The history cards that came with popular cereals neatly summarised all the stereotypes of the time — including that “‘Moa Hunters’ inhabited NZ before Maoris”.

From next year, when the new national history curriculum is introduced, New Zealand history will be taught in all our schools for the first time ever.

Whatever its flaws, it’s undoubtedly an improvement on the situation back in the 1950s, when children ingested bits of our history along with their breakfast — through the pictures, maps and stories inside the boxes of popular cereals.

Unfortunately, as Catherine Delahunty discovered, that “history” — and its influence on many New Zealanders of that generation — wasn’t quite as wholesome as the cereal they were consuming.

 

In the 1950s, children could consume portions of our history along with their breakfast. Inside boxes of Weeties, Kornies, Vita Brits and other popular products from Cereal Foods NZ, were pictures, maps and stories of “Historic Events in Early New Zealand”.

Children were supposed to collect the history cards and attach them to a map inside a booklet until they had a full collection.

One of my cousins found a set when she was cleaning house recently and handed them over.

There’s a page at the front showing two Pākehā children grinning excitedly at a bowl of cereal, which the company tells us is “the ideal Breakfast food for all the family”.

The maps inside include 30 pictures, neatly attached by a child — and neatly summarising all the powerful stereotypes of the time.

There is a beautiful muscular Māui in a tiny waka, fishing up the North Island. Then there’s a great fleet of double-hulled waka arriving on the northeast coast. We’re told that Moriori were already here when Kupe landed somewhere near Kāwhia. Māori are then shown “driving Morioris out of the country” and we see the “Remnants of the Lost Tribe”.

I teach classes on Te Tiriti around the country. After reading this cereal material, I asked my class about the first people of Aotearoa. Most of them still mentioned Moriori. These myths persist in the face of evidence, clearly articulated by Moriori themselves, that they are the Indigenous people of Rēkohu.

Why is it that these myths persist, even today? I suspect we Pākehā feel more comfortable about our own invasion of this land if we believe that tangata whenua can in turn be blamed for driving Moriori off these islands.

The map and cards go on to show colourful drawings of Māori engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, weaving, hunting a moa, tattooing each other, and attacking the brave white discoverers as they attempted to land here.

The childish images closely match the generic and superficial way objects were presented to us on our school trips to the Wellington War Memorial Museum. We were taken to the “Māori section” of the museum again and again, where we stared at objects in glass cases and slid along polished floors towards a wharenui whose carvings stared fiercely at us.

The “Māori section” was equally as fascinating, ancient and as utterly disconnected from our world as the Egyptian mummy.

Colonisation via children’s cereal also turns out to be a good way to reinforce imposed place names. The booklet and map refer only to colonised names such as Cape Runaway and Haast Pass.

These are names that still scar our landscape today, requiring an incredibly slow, street by street, town by town, mountain by mountain, struggle from tangata whenua to honour the original names and to debate their restoration.

Even more fascinating than the map and picture cards is the text that children received with their cereal. Māori are described on a racial continuum “as having been the most industrious, and his culture is accepted as being in many respects the most highly developed in Polynesia.”

The half-truths that run through the stories reflect a European male view of history. It is brave bands of men — in this case Kupe and crew — who sight Aotearoa, while the text merely notes that it was Kupe’s wife who cried, “He ao!”, and thus named Aotearoa.

Generally though, wāhine Māori are locked out of this history, which includes the bizarre claim that they were never allowed to plant crops.

Where did the cereal company get such poor information that they felt confident enough to reduce a profound and complex world to blithe generalisations about Māori “living in the stone age until Europeans came”?

The company gives us no sources for these stories and myths. They’re happy to simply treat an entire people as an object for collection, alongside their other picture card collections of war planes, birds of the world, and popular pets.

The story they clearly wanted to serve our two smiling Pākehā children is one about ancestors they can be proud of.

Another card, another breakfast, and a chapter in the booklet called “The White Man’s Influence”. It starts by pointing out that early Pākehā behaviour “reflected little credit on the European civilisation”. But, “fortunately for the Māori race”, the missionaries managed to teach wāhine how to sew and become good housewives.

These messages could not have been more crudely put, but they exist in the same form today in Twitter fights about the alleged benefits of colonisation.

The Treaty chapter is a cracker of a read. Te Tiriti is described as an offer of “good government for all” if the chiefs would give up their sovereignty to the Queen. This interpretation, and the focus on the English version, is a central piece of misinformation that permeates national conversation today. The Crown still won’t accept the Waitangi Tribunal view of 2014 that sovereignty was not ceded by rangatira, because they can’t face their own illegitimacy to govern tangata whenua.

The chapter wraps up by euphemistically noting that “unfortunately the Treaty did not mark the end of hostilities”, which is an interesting way to describe the breaches of the agreement and the subsequent colonisation process.

The final statement and crowning glory of the booklet are the words “since those days Māori have lived and worked on equal terms with his white brothers.”

It’s easy to laugh at these cereal lies, but the truth is that these stereotypes and racist assumptions still exist — in my classes, in debates on social media, and in the community where I live. Historians are still refuting Moriori myths and claims of continuous tribal warfare. Most people still don’t know that war was relatively unknown in the first centuries of tāngata whenua life in Aotearoa, and they don’t understand that sovereignty was never ceded to the Crown.

There remains an active belief in this worldview by those who grew up consuming it for breakfast.

Cereal Foods NZ no longer exists and can’t undo the racism it fed to a generation of Pākehā, and which still influences our national life.

But we should be conscious of what we used to consume, stay alert to where those myths persist, and make sure we check what we’re feeding our own children every single day.

 

Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in the campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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