Ōtorohanga College students who presented a petition to parliament calling for the New Zealand Wars to be taught in schools.

New Zealand history is set to be taught in our schools in 2022. But, after 30 years of tutoring about Te Tiriti issues, Catherine Delahunty has concerns about how we’ll go about that.


Before my days as a Green MP, I lived in Te Tairawhiti and ran Te Tiriti o Waitangi workshops. On one occasion, I was standing in a small classroom in a polytechnic, about to launch into a workshop, when I realised that the room contained the direct descendants of Te Kooti Rikirangi Te Turuki, Ropata Wahawaha, and Major Reginald Biggs.

Te Kooti fought the Crown after they abused, imprisoned, and pursued him.

Ropata Wahawaha pursued Te Kooti.

Te Kooti found Major Biggs had taken his lands while he was imprisoned without trial, so he killed him and some of the land occupiers.

An explosive triangle of history.

I looked at my colleague, the tutor who had whakapapa to all iwi of Te Tairawhiti, but maybe not to Major Biggs. Blood had been spilt in the land wars here, and over lies about the nature of that war, but everyone was still here. All that human DNA, history and half truth.

We are still here, the descendants and beneficiaries, the marginalised and reviled — so how are we going to face the truth, and how can it be taught?

On December 8, 2015, I stood on the parliament forecourt as several young wāhine from Ōtorohanga College handed over the petition calling for land wars education. They did not come alone. The entire forecourt swayed under the beat of the haka, red-ochre warriors raised their voices, demanding that we hear them at this moment in time and tell the truth.

And I cried. I was ashamed that, in the 21st century, they had to come in force and call us out.

If we do this properly, the decision to teach the history of the country will be a major victory for those young wāhine, but I have questions about the teaching of history.

Maybe it’s all in the Ministry of Education plan that the descendants and the newcomers of the colonisation process will be taught more than “facts” this time. But who teaches the subject? Is this subject actually about history or the current reality? Are we going to turn the most dynamic, painful context of our lives into just another NCEA assignment?

There is the risk of boring the hell out of our rangatahi by teaching history in some fake neutral but soulless way, versus the huge challenge of teaching about the violent racist past as it links into the violent racist present.

Can anyone except the mana whenua accurately portray the side of the story that has been so twisted to date? I’m not sure. After 30 years of tutoring about te Tiriti issues, I feel the risk of grabbing the stories we don’t have a right to when we Pākehā try and tell a history that doesn’t belong to us.

We have some English proverbs that seem pertinent. One is: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Another is: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

This isn’t always true, providing the educator has the proper relationships with mana whenua, but how will it work in schools?

There is an opportunity for a different curriculum, one based on strong relationships between schools and mana whenua, where the mana whenua, if properly resourced, can lead the process. The educational jargon for this approach is “place-based education” and it’s a liberating way of teaching and learning the full history of home, as told by the home people.

Imagine if we took the students out of the classroom and on to the marae and into the whenua where stories live. Imagine if schools and the mana whenua were resourced to do this properly and respectfully. Imagine if this education was not just visits to battle sites, but also to the former villages, whare wānanga, gardens and flour mills owned by Māori. Presenting the bigger picture and the whole story.

Imagine if we asked mana whenua: “What is it that these young people need to know in order to understand what has happened here where they live — and what needs to happen to make a lasting peace?”

Leah Bell, a former student from Ōtorohanga College, talked about teaching our history through arts, dance and literature, a truly creative approach.

A creative approach that challenges racism also needs to consider gender and to recognise that history is not just war and heroics. It is the base of the troubled present, the current privileges and abuses. It is the lives of women and children, of diverse people and peacemakers.

Some schools are already working on this. I went to the play Parihaka an inspiring  Kapiti College theatre piece which included mana whenua and Pākehā voices and was developed after a student and teacher visited Parihaka. It was admirable, but, as I left the college, I overheard two young Pākehā boys moaning about the “stupid pōwhiri” and making racist remarks. There’s always more to be done.

