Hearing the full story
The recent remembering of World War One a hundred years on revealed just how different it is for Germany. They have no equivalent of the red poppy worn on Armistice and Anzac Days. Many of their soldiers lie in mass graves. Both wars, when Germans talk about them at all, are shrouded in guilt, resentment and shame.
We do a little better than that with our remembering of the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s and the decades of confiscating and disenfranchising that followed, even to declaring the Treaty of Waitangi null and void.
A little better but not much.
There is scant progress in remembering the war dead of the 19th century on April 25 each year. No trouble to add those killed in the Transvaal fighting against the Boers but no room for those who died in Rangiriri or Rangiowhia.
Our Kiwi history is marked by what Patrick Evans has called in his book title “the long forgetting,” whereby we pick and choose the bits we want to celebrate and the bits too painful to recall. In some parts of the country where wars were especially savage and Treaty settlements have yet to address the injustices, it’s still too hard for Pakeha to retell the stories let alone rewrite the inscriptions on monuments, however offensive.
I know a place where the stone head of an English monarch keeps getting chopped off so often, they’ve had to replace it with fibreglass. Compared to American progress in updating public statues to civil war heroes and slave owners, New Zealand moves slowly.
Because our own unacknowledged history is still so recent, it helps to compare ourselves with other colonised countries. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a useful author for us. In his book about the Vietnam War, or what he would call the American War, he analyses the ethics of remembering.
Thanh Nguyen defines it as a tension between memory and amnesia. One side of a conflict remembers its humanity and forgets its inhumanity. The other side does the converse of that. Any war, he argues, is impossible to forget but difficult to remember, so we need to rebuild a collective and just memory that both sides can share and own. And until justice is done, we won’t be able to forget or forgive.
Both Māori and Pakeha have parts of their story that they gloss over and other parts where the memories of two cultures collide. As they do in what really happened at Rangiowhia in 1864. Or Parihaka in 1881. Or Maungapohatu in 1916.
These are all disputed narratives that still require some more honest talking so both parties, and especially the aggressor, can set the historical record right.
But there’s no television footage to check the facts back then as there was at Bastion Point in 1977. We can’t go upstairs for a call to the video ref. The stories will only be settled by historians both Māori and Pakeha who trust each other and honour all the sources, especially the oral traditions.
There is a new breed of such historians emerging, thank God, after decades of casting the narrative in terms of the dominant culture.
We no longer ask ten-year-olds to read Our Nation’s Story, a much-used school textbook, telling them “the Treaty of Waitangi was the fairest treaty ever made between Europeans and a native race, indeed in many ways, it was much fairer to brown men than to white.” I remember reading that as a child, and feeling reassured about our history.
If we can start to get the story right, not only will we do justice to Māori, we’ll benefit Pakeha hugely as well. Because it cripples us as a majority culture not to be accountable for the history we find difficult to remember, but which is proving impossible to forget.
My great-great grandmother ran a roadside hotel near Ardmore in south Auckland and regularly hosted Colonel Von Tempsky and his Forest Rangers, feted as heroes by early Pakeha writers, but portrayed as ruthless killers in later accounts. My family history over five generations is woven into that fabric of bloodshed.
Sometime soon, we have to find a way of telling all the stories that have shaped us, however muted those stories might have been in the telling. With only 200 years of living together, it’s not too late or too hard to set the record right; to repent where we need to, to celebrate where we can, and there is much to celebrate.
But if we don’t do that soon, we are doomed to continue limping along as Pakeha, head bent, eyes shaded, trying to shrug off a lopsided history that won’t go away until we learn to pick it up and share the weight of it with Māori.
Because it is our history too. And we need to tell it together because we made it together, it’s the stuff that sticks us together, for better or worse, inside a covenant that we’ve broken and waits to be renewed.
The weight of that history we have to lift together because it’s made both peoples into who and where we are right now, the good parts and the bad, the vibrant bicultural music, sport, art and entertainment that we enjoy and the embarrassing fact that half our prison population is Māori. That didn’t happen by accident. As a Pakeha friend said to me recently, “If the prisons were full of left-handed people, would we just say, well that’s what you get for being left-handed?”
Sometimes good and well-intentioned Pakeha people plead ignorance to that history and continue with the racial stereotypes way past their use by date.
That was the case in Hawera recently when a float in the A & P show won a prize for its black faced, Black and White Minstrel-style entry, until it was withdrawn in the outcry that followed.
The Lions Club responsible was obviously stunned by the reaction, unaware of the slavery and racism connections that they had triggered, with one member tweeting “Let’s not be too precious or PC.”
That was a common Pakeha response, but the Mayor of South Taranaki did apologise.
A local iwi leader called on him to own the issue and lead it, and he did.
The whole incident and its aftermath of apology, anger and bewilderment is a case study in the work still to be done in carrying our history together. Ironically it happened in a part of the country that gave us an enduring story of bicultural pride and partnership.
Just down the road from Hawera is the Patea Māori Club which taught the world to sing Poi E.