Professor Joanna Kidman is part of a team of researchers who’ve been looking at how the New Zealand Wars have been remembered or forgotten over time. Here she writes about that work and why it’s important to restore an awareness of the “whakapapa of all things”.


It was a bright sunny morning when the shooting began.

This is how a survivor of the atrocity at Rangiaowhia began a written account of the events that took place on 21 February 1863 when she was around 10 years old. 

The older women began to tangi irirangi, and I was frightened, she wrote. 

In 1936, as she neared the end of her life, this woman, whose name is not known to us, recorded her memories of that day, passing them on to her whāngai to carry forward. 

She wrote of the desperate hours following the attack when her mother and the other women tended the injured and dying. Her own kui had been bayoneted seven times. 

It took four days for the old woman to die. 

And, in the midst of an ongoing military invasion, tangi had to be carried out quickly, when they could be held at all. 

We kept her body for one day only and I sat with her, pointing off flies and stroking her gently as speaker after speaker rose to farewell her, recounting the events of that heavy day

This is how we remember. 

Memory of a violent or traumatic event has a lingering afterlife. We recount painful events of invasion or occupation because, in many ways, they are stories of us — of who we are and how we live in the world. 

But we also turn difficult memories into stories in anticipation of sharing them with others. 

Remembering is not a solitary act. 

It’s a way of keeping the past on record for those who come after as a testament to what was endured, survived or lost.  

This is the story of us, we want to say to younger generations, but it cannot be the story of you. This must not happen again.

Joanna visiting the memorial commemorating Waikato Māori who died at the Māhoetahi battle in Taranaki on 6 Nov 1860 (Photo: Vincent O’Malley)

I’m part of a team of researchers looking at how the New Zealand Wars have been remembered or forgotten over time. 

We begin by going to battlefields and other places where military violence erupted. Later, we speak to descendants or look for other sources of information about how the past is remembered. 

There are often messy and complicated silences around these conflicts. Sometimes words simply fail to adequately describe the brutality, or the aftermath. 

In other instances, there are battles that have long since passed from public memory, yet they endure in tribal remembrance in one form or another. 

We see this in the fragments of memory passed down through generations, stories told at tangi, encrypted in the names of the children of the survivors. For example, Mamae, Muru or Raupatu, to name a few.

Memories are also stored in waiata, mōteatea, whakairo and whakataukī, or told at Waitangi Tribunal and Māori Land Court hearings, over and over. 

In some places, memories of battle are etched into the land itself. 

We have come across fields and paddocks in remote areas of the country where the remains of trenches or rifle pits, overgrown with kikuyu or prairie grass, gouged deep into the earth, are still visible to those who know what to look for. 

We’ve learned to trace the furrows and saps cut into hillsides or zigzagging across the forest floor. 

On summer afternoons, you might find us circling old redoubts, blockades and stockhouses with their loophole windows and double-skinned walls, looking for the sentry posts where you can see the line of fire. 

Or else scouring the ground for the tell-tale dips and troughs of ara kūtoro, underground passages which led beneath the ramparts of the pā.

These old scars of combat, carved into the oneone, are an archive of memories too.

Walking in these landscapes is a way of activating historical memory. It allows us to connect with the stories held in the lay of the soil. It’s a way of bearing witness. 

Being at these sites in person also allows us to enter into a network of vivid relationships with the past and for me, it gives me access to my tūpuna.

Time always seems to shift in strange ways when we’re there. 

A dawn service at Rangiaowhia marking 150 years since the 1864 assault on the village. (Photo: John Cowpland, Alphapix)

Someone once described a particular King Country battleground to me as the place where the whakapapa of all things comes together. 

It’s where the recent past, the deep past and the endless past merge with the nowness of now, and the future is seeded like puananī on the wind, they said. 

What they meant was that these battles splintered communities. Haukāinga were driven from their lands at gunpoint, some never to return. 

Many people lost their bearings in time and space, setting in train a series of events, each in their own way, irrevocable. 

We live with these consequences today. 

And that’s another reason why we remember and pass the memories on. 

