Claudia Orange in 1987 with (from left) Governor-General Paul Reeves, Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, and cabinet minister Michael Bassett at the launch of her landmark book The Treaty of Waitangi. Her latest book, an up-to-date edition of The Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi: An Illustrated History, is out now. (Photo supplied)

In a way, it’s comforting that Dame Claudia Orange can surface from her years of studying and writing about the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the Treaty of Waitangi, and still be confident that it might yet work out okay. Not that it definitely will, but that we have a chance of sorting out an honourable arrangement. Because it’s tempting to assume that the dishonouring will carry on, with the Crown perpetually resistant to delivering what it promised in 1840.

But here’s Claudia, already much honoured as a scholar and author, delivering her latest book — the third edition of The Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi: An Illustrated History, which brings the record up to 2020 — and sounding encouraged, as she explains to Dale.


Kia ora, Claudia. I must congratulate you for writing such a valuable book on the Treaty of Waitangi — and for your lifetime of work as a historian and author. The Treaty is a subject where you’ve needed to be at home in te ao Māori, which isn’t the natural habitat of too many Pākehā. How was it that you gravitated so readily to that world?

Well, I grew up in Ponsonby at a time when Māori were increasingly coming to Auckland and especially to Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. I went to St Mary’s College from tiny tots until sixth form, where there were a number of Pacific and Māori students, including Whina Cooper’s daughter Hinerangi, for a time. Also, my father, Monty Bell, had worked in Māori Affairs all his life, and was a fluent speaker of te reo.

So, I was accustomed to hearing the Māori language at home, and also having Māori visitors like Bill Cooper, Whina’s husband. And I’d hear Whina on the phone asking for Dad.

Dad’s parents came from Ireland. He had no Māori whakapapa but he started learning Māori in the World War One period when he was at Feilding Agricultural High School.

On my mum’s side, that of Alma Schollum, my forebears came from Central Europe north of Prague, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now the Czech Republic.

They arrived in 1873 and they went to live in Puhoi. And they were lucky in that they had very good care from the chief rangatira living at the mouth of the Puhoi River. So, I had a different sort of background from those people coming directly from the UK.

Claudia (centre) with (from left) her mother Alma, grandmother Mary Schollum, sister Patricia and father Maurice (Monty) Bell, in 1946. (Photo: supplied)

Do you think that the ill treatment and marginalisation of the Irish by the British made your dad more sensitive to the Māori situation in New Zealand?

That’s quite likely. But it was a topic that I didn’t discuss with him. I think it’s much more likely that he had been influenced by getting to know the Māori situation on the East Coast, where he worked in Gisborne out of the Māori Affairs office.

That was when Apirana Ngata was working on land development, and the two of them would talk about some of the issues in the Māori community. So, Dad was strongly influenced by that.

Another influence was working with people like Bill Cooper, who was a close friend to him in Gisborne. Then the two of them were sent up north to Te Rarawa to start land consolidation there in the late 1920s, early 1930s.

I imagine that it was unusual for a Pākehā youngster like you to be au fait with the Māori issues of the day.

One of my early memories was Dad working on land consolidation papers at the kitchen table. As I was going to bed, he’d have screeds and boxes of papers there while he tried to figure out succession and land rights situations.

So, it was something not unknown to me — although, of course, I didn’t realise how important it was until I did a master’s thesis at Auckland University on the period when he worked in the first Labour government from before 1935 to 1949.

Multiple ownership has been a thorn in the side to Māori development, hasn’t it? But in some ways, it’s also acted as a protector of the whenua.

It’s an issue that applies particularly to Whānau-ā-Apanui and areas out to the East Coast. It was certainly an issue drawn to government attention by Api Mahuika. And it was one that, as a minister, Chris Finlayson picked up and worked on.

But we’re talking about something like 11 percent of land in the North Island, which is classified as Māori land and hasn’t been shifted to Māori through Treaty settlements. This is something that goes way back to the legislation in the 1860s.

Claudia after winning the Goodman Fielder Wattie award for book of the year for The Treaty of Waitangi published in 1987.

We do have major Treaty issues, though, as well, don’t we? We’re looking at generations who’ve been aggrieved by a shoddy Crown response to a document that harboured so much hope.

