Professor Joanna Kidman. (Photo: Grant Maiden)

Here at E-Tangata, we’ve been privileged, over the years, to have published the writing of some of our top academics — and one of them is Joanna Kidman, a professor of Māori education at Victoria University in Wellington. She’s one of 24 Māori scholars who tell their personal stories in a new book, Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface, edited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora, and published by Otago University Press. 

Here’s Joanna’s essay from the book.


Battlefields are noisy places. First, there is the slow rumble of logging trucks on busy roads. Then there is the drone of aeroplanes passing overhead. In summer, there are cicadas and birds. In winter, the hiss of wind in the trees.

In these fields, the tūpuna lie where they fell in the swamps or in unmarked graves hastily dug by survivors, with the dead piled up around them. I swear I can sometimes hear their voices.

I am a sociologist of education, although I didn’t set out to become this. Originally I planned to be a lawyer, but the lectures were on at an impossible time of day for a young, single mother, so I ended up in educational sociology because the courses fitted in better with my child-care arrangements.

I don’t think anyone grows up saying they want to be a sociologist — it’s something you become often as a result of not becoming something else. When I went to Australia for my PhD, there was no education department so I had a choice of enrolling in sociology or philosophy — I went to sociology because it was closer to the library and the people there had expansive morning teas with cream buns, good coffee and conversations that sometimes lasted until long after lunch.

I look at the sweeping forces of colonial history and how they affect the everyday lives of Māori children and their families. These impacts often go unnoticed in state narratives about the New Zealand Wars (1845–72) but they live on in Māori accounts of the colonial frontier, the loss of ancestral lands, diaspora and dispossession.

As Viet Thanh Nguyen writes, “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory”. In the “black box” of New Zealand history, the past, transformed into hapū memory, invariably edges into the present.

This is what takes me from my university office to battlefields around the country. I follow the trail of blood.

All of this might seem a world away from the classroom, but in the field of education there has been a certain squeamishness about telling these war stories to New Zealand school children.

Many teachers speak with easy confidence about the Gallipoli campaign and Anzac Day services but are less familiar with what happened closer to home at Ōrākau, Rangiaowhia, Rangiriri, Waerenga-a-Hika, Ngātapa, Pukehinahina, Te Ngutu-o-te-manu or Ruapekapeka, for example.

Some tell themselves that New Zealand history is boring and that nothing much happened, or that the bad stuff has long been resolved and it’s best not to go on too much about it. In those classrooms, history sits in glass cases or unregarded on the roadsides of the country’s state highways, where the sites of many unmarked battlefields can be found if only you know where to look.

From there it’s a slow slide into an uneasy public forgetfulness, of the kind that is common in settler societies where the frontier stories not told in schoolrooms have an unsettling, lingering presence. Sociologists need to be alert to those busy silences.

But Māori have not forgotten. These are powerful stories and they have shaped us. The New Zealand Wars were a series of devastating nineteenth-century colonial conflicts involving Māori and the Crown. They set in motion a wave of events that are still rippling through our families and communities. We live with the aftermath.

In the years following these conflicts, a nationwide system of native schools was set up for Māori children. It was an educational order designed to create a new kind of Māori citizen: one who would adopt British values and customs, speak the Queen’s English, worship her God, and be willing to take a suitable place in the colony’s rapidly crystallising class system.

In those nineteenth-century schoolrooms, the policy makers vowed that the old gods would be toppled and replaced with new forms of knowledge. Or, at least, that was their intention.

Education is the silent weapon of colonisation. Military invasion is only ever one aspect of the blueprint for conquest. Where there is an abundance of land and resources, settler governments are there for the long haul. Once the muskets are set aside, more sustainable means of securing power are needed.

If the aim is to maximise profits and minimise dissent without always engaging in open warfare, then alliances within Indigenous communities must be forged. It’s a divide-and-rule tactic often used to win over younger people whose life-worlds are considered to be relatively malleable.

