Hana O’Regan

Last week, Hana O’Regan was a speaker at an education conference in Auckland. The title she chose for her speech was To reo ki te raki, to mana ki te whenua. Let your story be heard in the heavens — and your mana be restored to the land.

She explained that it came from a waiata commemorating Matiaha Tiramōrehu, who started the Ngāi Tahu claim in 1849. And she pointed to the cost of his story and the stories of other Māori achievements being heard by so few in each new generation. This is an edited version of her talk.


Most of our children of Ngāi Tahu, and the wider communities in which they live, are unacquainted with the story of Tiramōrehu or the claim that he started.

Most haven’t had the opportunity of knowing or hearing about him or his legacy. They haven’t heard the stories of the journeys travelled to petition the courts, the Crown, the Queen, the newspapers — anyone who would listen — as they sought for redress of their grievances.

They wouldn’t know that Tiramōrehu was a scholar, a tohunga, a politician among his people, and a leader who, along with most of his people, had become fully literate in Māori and English before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840.

Or that his iwi had been trading with Australia and around the Pacific since the 1830s on their own whaling and sealing boats.

And they are unlikely to know about the amazing stories of survival and resilience as his people lost over 90 percent of their land in 20 years, became refugees in their own land, and had their economies stripped from under their feet, their communities broken up and dispersed, their language and culture pushed aside from the land from which it was born — and then how they rallied together with what they had to exist … persist … and prevail.

These stories of grit, determination, resilience, innovation, and tenacity feed my pride in my Ngāi Tahu identity — although I try to be humble — and provide me with a strong knowledge platform upon which I can stand with strength. Just as the stories of my Irish and Scottish ancestors and their journeys of survival do.

But I‘ve been lucky enough to have heard them, even when I wasn’t that interested in hearing them, as they’ve been the conversations and discussions surrounding the kitchen tables and living rooms of my formative years.

I grew up, however, in a unique environment — with a historian as a father who was also a Treaty negotiator and political advocate for Māori and indigenous rights, and a mother who was genuinely interested in those issues. I probably couldn’t have avoided the stories if I’d tried. But that experience was a privileged one, and not a normal occurrence within my tribe.

These stories — our history as a country and its people, told from Māori eyes and from Māori tongues — have rarely found equal voice, or any voice, in the classrooms and academic halls of our nation. In fact, they were deliberately removed.

Although the Treaty of Waitangi has increasingly taken its place in the consciousness of our society and been taught in our kura, it’s still not uncommon to hear people say they learned more at school about the history of Great Britain and the American revolution, than they did about battles and events closer to home.

I may be wrong but, even today, I fear that the majority of New Zealand children would be able to more quickly retrieve the names of Captain Cook or Abel Tasman from their memory banks than those of Kupe or the significant Māori ancestral explorers particular to their regions.

Although there have been recent calls to shift this inequity of access to our own historical narratives, the most recent of which was driven by students themselves, the gap persists. You may recall the news about the two high school students from Otorohanga, presenting a 13,000-strong petition to parliament late last year seeking to have the New Zealand Land Wars included in the New Zealand curriculum. The Ministry of Education said no!

(The Secretary for Education, Peter Hughes, in a written submission, said that requiring schools to teach a specific subject would be contrary to the spirit and underlying principles of the curriculum.)

Although many were shocked at the government’s reaction, others saw it as a continuation of generational behaviour by the state to avoid potential conflict by putting the onus on school boards and teachers who would be more likely to avoid kaupapa they consider to be controversial, instead opting for “safe topics” — and thereby perpetuating intergenerational ignorance about our own historical narrative.

As a result, our children in the education system are confronted with the effect of our history, but not enlightened as to the cause.

The danger of this is that they’re left to believe, even if it’s not a conscious thought, that the educational challenges and negative stereotypes many of our whānau face today are because they are “Māori”, and not more accurately presented as a product of our history.

The Māori learner is told through the policy and actions of the system itself that the history they value and relates directly to them, doesn’t have the same value as other knowledge.

The inequity of treatment of their cultural heritage and voice as Māori is not confined to the historical experiences and narratives.