The New Zealand  History Teaching Association has been strongly committed to our history being added to the school curriculum as a compulsory subject, but comments from Graeme Ball, the chair of the association, worry me a good deal.

He has said there’ll be no “national narrative” but a “warts and all” presentation of the content to students so they can “form their own ideas”.

What is a national narrative, anyway? I think it’s the story dominant groups tell themselves and, these days, it is: “Okay. We did colonise, but we’re not as bad as Australia.”

A colonised country with a racist national story needs a strong and direct challenge. We need a new national story for te Tiriti justice based on decolonising the stories we tell our young people every day. Just teaching historical content won’t be unbiased.

The idea of an unbiased historical approach is, in fact, an example of our western bias. We need to acknowledge the limits of the education system whose goal of making Māori students think like Pākehā is yet to be properly dismantled. Neither teachers nor students are immune to this heavy reality and its toxic emotional messages about our history.

When I was an MP, I went to a few larger high schools in Wellington and I asked them about their connections with tangata whenua and how they were teaching Te Tiriti o Waitangi. I did this because, in my many discussions with school leavers and people in their early 20s, I’d been told: “We did the Treaty. It was boring. And I can’t remember much.” There were of course shining exceptions to that overall feedback.

I was also inspired by conversations with Professor Richard Manning who led research with Te Ātiawa on their connections with Wellington region high schools. It’s clear from both their research and my small sample that relationships between high schools and mana whenua are generally weak and that creative approaches to teaching te Tiriti are not the norm.

One school asked me how it could be done better, so I suggested two things. One was that the school took the students to the public gallery of parliament to hear some of the Treaty settlement bills and, more importantly, to see the power and dignity of the tangata whenua who come to hold their own in this flawed process.

The other idea was to give me a class to teach. I taught te Tiriti as a contemporary role play based on my te Tiriti colleague Richard Green’s short film Te Whare. This film is set in a student flat and is about invasion, agreement, damage, and resistance.

The students were more than capable of understanding the power dynamics and the struggle with justice-based solutions. We underestimate the power of young people to grapple with complex issues, and we underestimate the power of creative ways of teaching and learning.

After 25 years of teaching young people and adults about te Tiriti, I’m not an expert. It’s a huge and complex subject, but I do know that we need to bring passion, respect, and especially the relevance to contemporary life. We have to recognise the weight of disinformation we’re challenging in the journey to dual sovereignty.

I do want schools to take up the challenge and for all students to learn who we are, how we came to be here, and who pays the price. I do want place-based education led by mana whenua. This would include the stories from Pākehā and other cultures as well, but not as some romantic pioneering narrative. We need the context and we need the lens of te Tiriti justice, not the dead hand of supposed “neutrality”.

My fear is that the education system isn’t brave enough to recognise that this topic isn’t just an addition to the curriculum. It’s a nation-building exercise, and it’s just as much about contemporary justice and healing as it is about what happened back in the day.

The history of colonisation is the foundation of present-day inequities and we have to be brave enough to front up to these issues for the benefit of the next generation.

It’s more than possible for the descendants of Rangiaowhia and General Cameron, of Te Whiti and John Bryce, to work together on these issues with the children of other Pacific colonial struggles, the children of oil wars, poverty and oppression from across the world. Everyone has stories, ancestors, dreams and dislocations.

Some of us have painful white supremacist group issues. We have default racist reactions and a desire to justify why our privileges are protected by racist institutions. We need ground rules for this conversation and teachers need support to play their part.

A new national narrative is necessary which offers no excuses for the current injustices and which commits to change. It must be a process which treats everyone with dignity and respect while radically shifting our broken understanding of how we got here.

Only tangata whenua can be trusted to lead this process because only they have demonstrated the collective generosity, humanity, and strength that are necessary to lead us to a better place.


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, 2020

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