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Letter From Elsewhere: Our Nation’s Story

Pakeha are not into national celebrations or commemorations these days. We used to turn out in tidy, neatly hatted droves to watch solemn civic parades and listen raptly to amazingly plummy-voiced Prime Ministers and broadcasters intoning platitudes about being one nation. Now, except for commercially hyped public shows of support for the All Blacks or the America’s Cup winners, we seem to have lost the plot. Or perhaps we’ve found it at last, and we don’t like it.

A recent issue of Mana magazine highlighted a central problem for everyone who lives here: “most of our kids complete primary and secondary education without much grasp of their country’s history”. This has been going on for a very long time.

When I went to primary school in Auckland in the 1950s, the only Maori words I saw in print were on my mother’s sheet music for the Maori Battalion Marching Song. Pakeha didn’t exist, and Maori as a distinct people with a continuing culture of their own seemed to have died out completely somewhere around 1900. There was no visible connection between the shadowy tattooed figures from the distant past who moved through our social studies lessons, and the Maori children in my class, or the welcomers greeting the Queen on the newsreels.

We learnt our New Zealand history from Our Nation’s Story, then twenty years old. “Imagine you are a sentinel...tell the story of an attack on the pa; or if you are a girl, tell the story of how your mother cooked food in the hangi.” After great-hearted and noble James Cook, New Zealand’s true discoverer”, arrived in 1769, never again were the Maoris “to lead the same lives of savage freedom”.

By Standard 4, we were learning that the Treaty of Waitangi had left the Maoris “the real owners of the country” and was in many ways “much fairer to brown man than to white”. Settlers who came to take up land had to wait, sometimes for years, while Governor Hobson made sure a fair price had been paid. Later some hard-working settlers unfortunately made mistakes buying land, and some Maoris attacked them. But at last there was peace, the two races settled down side by side, and Maori disappeared from our lessons.

Though I remember Little Rock and Notting Hill, I failed to notice the arguments raging through 1958 and 1959 about whether Maori players would be included in the All Black team going to South Africa in 1960. This was partly because I had absolutely no interest in rugby. But it was also because I found out what was going on from the radio, and the Broadcasting Service imposed a total ban on the issue. It had “never been the policy of the Service to discuss controversial questions as news items,” they said. Auckland Girls Grammar took the same view: Little Rock was discussed in class, the Tour was not. Don’t mention the war, even if it’s raging all around you.

So it’s small wonder that there’s such widespread confusion and indignation about anything to do with the Treaty, including Waitangi Day itself. As Rangi Walker told Mana, only in the 1990s did “the more balanced view of our history start to take hold. Prior to that it was all suppressed - historical amnesia.” Closing the history gap is just as important as closing any other kind. Judging by what’s been in the media lately, unles this gap is attended to, closing others may prove impossible.


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