The same messages to the Māori learner are conveyed when they see their language not being upheld and valued — although we’re making stronger moves towards the recognition of Māori in schools — or the treatment and value attributed to Mātauraka Māori in our current system.

What I experienced as a teenager with te reo Māori being classed as the only non-academic language in our New Zealand curriculum, is now being experienced by Māori students in 2018 with Mātauraka Māori subjects not being given the same value as their mainstream equivalents for credit for University Entrance.

The fact that the fight still needs to be fought, reflects back to the learner that their language and their knowledge are still not equal — and it hurts.

Matiaha Tiramōrehu

Whether it be Tiramōrehu’s story or mine that isn’t told, or the absence of public discourse and outcry about other inequities, we find that other stories and negative perceptions take root and fill up the space.

What has emerged instead are often limiting and negative stories about Māori capability, aptitude, skills, learning styles, academic ability and potential.

These negative stories have often gone unchallenged and been taken as fact, continuing to be fostered and expounded, and allowed to grow and become ingrained in our national psyche.

They have become so normalised that most of us no longer even realise they’re there and have been part of our collective consciousness for generations.

These limiting and stereotypical perceptions are now the narratives that our Māori tamariki are more likely to hear about themselves — what society thinks of them as Māori rather than anything that might suggest a counter view.

It’s my belief that this imbalance and the impact that it has on how our children feel about themselves has inhibited and will continue to inhibit the capability of our tamariki and whānau within our education system.

I want to suggest to you, that a fundamental pre-requisite for capability development, is the cultural narrative that our children have about themselves as Māori, and that this is significantly influenced by the perceptions held about them, their heritage, their language and culture — by those around them.

In order to create an environment that supports the growth and development of our children’s capabilities, we must start with ourselves and the messages we share.

This requires us to build our own capability as educators ourselves, to ensure that we’re equipped with the right knowledge and tools to transform prejudice and beliefs strongly held by many in our communities for many, many generations.

This transformation won’t be realised just because we’re told it’s something we should do. We actually need to believe wholeheartedly in it.

If we don’t believe that the issue needs to be addressed in the first place and we don’t understand it, we’re unlikely to want to commit to adding another challenge on to the already time-pressured and stressful roles as educators.

I believe there’s an order that needs to be considered to bring about the required change.

As educators, we need to firstly acknowledge the existence of these negative messages and stories our children are exposed to. Secondly, recognise the role that those societal messages play in shaping the cultural self-perception of our tamariki as learners. Thirdly, understand where they have come from. And lastly, commit to working collectively to change them.

For nearly 20 years now, I‘ve been running workshops on Māori educational achievement. I always start by asking the participants or audience what the commonly known characteristics and attributes of Kiwis are. What are we known for?

Although the order may change, what surprises me is how well trained we are in reciting and recalling the narrative we have about ourselves as “Kiwi”. It generally goes like this:

Number 8 wire
All Blacks and Silver Ferns — great at sports
“Give it a go” and “She’ll be right” attitude
Punch above our weight on the international stage
Clean and green
First to give women the vote
Nuclear free

It’s so predictable that, when I then present my prepared list, there’s a hit rate of 95 percent. We often use the exact same sentences. We have learned our collective cultural story as New Zealanders and Kiwi incredibly well.

And we are also overwhelmingly proud of that identity. I have only occasionally, from thousands of participants, heard the odd negative comment –— and they may have been secretly Australian!

The laughter and debates, such as about where sheep should feature on the list, fade, however, as I get them to discuss, in groups, the next question:

What are the commonly known characteristics and attributes of Māori? What are Māori known for?

There is sometimes an awkward silence in the room and emotions often rise. But the same patterns inevitably occur. People start nervously drawing upon commonly known identity markers they deem as positive, and listing things Māori are good at:

Māori are great singers
Can play the guitar
Good at dancing and all have rhythm
Good artists
Koru, pounamu, haka
Great at sports
Hangi, love kai
Whānau orientated

Then someone brave may suggest: “And then there are those other negative stereotypes as well.” And those aspects come flooding out.

