Dunne Speaks: Time we knew our full history
Another Waitangi Day has passed – this year without adverse event – and with it, the often too brief opportunity to consider what it means to be a New Zealander, 179 years after the signing of the Treaty.
A striking feature of this year’s typically cursory discussion and woeful analysis was the attention paid to New Zealanders’ understanding of their country’s history from pre-colonial and colonial times in a manner slightly more sophisticated than the back of the corn flakes package descriptions prevalent when we were growing up.
This concern was fuelled inadvertently by the Prime Minister’s embarrassing performance when asked about the Articles of the Treaty. While she was clearly caught on the hop and almost certainly answered in a way most other people would have responded in similar circumstances, her fluffing reply highlighted a couple of issues. First, she should have had, and read, a briefing note on the content of the Treaty before decamping to Waitangi to swan around for five days, and second, and far more important, all of us individually need to become better informed about our nation’s history and milestones. While they may not always be the reference point, it is, for example, highly unlikely that American school students would reply similarly ineptly to a question about the Declaration of Independence.
So, I am all for young New Zealanders learning New Zealand history at school, probably as part of a wider civics programme, where they would also learn about our system of government, and their rights and responsibilities as citizens, including what citizenship means and how it has evolved over the years. The focus needs to be on the full spread of our history – from the earliest Polynesian migration, and the types of society Maori and Moriori developed, and their relationships, through to the arrival of the colonists and their interactions – good and bad – with indigenous people, and the development of contemporary New Zealand society, and the full challenges it faces. It should not shy away from the truth, but equally needs to present a balanced picture of the New Zealand story.
An equally critical part of everyone who lives in our islands understanding where our nation has come from and how it has developed over many centuries, is understanding and valuing its languages. Te Reo Maori is obviously a vital part, and should be a core part of the primary school curriculum. Our aim should be that every young New Zealander leaves primary school with at least basic proficiency in the language, alongside their English skills, so that they can feel comfortable in a range of environments. The criticism that Maori is not an international language is really not relevant – it is a language of our country, and we should be familiar with it.
We keep saying that the New Zealander today is unique, often without appreciating what that means. Knowing our languages, history and culture is an important step towards making that claim a reality. The vast majority of us are no longer transplanted Europeans living at the end of the world, trying to integrate our ways and past with an indigenous people. The uniqueness of being a contemporary New Zealander is the opportunity our nation, its background and history, gives each of us is to move with ease and comfort between the Maori and Pakeha worlds, absorbing almost unconsciously aspects of both. From that springs the modern New Zealander, acknowledging our bicultural history, mixing that with the strands of our individual experiences to create, thus creating the special bond that binds the peoples of these islands together today.
In a world where cultural and ethnic tensions are being exacerbated, not ameliorated, where stereotypes and prejudice are still fuelled by politicians promoting excessive xenophobia and intolerance of diversity for domestic partisan advantage, New Zealand has the opportunity to be one of those nations that stands against the pernicious tide.
But to achieve that objective, we first need to know and understand properly who we are, which brings us back to the issues of history and language. In this apparent year of delivery, giving priority to meeting this goal would be a positive step all of us should welcome.