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Our Nation’s Story - Heritage Or Vandalism?

Letter From Elsewhere

Our Nation’s Story - Heritage Or Vandalism?
It Depends On Your Point Of View

By Anne Else

Reading the available documents, in full, certainly helps. I wonder how many of the people who reacted so furiously to the speech by the Race Relations Commissioner to mark the International Day of Cultural Heritage have actually read the full text of that speech. You can find the full text here… "Blowing Up The Bamiyan Buddhas: It Makes You Think"
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If they had read it all, they might have noticed a few things that seem to have escaped most of the media commentators and politicians on both sides of the House, let alone members of the public who first became aware of the issue when they heard Bill English and Winston Peters fulminating on air. (I put Mr English first because Scoop timed his press release at 10.55 a.m., and Mr Peters’ release at 10.58 a.m., following a press release based on the speech from the Commissioner at 8.46 a.m.)

After that, it was all on and pretty well everyone got stuck in. Mr de Bres stayed admirably calm, but even he did not seem able to get across a few centrally important points:

1. The United Nations proclamation of 2002 as the Year for Cultural Heritage followed on from a resolution adopted by UNESCO's General Conference last year, in response to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan. (The significance of the Year may have passed you by, because unlike blowing up statues, it was not “sexy” enough in media terms to warrant attention – until now, of course.) When briefing the Commissioner for the speech, UNESCO stressed this point.

2. That is why the Taliban regime was mentioned in a speech for the International Day of Cultural Heritage, which was the culmination of that year.

3. The Year aimed to raise awareness throughout the world of the importance of preserving cultural heritage. As New Zealand’s own UNESCO Committee has pointed out, this includes both the tangible heritage of monuments, such as the Buddhas, and the intangible heritage of traditions and cultural practices.

4. It was therefore perfectly legitimate for the Commissioner to say that “the destruction of the Buddhas challenges us to think of our own country and to examine our own record”, and to conclude:

“Let us practise cultural protection and nourishment, not cultural vandalism. Let us celebrate biculturalism and multiculturalism in New Zealand, not ask people to leave their culture on the marae or at the border. Let that be the lesson for us of the Taliban’s wanton destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, which prompted the establishment of this international day of cultural heritage, te ra whakanui i nga taonga tuku iho.”

The problem seems to have been the phrase “cultural vandalism”, which Mr de Bres used first of the Taliban regime’s actions, and then of “the colonisation of New Zealand”, thus implicitly drawing a parallel between the two. That first sweeping shorthand phrase, “the colonisation of New Zealand”, enabled Mr English to claim that Mr de Bres was “comparing New Zealand’s colonial history with that of the Taleban in Afghanistan”. Mr Peters did not actually mention the Taliban; instead he asked why Mr de Bres felt it was “necessary to go back in history and make accusations against European settlers”. In somewhat unfortunate grammar, which ended up suggesting the opposite of what he probably meant, his release went on to say that Maori “can thank God that the British colonised New Zealand and not another nation with a sorry record in Africa and Asia”.

In his speech, Mr de Bres did go on to explain exactly what he meant:

“Governments, egged on by land-hungry settlers, rode roughshod over Maori cultural relationships with their environment, threw some of their most visionary and peaceful cultural leaders and elders into gaol without trial, belittled their culture and actively discouraged the use of their language. This cultural vandalism was accompanied by environmental vandalism, and vast expanses of New Zealand’s indigenous ecosystems were unnecessarily destroyed.”

This is a reasonable short summary of what actually happened, from the Maori point of view. And it went on happening, well beyond what Pakeha seem to regard as “the distant past” of the nineteenth century. But most Pakeha have a completely different impression, based on the view of history they acquired at school (if they acquired one at all).

I started school in 1950. Our history book was Our Nation’s Story. First “great-hearted and noble James Cook, New Zealand’s true discoverer” (as opposed to that Dutch chap who got here a bit earlier) took possession for the King in 1769. Later Marsden, the Christian man of peace, arrived, and eventually his “great dream…of peace and brotherhood between the two races grew into reality”. Then some hard-working settlers unfortunately made mistakes in buying land, and there the Maori Wars broke out, spurred on by the wicked Te Rauparaha and the rebel Te Kooti. But at last there was peace. At that point the Maori simply disappeared from Our Nation’s Story, presumably because they were no longer a threat.

In her study of the first 40 years of the School Journal, then staple reading material for every New Zealand classroom, historian Diana Beaglehole found a similar silence. There were only five acknowledgements of contemporary Maori language and society, and two of those were translations into Maori of God Save the King.

Well after the second world war, the emphasis in almost all material for schools featuring Maori was on the “old-time Maori”, living safely in the “early days” after New Zealand was “discovered”. Their gullibility and their inability to best the white man was a popular theme. Story writers then thought nothing of inventing entirely new tribes, such as the Ngatiraupo and the Ngatiroto. The good Maori were generally the ones who sided with the settlers against their own people.

As for contemporary “race relations”, outside observer David Ausubel concluded in 1960 that the majority of Pakeha “hardly seemed aware that Maoris existed and apparently cared even less”. They took Maori for granted “in much the same manner as they did telephone poles, except for some vague awareness that the former were somewhat more of a tourist attraction” (pages 165-7). Those in power might talk about the integration of the two cultures, but “what they really desire is the complete assimilation and ultimate disappearance of the Maori culture”. Lest this be dismissed as arrant nonsense, here is what the Hunn Report stated firmly about Maori culture in 1961:

“Integration…implies some continuation of Maori culture. Much of it, though, has already departed and only the fittest elements (worthiest of preservation) have survived the onset of civilisation. Language, arts and crafts, and the institutions of the marae are the chief relics. Only the Maori themselves can decide whether these features of their ancient life are, in fact, to be kept alive; and, in the final analysis, it is entirely a matter of individual choice.”

Now that’s telling them. It’s their culture, so it’s up to them, as individuals, to put the remaining relics on life support if they want to. Either way, it’s nothing to do with us, or with our policies.

Things have certainly changed a great deal in New Zealand since then, and the Commissioner’s speech is one sign of that change. But the reaction to it indicates that in some ways, when it comes to “our nation’s story”, things have also stayed much too much the same.


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