Again, I show them my prepared powerpoint Māori list with its hit rate, and I congratulate them on their accuracy. This time there’s no laughter.

Domestic violence
Gang culture
Once were warriors
Negative health statistics
Low educational achievement and not engaged in education
High rates of illiteracy
Highest rates of imprisonment

I then pose the question: How do you think you would feel as a child about your identity if you knew that’s how society felt about you as Māori? Being seen as good singers and dancers and artists and sports people and whānau orientated — and yet having to contend with all the negative perceptions as well on a daily basis.

I can confirm that these stereotypes exist because I’ve heard them time and time again. And even though, in the education world, most people I engage with don’t actually believe them to be true, we’re familiar enough with them that we can list them.

Our babies, our whānau are acutely aware that they exist.

They know they exist when they’re followed around a dairy, when the old lady pulls her bag closer to her at the bus stop, or they watch the bus driver follow their every move as they get on the bus.

They know they exist when their parents try and get a rental property or choose non-Māori names to write on job application letters in the hope it might help them get an interview.

My babies know they exist because they’ve had verbal abuse for speaking Māori to each other and me!

I saw first-hand the impacts of these experiences on my son in particular — who was a little bit darker than his blonde, blue-eyed sister and often got treated quite differently. He told me when he was six years old that he wanted to be four again because, when he turned five, he turned bad, and, when he turned six, he got worse.

But what was more disturbing was what he told my mother one day: “When I grow up, I’m going to go to prison, cause that’s where all the bad Māori boys go and only bad Māori boys go to prison … but I don’t care ‘cause in prison they only get to eat mashed potatoes and I like mashed potatoes!”

It really hit me then — at that point eight years ago — that even my son, with all the privileges and support he had around him, being raised bilingually in a culturally rich environment, having the benefits of educated role models in his immediate family, and never having experienced financial hardship — even my baby was not immune to the messages that society had exposed him to, about what it meant to be Māori.

It was at that point that I realised how pervasive those beliefs were in our society, and that it wasn’t enough to just not think those things myself. The negative stereotypes had become so ingrained in our thinking and behaviours, that we would need to actively and deliberately deconstruct them if we were to re-frame a positive sense of the cultural self.

What is more, the transformative thinking couldn’t be achieved by simply taking out the bad bits and leaving a big gaping hole in the cultural narrative corner. An alternative picture could only hope to be developed in the minds of the learner and whānau if they had other narratives and realities on which positive cultural self-belief could be built.

And that was what led me to an internal debate when considering one of the thematic questions for this conference: “How do we get a system shift, from focus on content to capabilities?

This notion challenged me as I found myself jumping from a position of support to disagreement and then back again. It’s well known that sitting on a fence can be very painful!

My whole argument has been on the need to focus on the content. To change the content we have traditionally turned to and used in the education of our tamariki — and balance out the story we have of ourselves and our associated capabilities.

I recall here my father’s words to me at university: “It doesn’t really matter what subject you learn. The main benefit of the whole process is learning how to think.”

I absolutely agree that learning how to learn and think, to problem solve and create, are essential elements to educational success and capability development.

But I don’t believe they are enough when faced with such a strong legacy of negative and limited content about who we are as a people.

If our cultural self-belief as learners is not first rectified, re-framed and re-established by balancing up the playing field and providing the content that specifically addresses the inaccuracies and gaps in our story of ourselves, then I believe that we are unlikely to see significant change in the educational statistics we have experienced over the last 70-plus years.

To highlight this example and what I believe to be the value of targeted disruptive content, I’ll return to the negative stereotypes of Māori within education: specifically, Māori as the tail of the education system, and primarily kinaesthetic learners who are good with their hands (and not with their minds).

We need to know what happened so we can create the room for a new narrative moving from Māori educational failure to Māori educational prowess.

Let’s look at some of the historical factors influencing Māori educational failure.

Māori were prolific writers, historians and political commentators in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and were proportionately more literate than their Pākehā compatriots.