We want to restore an awareness of the “whakapapa of all things” in the face of great loss, and thereby seed a safer and more hopeful future for rangatahi Māori whose communities were at the epicentre of these hostilities.

Curiously, being in those places where the tūpuna lie can be celebratory, affirming, tender, even loving — but also, at times, it is searingly painful. 

As researchers, we work in that space of violent, sudden upheaval and have come to understand intimately how loss is cumulative. Land taken in one generation has a compounding effect in the next. 

Left unhealed, trauma splinters outwards over time, making it difficult to know where to begin the process of repair.

Yet, in the face of all that chaos, I always find myself asking: Is this it? 

Are we simply what academics might call a “trauma trope?” Another story about unimaginable anguish? 

Will this be yet another account of violent death and lives played out in the aftermath of invasion? 

Researchers, scholars, professionals and activists who work in the space of trauma are taught early not to centre our own mamae, lest it becomes all about us. 

That’s important. Centring our pain can take oxygen away from others. 

But there are definitely moments when it does spin out of control, takes over, obliterates a view of the possibility of hope. 

I think we owe our whānau, who were caught in those histories, more than that.

That said, there are days when memory weighs too heavily and I feel the scream rising inside me, demanding expression. 

On those days, I go to the sea.

There is a place on Wellington’s southern coast that looks out across the Strait towards the Kaikōura ranges. 

In winter, the sea smashes against the rocks and rises in cold, drenching sprays around Barrett Reef. On weekends there are always divers around or people out walking but during the week it’s usually deserted. 

On weekdays, when no one else is around, that is where I go to let the mamae out, let go of the sadness and rage, the loss and the pity. I hurl pebbles at the sea and let the tide wash it all away.

These battles forever changed the lives of our tūpuna and those who survived them but they do not define us. Or not entirely anyway. 

In the great whakapapa of everything, these memories of combat are vitally important, but they are also only part of the story of us.

That’s why I draw comfort from the stories told to me by wāhine Māori. Women are present at the beginning of life, and in times of war and hardship they tend the dying. 

When they talk about the Wars, I always listen closely to what they have to say. 

Last summer, when I was doing fieldwork in the battlefields in the north, I spoke with a kuia who is highly respected in her community. 

We talked a little about the Wars and the loss and harm that followed, and she gave me some sound advice.

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed across the bay from here, she told me. Up the road over there, Hone Heke’s men chopped down the flagstaff. And Captain Cook sailed past these waters, too.

Those were important times. But all these big, flash dates, she said counting them off on her fingers, 1840, 1845, 1789, they’re just marks on a calendar and they matter, but they’re mostly dates for Pākehā to remember the past. 

We’ve been here for hundreds of years and we’re part of a bigger story. 

So next time you’re on a battlefield, you say to yourself: This is going to hurt. 

And it will hurt.

But remember, you’re still part of that bigger story.

We won’t be going to the battlefields this summer. Some of the areas that were at the centre of 19th century colonial invasion are now at heightened risk from Covid. 

Mana whenua in those regions have asked people to stay away while there is uncertainty around the spread of the virus into those communities. We will respect their wishes.

But there are stories of battle still waiting and we hope to return when it is safe. 

The New Zealand Wars have left a huge legacy. Once you know these histories, you’ve opened the box of memories and you can’t ever unknow them.

In those areas where there were forced relocations or confiscations where people were driven away or fled for their lives, that’s where you will find us, one late summer day after the pandemic. 

We’ll be walking in the opposite direction — back towards those sites of violence — taking notes, activating memory and calling to the past. 

Because we’re part of that bigger story. The whakapapa of all things.

Joanna Kidman (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa) is Professor of Māori Education at Victoria University of Wellington. She is a sociologist working in the field of Indigenous youth studies, and her research focuses on the politics of indigeneity, Māori youth and settler-colonial nationhood. Joanna has worked extensively in Māori communities across Aotearoa and also with Indigenous communities in central Taiwan to establish Indigenous knowledge systems in schools with large numbers of native students. She is currently investigating how different groups commemorate the New Zealand Wars and how memory and silence about these violent histories permeates people’s lives in the present.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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