Education systems are perfect for this kind of statecraft. When armed hostilities cease, settler-colonial schooling can be used strategically as part of a secret war against native populations, with children as its primary target.

As the New Zealand Wars drew to a close, Māori communities at the centre of large-scale British invasions were left reeling. In some districts, people were forced off their ancestral homelands, while elsewhere, high death tolls resulted in the loss of key tribal members, and this radically affected social and cultural life in those regions. In their absence, whakapapa and whenua, those mainstays of Māori social worlds, splintered. Everything changed.

It was during this time of mourning and intense grief that the newly established native school system slowly and quietly began to take hold in rural centres. The school day, punctuated by the ringing of bells, the recitation of multiplication tables and the scratch of writing sticks on slate boards, was spent in long periods of laborious translation of written Māori into written English.

In the early twentieth century, new teaching methods came into vogue and teachers were instructed to speak and write only in English. Māori students were expected to respond in kind, and those who disobeyed were often severely punished. The curriculum was organised around the skills needed by manual workers in the colony, such as farmers, agricultural labourers, domestic workers and wives. It was a very British kind of education.

By the mid-1970s these educational policies and practices, along with a raft of other state interventions, saw the Māori language hovering on the verge of extinction, and increasingly diasporic and urbanised generations of Māori children had lost their connection to the ancestral knowledge systems that had sustained their hapū for centuries.

I am a Tainui woman. These stories belong to me and my grandmothers. In a way, I suppose, they belong to all of us. It is because of this that I spend time on battlefields in the Waikato and King Country, or drive along the mountain ranges and valleys of the East Cape and up into the far northern reaches of Te-Ika-a-Māui; always following that trail of blood.

The wars came and people died. Afterwards, nothing was the same. But what resonates with me is that hau kāinga died in battle with so much that was left unsaid. Reclaiming those interrupted conversations is central to my research as a sociologist of education, but it is also how I call to my tūpuna. This is how I speak with the dead.

There’s a saying that’s sometimes heard when someone or something passes away: “Kua haumūmū ētahi o ngā manu i te wao nui a Tāne.” It refers to the moment when the children of Tāne, the birds of the forest, fall silent. For anyone who has woken early and listened to the wild chatter of birds at dawn or heard the first call of korimako at daybreak, their silence is a grim prospect, but it seems apt here.

Schools were places where Māori children were taught to sit straight-backed and quiet in the teacherly hush of classrooms. There was no birdsong in the native school curriculum; no language to speak of the past, no call to the ancestors, and no mātauranga Māori either.

Mātauranga Māori, that continuum of knowledge, coded and organised in ways that guide and inform our lives as historical beings, links us across time and space to our earliest beginnings and beyond.

Much of this accumulated wisdom is passed on in the form of stories. Some are sweeping narratives that define the nature of the universe or the fabric of the natural and spiritual worlds; others connect us to life and death and the beating pulse of whakapapa.

Whiti Hereaka writes that “stories live through us and us through them”, and this is important when we are speaking of the past and considering the future. These stories show us what it means to be human. They teach us how to live.

These ancient genealogies also combine with contemporary realities, including the reality of armed invasion, dispersal and its aftermath. Cherokee writer Thomas King asks, “did you ever wonder how it is we imagine the world in the way we do, how it is we imagine ourselves, if not through our stories?”

In the wake of frontier conflict, we need to keep hold of the narrative. When it disappears from the record, tribal knowledge and memory gets lost.

In the heavily militarised settler society of the colonial era, the refusal to acknowledge mātauranga Māori as a viable knowledge system had disastrous long-term consequences. After decades of armed conflict, Māori communities were war-weary and exhausted.

In the Waikato, 1.2 million acres (485,000 hectares) of land were confiscated, leaving large numbers of Tainui people homeless. Many fled to the King Country where they lived in poverty and great hardship. Their exile disrupted ancestral relationships and other connections with the land and its stories.