One of the things that can be said is that we haven’t been very good at listening to Māori voices. If you take on board the number of petitions to government that went through in the 1860s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, we’ve had successive governments who haven’t listened.

But, in the last 10 to 20 years, there’s been a process for addressing issues through the Waitangi Tribunal reports and research — then putting in place a Treaty settlement process.

That’s not a perfect process. And it’s not one where Māori have had a substantial input. But it has taken us some way down the track to dealing with claims that Māori had going right back to 1840, and to dealing with an agreement that Māori thought they were signing as a partnership for a new nation.

Do you see these as encouraging signs?

It certainly is. And some of those signs became very clear with the acceleration of settlements under Chris Finlayson in the John Key government, even though there were strong comments by Māori that this was not a perfect process.

For instance, one of the quotes I’ve used in the book is from Moana Tuwhare, from Ngāpuhi, who says, in effect — look, we’re not really worried and concerned necessarily about the money and the benefits that a settlement would bring. We simply want the government to treat us as equals.

So, this is a major challenge for all governments now and in the future. But I’m hugely optimistic that what we’ve got in place is a framework for the two partners, talking together.

In the ongoing kōrero, there are some sixty-four-thousand-dollar questions to answer. For example, water rights. And what is the ideal way to review and reform the RMA? What about the issues in the judiciary? And tikanga?

But things have evolved and we take them for granted. Like a rāhui on the Waitakere Ranges and other places. People understand this — and so the whole common law will gradually evolve more to reflect our position in New Zealand rather than one in England, which is where it came out on in 1840.

So, we’ve made those adjustments. But we have far more to make. There’s still a lot of unfinished business.

The settlements have been described as “two cents in the dollar deals”. And we’re never going to get back what was taken. But, too often, there’ve been media reports covering Treaty settlements that have painted a picture of Māori being repaid over-generously — and undeservedly getting something that others are missing out on. And that brings us to the question of how complicit the mainstream media has been in its inaccurate chronicling of Māori history.

Āe. I have collected screeds of media comment going way back, year by year. And that shows a shaping by the media of public opinion. Paul Diamond at National Library, in his interesting book on New Zealand cartoons over the years, shows how the role of Māori has been diminished by the cartoon slurs and criticisms in the media.

And the recent apology by Stuff, the national media organisation, was acknowledging what they had done for generations in the way of shaping public opinion in a negative way.

Claudia started her working life as a school dental nurse after graduating from Auckland Dental School in 1957. (Photo: supplied)

Claudia, through your work, you’ve helped many New Zealanders get their head around the Treaty and other significant elements in the history of our country. But how did you get started in this? And who gave you a hand?

Well, I only started university as a 30-year-old. I had married at 20 and we had three children before going to Bangkok where my husband Rod was tasked to set up an English Language Institute for the Thai government.

At school I’d been in the Catholic Youth Movement which had developed in me a strong sense of a need for social justice in many counties. And so when we came back to New Zealand, I started at Auckland University, wanting to study South East Asia and the dominance of metropolitan powers over its Indigenous peoples. In the course of doing a degree, I was also able to study East, Central and South Africa which had also had foreign powers exerted over them. I finally came to Australia, the Pacific and New Zealand.

And I was lucky to have Keith Sinclair and Keith Sorrenson as two influential academics who kept challenging me. And one of them, Keith Sinclair, insisted that I should study te reo, which I did for three years at Auckland University.

Judith Binney, who did that major work on Ngāi Tūhoe was there. And in Māori Studies there were Ranginui Walker, Pat Hohepa, and Peta Wairua who was an older man who had started university in the 1970s.

I spent quite a lot of time with him. And he alerted me to the extent to which Māori in the 19th century, in the 1870s, had started to work at Waitangi itself, on the whole issue of how to influence government effectively.

That, of course, was important because there were four Māori MPs in parliament after 1868, even though they were not listened to very well. So, you know, you have a whole pattern there, which I hope I’ve documented sufficiently for people to start realising that we have had a huge evolution in understanding.

And that is potentially revolutionary in changing how we regard ourselves as a nation and what our ideas as a partnership really means.

