A dawn service at Rangiaowhia, 150 years after the attack on the village. (Photo: John Cowpland, Alphabix)

“Some of the most powerful stories are recounted in the quiet spaces when words fail us . . .”

This conversation between Joanna Kidman and Tom Roa about memory, silence, and the Waikato War, is taken from a chapter in Fragments of a Contested Past, a new BWB text by Joanna Kidman, Vincent O’Malley, Liana MacDonald, Tom Roa and Keziah Wallis.

Joanna (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa) is a professor of Māori Education at Victoria University of Wellington. And Tom (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato) is a Tainui leader and associate professor in Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato.


We’re at the University of Waikato on a cold, still Friday afternoon, one of those crisp winter days when the trees around Oranga Lake across the other side of the campus cast their reflections in the water and the students hurry past. 

We are in a small office at the end of a long corridor. It’s a temporary space where the academic staff of Māori and Indigenous Studies have set up camp while the university’s marae complex is being rebuilt. A small patch of sky is visible above the roof line and a high bank of clouds is gathering in the north. 

Tom is talking about memory, silence, and the Waikato War while Joanna takes notes. Occasionally we pause and chuckle over something the other has said. 

But there are also lengthy pauses in the conversation when neither speaks. On this particular day, it is those gaps in the narrative that we are working towards, because that is where the stories reside. 


Rangiaowhia. Ōrākau. Pūniu River. Mangatāwhiri River. Te Nehenehenui. Te Rohe Pōtae. Aukati. The names roll off the tongue. This is a map of lives. But they also became part of a blueprint for invasion. During the New Zealand Wars, they were at the centre of a large-scale military offensive that rolled across the district, destroying many communities in its wake. 

Each of these places has stories attached that have been told and not told over time. The stories not told never simply disappear but become part of the tribal archive. One just needs to know how to locate them. The best place to begin is often in those moments of shared silence when the talking stops.


“Women are our first storytellers — our first teachers too,” says Tom. 

He is speaking about his childhood in Ōtorohanga, listening to the nannies sitting around the table laughing and chatting as the children chased around them, the click of their knitting needles or the smell of food coming from the oven and the talk that gathered and flowed across the course of an afternoon. But there were also small moments of silence. 

As a child, Tom says, he learned that some of the most powerful stories are recounted in the quiet spaces when words fail us — when the past turns into a tale of sadness or grief. Often these stories take shape in the aftermath of terrible events. 

“You’ve talked about the silences in your parents’ generation,” Joanna says, “but a lot of us grew up with those silences. I wonder if it’s that as much as the things we actively remember about the violent past that shape who we are. I don’t know. There’s something about those particular silences . . . those strange gaps . . . you know? Those moments when the talking stops.”


“We heard Māori from our elders, but we weren’t encouraged to speak it,” Tom says. “So schooling was all about the Pākehā-dominated world, and not until later in life was there any real effort — on my part, anyway — to reconnect with Māori language. Through my upbringing, though, I knew what people were saying in te reo Māori – especially when they were angry at me. The language of anger, of frustration, of emotion, was Māori.”

We are here to talk about the aftermath of the Waikato War, and we’re focusing on the events at Rangiaowhia and Ōrākau that preceded the fall of the Waikato. These memories have been carried over time by Tainui people and they are still recounted today, but there are many ways of telling these stories.

Joanna: There’s a set of journeys that you’ve taken, Tom, which in many ways seem to be a haerenga through memory. Can you tell me about what it was like to grow up in those worlds. Where the memories sat? Where the silences were? 

Tom: My memories as a child are fragmented. My earliest memories revolve around my nannies. It’s the women more than the men that I remember. The men drifted in and out of memory up to the time I started secondary school. Dad was important, but life revolved around mother and nannies right up to the beginning of puberty. 

They would talk, and now and again they’d very deliberately tell me things that I would have to remember as an adult. It was a very deliberate and considered act of giving the memories they wanted me to take forward into my life. 

“Hey boy,” they’d say, “this is part of you. This is who you are.” I knew then they were telling me things that I would need to remember later. Important things.

Joanna: What were they talking to you about when they were telling you the things they wanted you to remember?

Tom: Something would kick off a conversation and then one of them would turn to me and say, “You’ll remember this, ay boy?” They’d have conversations about Rangiaowhia or conversations about patupaiarehe. Those sorts of things.

But there was very little in their conversations about the Wars or about conflicts. They talked about after the conflict or before the conflict. But not always so much about what happened during the invasion. It seems to me that the conflicts were too hard to speak about. 

At school we heard about the Napoleonic Wars and Tudor England. That was what we learned from Form One and Form Two through to secondary school, but the emphasis from our kuia was always about the family. It was about remembering things that we should learn in order to do better. That might be a bit of a rosy way of remembering it, but that’s how I recall Mum and Nanny Wiki and all the aunties talking about it.

I have eight sisters and two older brothers. My older brothers are 12 and six years older than me. I was one of the youngest in our family but there was always an expectation that I would take care of my sisters. My mother always said to me, “Boy, you look after your sisters. You make sure that your sisters are all right.” 