There was no place for this kind of knowledge in the native schools nor in the state schooling sector that came after. Later generations of Māori children, descendants of those whose lands were confiscated, had increasingly fragmented and partial access to mātauranga ā-hapū.

More than 150 years later, I circle back to those old battlefields in an attempt to understand how things changed so quickly and with such chilling effect. Tribal and state memories of colonial invasion are often highly contested and nowhere is this more evident than in places where violence has occurred.

People sometimes shy away from the brutality of frontier stories and this is perhaps understandable, but an ongoing and widespread reluctance to face up to the messy, difficult past can also set in train a series of unresolved public silences that loiter in the present.

My team and I visit battle sites not simply to remember or bear witness, but also to track those silences and the gaps in the public memory. We listen closely for the things that are left unsaid.

There are many ways of doing this kind of work, but we begin by going to where the ancestors lie and later speak with hapū members who have undertaken to pass these memories to the next generation.

The past doesn’t always have happy endings and knowing what happened helps us to understand how we live now. For these kuia and koroua, their acts of remembrance are often painful but their tales form part of the tribal archive — a history of people and place that stretches beyond the colonial frontier and into the farthest reaches of time.

British troops in the foreground behind trees, and in a trench leading up towards Ōrākau Pā, where a British flag can be seen flying. The smoke of gunfire can be seen from several points around the pā. Illustration: George Jackson Carey, Alexander Turnbull Library

Out in the field, we go looking for accounts of colonial invasion. There is one battleground in particular that draws me back time and time again. On the border of the Waikato and King Country districts, a few minutes’ drive from the small settlement of Kihikihi, there was once a thriving papakaīnga known as Ōrākau.

Orchards of peaches, apples, cherries and almonds grew on the gently sloping hills. Rootstock crops of potato and kūmara flourished in the fertile soil on the plains and a good income came from wheat and maize cultivation. A mānuka swamp lies on the ridge beyond the settlement and from one of its tributaries, eels swam in abundance towards the Pūniu River.

The people there prospered and their children grew strong and healthy. But in the autumn of 1864, this settlement was at the centre of one of the defining conflicts of the New Zealand Wars.

The invasion of the Waikato has been written about elsewhere; I will not repeat it here. It is enough to say that by the time hostilities took place at Ōrākau, the Waikato region had been under constant military siege for more than nine months. From the outset, Māori were heavily outnumbered by a massive imperial army that was amply supported by colonial troops. The Māori death toll over that period was colossal.

The three-day battle at Ōrākau pā was the final armed conflict in the district and it ended in acts of extraordinary brutality. More than half of the 300 Māori who defended the hastily built pā against 1400 troops were killed. But the heaviest casualties came on the third and last day when food, water and ammunition were running low. Those final, chaotic hours haunt me. It is a story that aches to be told.

This is what happened.

At around midday on that last day of the siege, it was clear that the pā would fall. Reinforcements had arrived earlier to support the defenders but were unable to gain entry, leaving the people inside increasingly vulnerable.

With British victory imminent and the pā surrounded, Lieutenent-General Duncan Cameron, the commanding officer, declared a ceasefire via his translator William Mair and urged the defenders to surrender. He was refused with those words of courage and defiance that have since passed into Māori history:

E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou. Āke! Āke! Āke!

(Friend, we will fight on forever.)

Cameron then called on the women and children to leave before the final assault took place. As the men inside the pā deliberated, Ngāti Raukawa woman Ahumai Te Paerata stepped forward and replied:

Ki te mate ngā tāne, me mate anō ngā wāhine me ngā tamariki.

(If the men die, then the women and children must also die.)

And so the onslaught began.

In the late afternoon, thirsty and exhausted, the people inside the pā made preparations to leave. They gathered together as a phalanx, with women, children, the wounded and surviving rangatira at the centre to shield them as much as possible from what was to come.

“Haere! Haere!” rangatira Rewi Maniapoto cried, as the survivors ran in tight formation towards the edge of the peach grove and on to open ground.

