Editorial: Bring NZ Wars out of the shadows

A ceremony marking the handover of Rangiriri, site of one of the major battles in the New Zealand Wars.

A ceremony marking the handover of Rangiriri, site of one of the major battles in the New Zealand Wars.

OPINION: The New Zealand Wars are a foundational part of this country's history, and everyone should have at least a passing knowledge of them.

That's not currently the case. In Pakeha New Zealand especially, only academics and Waitangi Tribunal researchers pay them any attention.

But the battles and skirmishes in Waikato, Taranaki, the Wellington region, the Bay of Plenty, Northland, Whanganui and elsewhere shaped this place profoundly.

They drew enormous numbers of soldiers to an outpost of the British empire. They waxed and waned – with shifting alliances, victories in both directions and striking acts of military originality and strategy. They were often launched on sham pretexts after settler agitation. In the end, they transformed the North Island with their human toll and cherry-picked land confiscations, cementing the Pakeha domination of the country that has continued ever since.

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All of this is why it has been heartening to see a concerted grass-roots campaign over the past year – led by school pupils, historians, Maori elders and others – to bring these wars back into public view.

One part of that has been to push for the wars to be included in the New Zealand curriculum. Politicians and the Education Ministry have resisted this, arguing that schools must make their own choices about what they teach.

It's true and appropriate that the curriculum allows for flexibility, but it provides more concrete guidance at times too. For instance, it offers the suggestion that pupils understand the significance of "early Polynesian and British migrations to New Zealand".

That seems reasonable, and so does a similar prompt that learners get a grip on the defining colonial clashes of the 19th century.

Another part of the revival campaign has been to argue for a national day commemorating the wars.

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Here the Government has been much more amenable. At the weekend, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English announced that it would back the idea – though not as a public holiday, as some campaigners want.

It is an encouraging start – and the rhetoric and early funding with it have mostly been the same. English told a gathering at Turangawaewae in the Waikato (marking, among other things, the handover of the landmark Rangiriri pa site) that the history of the wars had been neglected and there was an obligation to tell it afresh.

That is right: more important than fussing about whether to have a day off is how to revive the stories. Preserving and publicising physical sites is one pressing way. Funding high-quality retellings for general audiences – TV programmes, histories, exhibitions and so on – is another.

As various Maori leaders have argued, enormous public attention and resourcing mean there is now a shared understanding of what happened at Gallipoli and other atrocious World War I battles. Remarkably, the interest has only strengthened as the veterans of that war have died.

Nothing like this is true of the New Zealand wars, but it could and should be. There is no need to valorise the players or reduce the wars to simple parables, but there is a need to make them visible again.

It is part of a necessary reckoning with New Zealand's past that has been going on for decades and isn't done yet.

 - The Dominion Post

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