From 1842 to 1933, there were 47 Māori language newspapers in circulation. Māori were writing and often printing and publishing their own newspapers and circulating these around their communities. These newspapers, which are now available online through the National Library, show a people thirsty for knowledge about the world and kaupapa closer to home.

They are packed with local histories and debates, international politics and cultural comparatives. They provide ample evidence of a people who valued knowledge and education and excelled in literacy in both Māori and English.

And yet these rich resources of our history seemed to fade from our collective memory bank, even among Māori themselves.

Remnants of historical facts remained about the 1880s–1900s, such as the Te Aute revolution where we saw the first large wave of Māori university graduates coming through and moving on to become MPs. Later, most of them were knighted.

But they became known more as exceptions than the norm. And, as a nation, on the whole, we didn’t stop to question why. How did we move from a position of literary success to educational underachievement?

The reality was that the educational successes of our Māori people received very little attention. This was compounded by wave after wave of suffocating policies that were designed to keep Māori in their place or, more accurately, to establish a place for them at the bottom of the pecking order. Māori language banned in schools, the 1867 Native Schools Act, and children physically punished for speaking te reo even outside the classrooms.

Māori children were quick to see that their heritage language wasn’t valued and supported by the education system. Instead, they were told that their culture and language was backward, limiting, dying, and damaging to their effective participation in the modern world.

When access to the tools of education were provided, they excelled and became the first Māori lawyers, doctors, scientists, anthropologists and, of course, politicians. The government’s response to this wave of academic success led directly to the stereotypes we discussed earlier. By the early 1900s, government education policy saw academic subjects being dropped from the Native Schools.

Learners were increasingly exposed to racist stereotypes of Māori as less intelligent, backward, and predominantly kinaesthetic learners, as opposed to academic. Subsequent educational policies started to further restrict the access of Māori to quality higher education by enforcing the non-academic subjects on students in the Native Schools.

These few earlier exemplars of Māori academic success and achievement were not readily available to the young Māori learner in New Zealand schools in the latter half of the 20th century.

Māori society on the whole soon forgot their literary heritage, and the Māori newspapers and academics and intellectuals that graced their pages were soon lost from the society’s consciousness and memory. Māori learners became all kinaesthetic learners, who didn’t like competing, responded better to group work, and so forth.

Today, you might have known the points that I’ve just shared with you, but imagine if the stories like these had been told with as much passion and regularity as the amazing feats of Sir Edmund Hillary or Rutherford.

Imagine how much more empowering it would be for our Māori learners to hear that we were one of the fastest people in the world in the rate at which we adopted literacy, often self-taught. Imagine if that was put up as another view on the current statistics around illiteracy.

Knowing the story doesn’t change the statistics we have right now, but it may help move our people from a position where they associate their challenges with being Māori, and instead instil a sense of pride in the literary heritage of their people.

I don’t believe we will achieve the necessary shift in self-belief required to build our capability as a people until we clear the clutter from our consciousness that clouds our vision of ourselves and those around us.

This takes a level of maturity — and, as a young country still in our puberty years, that’s confronting. But I believe we can do it.

And to do this, we need to be brave enough, as a country, to hear things we might not like to hear, things that may make us sad and angry but give understanding to our reality. We need to draw on the strengths we exhibit when we take on women’s suffrage, climb the highest mountain on earth, or tell the nuclear super powers they can’t play in our backyard.

With self-belief and collective cultural self-belief, we create a fertile ground for growth, innovation, and personal and academic development. We can be the generation that made the change.

We can reclaim our story and help our people understand it. We can free our children from the negative narratives about them in their everyday lives — and allow them to tell their own. By giving voice to their history, their heritage and legacy, they can be the narrators of their future horizons.

reo ki te raki, tō mana ki te whenua
Let your story be heard in the heavens — and your mana be restored to the land


Hana O’Regan (Kāti Rakiāmoa, Kāti Ruahikihiki, Kāi Tūāhuriri, Kāti Waewae) is the general manager of Oranga/Wellbeing for Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. This is an edited version of her keynote speech for the uLearn conference, held in Auckland on October 10-12.

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