Immediately, the troops opened fire and a number of defenders were killed. At that point, the group dispersed and people simply fled for their lives. Some ran towards the mānuka swamp, where snipers on the ridge shot at them and cavalry on horseback tracked them down and bayoneted them where they fell.

A number of women were killed in this manner. Ahumai was shot four times but she survived. Others died or were injured as they ran towards the soldiers in a frantic attempt to breach the line of troops. This is how the assault ended and when it did, Waikato fell with it.

I tell this story often but I never know how to finish it. I think the ending is still being written with each passing generation.

The site at Ōrākau was confiscated by the Crown and reallocated to military settlers. It has long since passed into private ownership and nothing remains of the papakāinga or the peach grove. The surrounding terrain has been extensively excavated for settler farming and agriculture and no longer resembles the original landscape.

Today, there is a plaque that marks the battle in the narrow parking area and a small monument on a shallow incline beside the busy road that runs through the presumed location of the pā, but that is all.

Each time I visit, I stand beside the monument, peering over the locked gate to the field beyond where I think the pā may have stood. In my mind’s eye, the scene unfolds before me. The desperation, the smell of gunfire, the heat and thirst and the frantic flight at the end.

When we are in that place, time plays strange tricks. It is always earlier, or later, than we thought. Clouds scud across the sky and sunlight flickers through the trees. The tūpuna draw near in those moments and the space between realms is tissue-thin. Battlefields are noisy places. We are surrounded by their clamorous stories.

These accounts of what took place in moments of anguish and sheer terror are disturbing, but the decisions made in the heat of battle — the refusal to surrender in the face of overwhelming odds, the avowal to stay together even as death approached, the insistence on fighting to the end as free men and women — all of these decisions are driven by an enduring ethos of the collective. It is a manner of living and a way of being that sustains us still.

For myself, I draw a sense of purpose from my time at Ōrākau. What happened on the battlefield tells us something about how we remember and what we choose to forget. The final hours at Ōrākau were marked by violence and bloodshed. But the siege also gave rise to new stories that have been handed down over time. Those stories are a legacy, and each time I leave that battle site, I walk with my head held high.

What we can learn from these events is also important in the social sciences. When we try to understand the colonial era, we are often trying to work out how the present became so complicated. We turn to the past to explain the origins of now.

The New Zealand Wars were brutal and they affected Māori communities in many regions. As I drive around different parts of the country where nineteenth-century battles have taken place, I am often struck by how ordinary people living in small kāinga felt when they were suddenly faced with an unprecedented military force and the prospect of wave upon wave of invasion. Neutrality was never an option, so the question became would they fight with the Crown or against it? Would they even have a choice?

People in all those communities had to make big decisions very quickly in the face of many unknowns. I have tried to understand what that would have been like for them but my imagination always fails, because the enormity of the situation that confronted them was completely unparalleled.

But we shouldn’t cherry-pick the past either. If we go looking for “rebels” or “loyalists” or heroes or villains in tribal history, we’re always going to find them, but that may not get us any closer to the truth. In the end, I think people just did the best they could.

The New Zealand school curriculum has not served us well in terms of understanding our own history, and those omissions and silences have foreclosed the possibility of a more vibrant and informed national conversation about the difficult past. A recent government announcement that New Zealand history will be compulsorily taught in schools and that the New Zealand Wars will be included in the school curriculum is heartening.

I hope that iwi stories will be central to this new drive to remember and to tell the stories of the past. They are an important source of knowledge. If this happens, the case for incorporating te reo Māori as an integral part of schooling is abundantly clear.

Too often, well-intentioned attempts to build mātauranga Māori into school and university curricula have been less than successful. These ancient and vibrant forms of knowledge become dead objects — something to be measured or packaged into modules or created for a test score.

All this needs to change if the curriculum is to expand in new ways. It’s time for the birds to sing again. So open the window. Let in the light.

These stories will outlive us.


Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interfaceedited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora, and published by Otago University Press, is now in bookstores for $60.

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.

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