Speaking truth to power: The three faces of authority

John Edward Terrell

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 21-Febr-2015.

ONE OF THE THINGS I have learned both as a human being and as an anthropologist is that I never fully understand other human beings—and certainly not other anthropologists. In the former category, and sometimes in the latter, I include government bureaucrats, university deans, academic chairs, and institutional vice presidents.

I have also found that the door opens—or rather stays partly closed—both ways. Human beings in such positions of power over other human beings all too often do not seem to understand the human sources of their authority. And therein lies a tale.


On 9 March 1993 after years of discussion, planning, and hard work, Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Maori community at Tokomaru Bay, New Zealand, formally reopened to the public a fully renovated Maori meeting house safeguarded there within the Museum’s 20th century walls.

As one consequence of Museum’s close collaboration with Tokomaru Bay, it is now known for sure that this house in Chicago was built at Tokomaru in 1881 to honor Ruatepupuke, a legendary figure who is said to have brought the art of woodcarving to the Maori people from the underwater house of the sea god, Tangaroa. The ridgepole of the building is his spine; the rafters are his ribs, and the wide boards along the roof at the front are Ruatepupuke’s arms outstretched to welcome visitors.

The Maori meeting house called Ruatepupuke II at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Source: author.
The three faces of authority

As  a museum curator, I am given to saying that material things mediate human relationships. They mediate our relationships with the world around us. We call them “tools.” They mediate our relationships with other human beings. We talk about them in many ways such as “gifts,” “mobile phones,” and “money.” And things, too, mediate our relationships with worlds unseen or merely imagined. Then we may call them “religious icons,” “ceremonial objects,” “money,” and “computer games.”

While I was working with my Maori friends during the negotiations for and restoration of the incredible “thing” at the Field Museum called Ruatepupuke II, I was lucky enough to learn much about how Maori New Zealanders are likely to think about life, community, and meeting houses.

One of the truly unexpected benefits of this partnership was learning about how nuanced a Maori way of thinking about power can be. They may not have as many ways to talk about authority as a Canadian has at his or her disposal to talk about snow, but they have three ways in particular that reveal a depth of human understanding that is insightful and wise.

Wehi, wana, and ihi

What I learned was that there are at least three different words in the Maori Polynesian language for “power,” each of which captures a different facet of what it means to be powerful:

wehi refers to the power to inspire fear, awe, or dread in the beholder. An example of wehi would be the visceral power of the traditional Maori war dance called the haka. Another would be a phone call from your doctor, department chair, or divisional vice president;

wana can mean  “excitement,” “spiritual awe,” and the like in a more enveloping sense; and

ihi is difficult to translate into English but means, I think, what we would call “confidence,” “charm,” “bearing,” or “inherent authority.” In New Zealand there are sayings to the effect “you do not need to ask who is the chief,” and “everyone knows when the chief has come into the room.” You know you are feeling the ihi of a person or thing when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

The fragility of mana

These three faces or facets of power in a Maori sense all work together to nurture what in Polynesian is called mana—yet another word difficult to translate and understand that means, all too simply put, “power,” “prestige,” and “status.” Elsewhere I have argued that this word often can mean what social scientists call social capital.

The point I want to make in telling you all this about these Maori ways of talking about power is that together they reveal how fragile is the power of bureaucrats, deans, chairs, divisional vice presidents, and other authority figures.

The mana of an administrator does not come with the title on the door to his or her office. The ability to hire, fire, or censure someone “under” someone else’s thumb in our own society may have an inherent degree of wehi associated with it because of our legal, corporate, and social conventions. But the ihi and wana of anyone’s “authority” can collapse when the support of others has been lost.

In New Zealand, for example, the primal mana of a chief is said to be passed down by fact or right of birth to his offspring. But what a child then goes on in life to do with such a gift can weaken rather than strength that person’s mana in the eyes of others. Just as a chief who fails in battle may be seen as having lost his mana, so too a child who does not live up to his or her birthright may loose standing and the following of others.

This is a fact of life that needs no translation from Maori into English, and it is a lesson that all those in positions of power would do well to heed.

Social capital, after all, is social, not monetary.

© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

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