The need for honest education about New Zealand’s history

When I was doing a Year 4 course at University of Canterbury in 2005 that examined kaitiakitanga and resource management – Maori guardianship of their resources and appropriate resource management – I was given a hand out that contained the text of the 1835 New Zealand Declaration of Independence. 11 years later as Maori sovereignty issues come to the fore over water ownership and the politics of race, I find it fascinating to think about what might have been if this had been recognized and given effect to.

New Zealand Declaration of Independence

This is a fascinating document because it addresses a segment of history often not taught in New Zealand schools – none of the classes I had in primary, intermediate or high school so much acknowledged the New Zealand Declaration of Independence even existing. Although I certainly had social studies subject matter on the arrival of Maori in New Zealand and the Land Wars, all of the associated history I was taught started post-6 February 1840.

I never knew that the Independent Tribes of New Zealand existed until I saw this version of the New Zealand Declaration of Independence. Nor did I know that an official representative of her Majesty Queen Victoria had established residency in New Zealand. I did not even know that there had been any significant or formal British contact with Maori prior to 1840.

How disappointing. When social science gets taught in schools – I thoroughly enjoyed learning about other cultures, nations, current affairs – I hope that social science curriculum will be amended to make the Treaty of Waitangi and the New Zealand Land Wars a compulsory part. It is only proper that nations acknowledge their history, however unfavourable it might be (noting Japanese students are sometimes surprised at the hostility of Chinese and Korean students, because the Japanese curriculum downplays the offensive nature of Japan’s role in World War 2, the causes and the atrocities committed). But for political purposes, sometimes history can be an inconvenient truth.

Perhaps the idea that the sovereignty of independent tribes being guaranteed might not have stopped the Land Wars from starting or the atrocities such as the Wairau Affray or the massacres that Te Rauparaha committed from happening. Perhaps the confiscation of land and assets might have still gone ahead, but what if – just for a minute – that individual iwi such as Ngai Tahu, Ngati Porou, Ngapuhi, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Ngati Arawa had become legitimate nations? Would they have been so accepting of the Treaty of Waitangi? Possibly not, and in actual fact I wonder if it might have degenerated into the sectarian strife that overtook Iraq after the U.S. invasion, or more recently, Syria.

Perhaps it is just as well that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, but people learning about New Zealand history should know that for just over four years between late October 1835 and February 1840, something quite different to Te Tiriti o Waitangi existed.

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