairs of New Zealand. The Tuhoe people remember him, particularly, because he became one of them, learning and respecting their ways, and preserving their tribal lore for future generations.
It was a tremendous task recording the wealth of knowledge handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation within the sacred walls of the whare-wananga. He was constantly faced with the problem of deciding which version of the many stories he was told about the history of the tribe was the right one.
Tuhoe still debate among themselves the veracity of some of these accounts, but, that Peehi was aware of the danger of being too dogmatic, is evident from what he says in the introduction to his monumental work “Tuhoe-The Children Of The Mist”. “I am well aware that this sketchy account of bygone fights is going to be vigorously condemned…by the descendants of those who did not win such combats. Human nature is much the same the world over. I herein give the stories as they were told to me, doubtless with the exagerations and concealments common to all mankind. Should others be moved to publish more correct versions, as from their point of view, why then more power to their indignant elbows.”
The Maori people as a whole remember Peehi for his honesty and sincerity of purpose in placing on record their proud achievements and valued culture. He loved New Zealand and he combined with that love a deep and abiding interest in the Maori folk. He knew New Zealand could not progress unless the Maori prospered and he knew their future welfare depended on their retaining those Maori values implied in “Maoritanga” in the face of changing conditions.
Peehi saw the breakdown of the greatest of those values, “tapu”, under the influence of the pakeha, and with it the destruction of the old social system of Maoridom. In a little-known pamphlet which he wrote, called “Christian and Maori Mythology