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Cultural amnesia – the price of lost perspectives in NZ

Cultural amnesia – the price of lost perspectives in NZ history

Ignoring iwi and hapū perspectives in historical accounts of Aotearoa New Zealand risks cultural amnesia and the erosion or even destruction of identities, says a doctoral researcher in the field.

University of Canterbury (UC) History student and recipient of a prestigious Canterbury Doctoral Scholarship and Ngāi Tahu Research Centre Doctoral scholarship, Madison Williams (Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō) is considering ways in which perspectives of iwi and hapū provide crucial perspectives and contributions to the historic record.

Her doctoral thesis about perceiving the past, A Living People’: Ngāti Kuia’s Nga Pou Aronui & the Relevance of History, critiques existing narratives and explores alternative views of history, particularly those of iwi and hapū.

A student in UC’s College of Arts | Te Rāngai Toi Tangata, Madi considers her research to be laying a foundation for future change, including how history is taught in the education sector.

“There is a prevailing one-people narrative where the past is seen as irrelevant, ‘we are all just New Zealanders now’, regardless of where we came from in the past,” Madi says.

“This current approach of promoting particular aspects of our past since 1840 has sought to erode any other historical experiences. Iwi and hapū experiences have been ignored and the Māori’ story has been created and woven into the New Zealand story.”

Her exploration of historical accounts over time include how early amateur historians in the 1800s focused on a narrative of exploration and settlement for Māori, prior to contact with Europeans. Likewise accounts of Gallipoli and a narrative around nationhood has perpetuated this sense of a singular sense of nationhood, she says.

A significant aspect of her research is the role of the Waitangi Tribunal | Te Rōpū Whakamana i te Tiriti o Waitangi. She notes the importance of the huge body of research gathered for the Tribunal.

“The Tribunal is a really interesting entity. Its goal is to redress the wrongs of the past, which has sometimes been perceived as creating a progressive history of biculturalism. However, it has created a huge source of information that means alternative views of history within iwi and hapū can be explored.

“We need to apply a different lens. How do you consider a sense of iwi history without considering whakapapa? Ideas of time and myth have immense value. Views of history by iwi and hapū don’t have the same sense of time as a Western sense of linear or chronological history.”

Madi’s primary supervisor UC Associate Professor Te Maire Tau, who is Director of Kā Waimaero | Ngāi Tahu Research Centre (NTRC), says Madi’s research has the potential to connect New Zealanders to their ancestry, be it Māori or not.

“The danger in New Zealand currently is that our identity flies too freely, like a kite in the wind. It needs to be grounded by string or it floats away. This is what history can do for New Zealand, it can be the string to the kite,” he says.

Associate Professor Tau says all NTRC students are encouraged to get in touch with their iwi, hapū and whānau, as there is a lot to be learned from the older generations.

“UC offers unique world-class opportunities to Māori students and those researching indigenous-based topics. The Ngāi Tahu Research Centre is a world-class indigenous research leader.”

Students have the opportunity to attend the annually held First Nations’ Futures Programme at Stanford University. It is an unrivalled opportunity for aspiring Ngāi Tahu leaders and other Māori postgraduate students to gain access to leading international research and thinking within a uniquely indigenous context, he says.

“NTRC and UC have a range of Māori and indigenous scholarships available, and offer support and supervision from our top lecturers and researchers,” Associate Professor Tau says.

Madi Williams’ key doctoral research questions:

• How do Māori and Pākehā perceive the past? How does New Zealand as a nation perceive it?

• How did the historical account take into account two different understandings of the past?

• To what extent did the historical account from the Treaty Settlement process satisfy Ngāti Kuia?

• What role does the past play in identity for Ngāti Kuia?

• Are there more relevant ways for Ngāti Kuia to engage with our past?

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