How history can teach us

Issue: Volume 98, Number 18

Posted: 24 October 2019
Reference #: 1HA1Bb

The Education Gazette asked historian Dr Aroha Harris what can be learned by looking at the history of Aotearoa New Zealand through the lens of protests that have been held.

What we might learn by viewing the history of Aotearoa through the lens of protest will depend largely on how we understand protest. If letter-writing and petitioning are a form of protest, then the earliest protests about Pākehā land speculation pre-date the signing of Te Tiriti in 1840.

But even if protest is viewed as the post-war kind – that featured demonstrations, occupations, and boycotts, for example – for Māori, the key issues are easily traced back to the 19th century.

Underpinning land protests since the 1960s was a long-standing Māori resistance against and criticism of Pākehā lobbying to take over Māori land and successive governments acquiring Māori territories by force and coercion.

For instance, behind the Bastion Point protest of the 1970s is a story of the Crown compulsorily acquiring Ngāti Whātua land through a series of actions that began in the 1870s, and Ngāti Whātua taking a series of court and other proceedings that did not garner the results they sought.

This is the pattern of Māori protest; historical issues are left to fester while Māori critiques remain unresolved, even when the evidence is stacked in their favour.

Eventually, the kind of protest that encompasses civil disobedience is used, usually attracting its fair share of support but also attracting unforgiving and often acerbic and ill-informed opposition.

What’s your interpretation of what has been recorded versus what is missing from the history books?

Again, how we understand what ‘recorded’ means is important here. Books are not the only place to record history. For example, the Māori protest movement has a great catalogue of waiata, newsletters and artworks that record a range of protest actions.

One of the things that good history teaching can do is introduce students to the range of sources and evidence that historians can work with, preferably in a way that shows those sources to be open to interrogation. 

We can publish as many history books as we like, but it will be fairly meaningless if New Zealanders don’t care about, or don’t value, the past of this place. 

There is an important difference between not knowing history and being apathetic to the point you can’t imagine – let alone be bothered – learning it.

This is a useful point to think about in the wake of the Government’s recent announcement that New Zealand’s histories will be taught in schools. 

What are the most significant issues that have united/divided NewZealanders – issues that would be good to lead discussions about our dual heritage and shared future in the classroom?

Historians usually see multiple explanatory factors in any issue or event. Probably most issues both unify and divide. But significant issues are fairly easy to identify in Māori protest.

There are a bundle of land rights issues that can be tracked historically. Issues of language and culture can be seen in the history of advocacy for te reo Māori and an improved history curriculum.

All of these can be seen as overarched by debates surrounding Te Tiriti, rangatiratanga, and racism.

But rather than pin all our hopes on the teaching of history to deliver a unified future based on an understanding of our distinct pasts, we could just appreciate history for what it allows us to teach, explore, and come to know about ourselves.

Dr Aroha Harris (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is an historian based at the University of Auckland and a member of the Waitangi Tribunal. She is co-author of theaward-winning Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, whichspans Māori history from earliest settlement to life in the 21stcentury.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:05 pm, 24 October 2019

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