There was a story about our Nanny Parekaihina being taken by the patupaiarehe. Mum would tell me that story and then she’d give me a little nudge and say, “It wouldn’t have happened if you were there, ay boy.” 

It was those ways of setting memory in place or activating a memory process, which wasn’t saying directly: “Remember this!” But you can’t forget it when you’re given so much praise when you’re still just a snotty-nosed little kid! “Wouldn’t have happened if you were there, ay boy!” That’s what she’d say to me. 

There was the memory of Arama running from the burning church at Rangiaowhia that my mum passed on to me. 

Arama, who ran from the burning church. 

“She would have been about your age, boy,” my mum would tell me. That’s when the story becomes part of who you are. You will always remember it. That’s the kind of memory work we do. Sometimes you were told to remember things, but it was usually more indirect. It’s that little “kick” — a jogging of memory as that kōrero gets embedded.

It’s like remembering Nanny Ripeka shooting Colonel Nixon. Colonel Nixon boots down the door of the whare and Nanny Ripeka shoots him. I remember my aunty saying, “Of course she had a gun, they were hunters! That gun wasn’t there to kill people, it was there to go hunting.” And then one of the aunties would say to me, “And you know what, boy? She was looking after you.” 

She was looking after you.

That’s the kicker. That’s when memory takes root and you pull the stories inside yourself. There was always some quite gentle instruction that went along with those stories too.


Nanny Wiki had a badly deformed hand because she was burned as a child. She’d say things to me like, “This happened to me because I wasn’t careful, boy. Now you be careful!” And that’s another way of engaging younger ones in the very personal history of our whānau but making you a part of it and bringing you into it.

There were times when people visited us and they’d talk or I’d be visiting with one of the aunties or with Mum and I’d be dragged along to tangi near a place we called the “White House”, owned by the Whakamau whānau, out near Kahotea [Marae]. It was where they held tangis after the marae there had been condemned. And sometimes someone would say something and there’d just be this . . . stillness . . . a quietness.

Much of that stillness was about Rangiaowhia. The White House was the Coromandel house where Nanny Mamae, who survived Rangiaowhia as a child, lived. People would come and see the old lady and she’d say something about that time and everyone would just fall silent. 

As a child, I saw this happening, and while my attention was often more fixed on going outside to play with the other kids, I do remember poignant moments when there was just a stillness. It was a stillness around what happened to Nanny Mamae at Rangiaowhia. There would be a break in the conversation when the adults referred to what she endured.

Then somebody might talk about the nannies washing themselves in Waiwhakaata. That’s the little spring just over the hill from Hiiona Marae. They talked about the women going there to clean themselves after what took place at Rangiaowhia and Ōrākau. To wash themselves. It was a healing puna. And then there would be a kind of silence while they reflected on what happened in that space. If we’re talking about silences, those are the kinds of silences I remember as a child. 

My mother and our aunties were not shy about talking about things, but there were other families who would say, “But we don’t talk about that.” Then when those people had gone home, Mum and the aunties would tell me that they were talking about their tupuna who was caught up in what happened. Or Mum or one of the nannies would explain, “That’s because they had a really bad time when they went to stay at Tānehopuwai [Marae], so they don’t like to talk about it.” Those kinds of silences.

Joanna: I’m trying to understand what’s inside those silences. Is it a kind of anguish? Or is it because they didn’t want to traumatise you by telling you the full horror? What was happening in those silences, Tom?

Tom: I think they didn’t have the words for this. How can you express this anguish and this soul-destroying hurt? So, we don’t talk about it. But I also think that for many of the older ones, they didn’t want to pass this hurt on to the younger ones. They didn’t want us to have to carry that. 

For myself, though, there were times when Mum would say, “Listen, boy,” and my ears would prick up because I knew I’d have to remember her kōrero — that . . . “something”. 

Joanna: I keep coming back to those silences because they serve a lot of different functions. There’s a kind of speechlessness, where there are literally no words. It’s almost beyond . . .

Tom: . . . Beyond comprehension. It’s beyond comprehension. How do you talk about something that you just can’t talk about?

Joanna: And it’s a protective thing too because we don’t want to talk about the mamae in a way that goes on and on and on, and yet those silences are just as much a part of the story. 

When we first began working together on the New Zealand Wars project, we all talked a lot about how we might track the silences and how we might put words around those deep wells of silence that sit inside these stories. And, how those silences track across generations.

I think hau kāinga and those who came after them recognise those silences. They’re like a living thing inside of us. In a way, I guess, if there are no words then you just have to sit with the silence . . . but those silences themselves have often been edited out . . .

Tom: They’ve been silenced!

Remembering the atrocity at Rangiaowhia. (Photo: Vincent O’Malley)

An excerpt from Fragments of a Contested Past, a BWB text by Joanna Kidman, Vincent O’Malley, Liana MacDonald, Tom Roa and Keziah Wallis.

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