Given the great and growing need for all New Zealanders to read and see and hear the stories of Māori, it’s perhaps disappointing that we don’t have more Māori historians.

Well, there are many more coming through. But it’s been difficult because many Māori families haven’t been able to afford for their young people to even finish their high school years — and certainly not for them to be in a position to have tertiary education.

And there has had to be a change of attitude in the education system because it wasn’t so long ago that Māori students at district high schools were still being educated to be good farmers and good farmers’ wives.

Claudia and Rod Orange on their wedding day in January, 1959. (Photo: supplied)

For those like you who’ve done the training and have closely examined the moves and the correspondence that led to the Treaty — and, we might say, its subsequent dishonouring — there’s room for a range of different reactions. 

Is one of those understandable responses to come away with the thought that Māori were duped? That perhaps we would’ve been better without it?

I don’t think Māori were duped to sign the Treaty. They had asked some careful questions. You look at Nōpera Panakareao in the north, in Kaitaia. He, for one, had asked some very careful questions about the meaning of sovereignty. And, of course, sovereignty itself was something that was, at that time, still evolving in Europe. Like in Germany and Italy.

Sovereignty was still being thought through in the United States, too. So, Māori had done the best they could in 1840, and the Māori text of the Treaty that all of them signed (with the exception of only about 39 people in Waikato), really promised quite an unusual departure from the way in which Britain had dealt with other countries where British rule had been imposed.

I think we have still a long way to go. But the Treaty is now something that we simply need to acknowledge as an agreement, which we haven’t followed through ideally, but which we now have this chance to take further.

And here we are commemorating Waitangi Day again this weekend. Do you think there’ll be a time when we‘ll celebrate it?

We used to say “celebrate”. I don’t think it’s a good word, although we can celebrate it as a family day of getting together. But we can commemorate it and we need to acknowledge that this is a partnership that we can move further forward on — and that there still needs to be an open-mindedness in government, and in the public at large.

How encouraged should we all be that we’re making an effort to impart a better understanding of our own history, within our schools?

It’s exciting that the petition to government for teaching history in schools was so successful, although developing the requirements to do that teaching is a challenge. And, of course, many teachers will have to undergo more training. But that’s a good thing too, because it means that they’ll learn as they teach. There is a big plus in that.

It’s easy to forget the initiative that was taken by the Ōtorohanga College girls in requesting government to acknowledge the New Zealand Wars, which New Zealanders, by and large, have tried to forget. So, there are pluses here. And we’ve been talking about these things only in the last three or four years.

I understand that your husband, Rod Orange, who has had senior positions in education, has been a valuable ally in many ways.

Rod has a good open mind about change. And, of course, he has understood my background and training in Catholic groups that dealt with social justice in the community. So, I’ve had his complete support — and he’s an author, too. He produced a book in 2019 on the Catholic youth movement and looking at social justice not just in New Zealand but in Southeast Asia and Latin America, too.

See, Judge, Act is that book, which he put out in 2019.

Our three children, now mature adults, have grown up never knowing me not working on the Treaty and injustice. They were patient over the demands that a student mother inevitably made on them, especially when I also did two years training as a secondary teacher. So that’s another plus for me and as adults their interest and support is ongoing.

Claudia graduated with an MA in history from Auckland University in 1975. Pictured here with her children Nicholas, Annemarie and Christopher. (Photo supplied)

There was a period where I think Pākehā New Zealanders felt that Treaty issues were being rammed down their throats. There were decolonisation seminars and Treaty workshops and also expectations that there’d be a better understanding of the Treaty from all sides. And perhaps we’re still witnessing some sort of Treaty fatigue.

Yes, people can feel Treaty fatigue. But I don’t see it now and I think that makes this a good time to move forward. There are issues that we still need to address to have a rebalancing in our community of the partnership of the two peoples.

And it’s going to be for the benefit of the whole lot of us to have a look at new ways of addressing things. To have kōrero that’s not too edgy. To have kōrero that listens and can be challenged and stimulated by new ideas wherever they come from.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. See here for an extract from The Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi: An Illustrated History, published by Bridget Williams Books and out now.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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