THE NATIONAL PARTY started this. Back in 2016, when the clamour for a more fulsome historical accounting of Maori-Pakeha relations was rewarded with an official day for commemorating the dead of the New Zealand Wars.
No less a personage than National’s Deputy-Prime Minister, Bill English, declared that the moment had come “to recognise our own conflict, our own war, our own fallen, because there is no doubt at [the Battle of] Rangiriri ordinary people lost their lives fighting for principle in just the same way as New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives fighting on battlefields on the other side of the world.”
To which I responded with a heartfelt “uh-oh!”
Or, in the words of a slightly more coherent response, penned shortly after English’s woefully ill-judged observation:
“Of one thing we can be certain […] the dead who have slept for one-and-a-half centuries beneath the disputed soil of Aotearoa will have a very different story to tell. There is a reason why so many of the signposts to old battle sites are weathered and overgrown; why lichen has been allowed to obliterate the names of those who fell. Sleeping ghosts, like sleeping dogs, should never be needlessly awakened.”
Pish-tosh! The government of Jacinda Ardern is having none of that self-serving colonialist amnesia. The recently announced Aotearoa NZ history curriculum – compulsory, no less – is all about issuing our kids with scrapers, cleaning agents and scrubbing brushes, and setting them to cleaning up all those lichen-covered monuments.
During his famous “Long March”, the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong and his followers were required to traverse the same mountain pass where an earlier revolutionary army had been wiped-out. “Fear no ghosts!”, Mao reassured his superstitious peasant soldiers: “The past does not return!”
But, Mao’s confidence was misplaced. If you ask it to return often enough, the past, just like the murderous ghost in the horror film, Candyman, is only too happy to oblige. The results are seldom pretty.
Reading between the lines of the government’s draft history curriculum the full extent of its revisionist ambitions soon become clear. Rather than the history of the colony-cum-nation-state that the world knows (pro-tem?) as New Zealand, the next generation of young New Zealanders will learn that the history of these islands actually began somewhere between a thousand and eight hundred years ago. In other words our national narrative must be understood as a Maori – not a Pakeha – story.
Indeed, the role assigned to the Pakeha in this narrative is almost entirely negative. At best, they might be described as disruptors. At worst, they will be painted as destroyers and appropriators: agents of an alien power that imposed its will unjustly on Aotearoa’s original inhabitants. If the history of this country is envisaged as a Hollywood western, then the Pakeha are wearing the black hats – they’re the baddies.
The logic of this new, profoundly revisionist, historiography is inescapable. If the story of Aotearoa is a Maori story, then the Pakeha intervention can only be understood as something temporary. Colonialism, and all the damage it inflicted on Aotearoa’s natural environment, and the culture of its indigenous population, will be presented as an historical phase through which it is passing. The direction of travel is clear: from a Maori past, towards a Maori future. And the Pakeha? Well, the Pakeha are tauiwi: strangers, outsiders, foreigners – just visiting. For them, the message could hardly be clearer: When in Aotearoa, behave like an Aotearoan – not a Roman.
All this is a far cry from the idea that Aotearoa-New Zealand is the creation of historical forces too vast for blame, too permanent for guilt, colliding in time. The achievements of the diminutive nation-state emerging from that historical collision once astounded the world.
In the 1958 edition of the Richards Topical Encyclopaedia, New Zealand’s entry is headed: “The World’s ‘Model Nation’”. The sub-heading is worth quoting in full:
“How little New Zealand, starting her career amid wars and many money problems, built up for herself a government so sound and humane that she came to be called the best-governed nation in the world.”
I like that story much better than the one embedded in the new curriculum. It’s an historical narrative in which all this country’s inhabitants once took enormous pride, and could again – if only the dead are allowed to sleep.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 February 2021.