Rewriting the history of Moriori

Tommy Solomon
Tommy Solomon

The Ministry of Education is rewriting New Zealand history in the school curriculum – altering what textbooks say about the Moriori.

Generations of New Zealanders have grown up believing Moriori were an inferior, pre-Maori race driven from New Zealand to seek refuge in the Chatham Islands.

In his 1989 book Moriori: A People Rediscovered, the late historian Michael King said four generations of New Zealanders were taught to vilify Moriori.

"Nobody in New Zealand – and few elsewhere in the world – has been subjected to group slander as intense and as damaging as that heaped upon the Moriori," he wrote.

The mythological history was perpetuated by the School Journal, a magazine-style series used in all New Zealand primary schools.

King said the journal's account was demonstrably wrong, yet for 60-odd years it was lodged in the national imagination.

That wrong was righted last week when Education Minister Anne Tolley travelled to the Chatham Islands to present a new series of School Journals that give a true account of the Moriori.

Marae elders, parents, students and officials gathered at Kopinga Marae for the presentation of the journals. In the centre of the room is a wooden pou or pole inscribed with the names of 1561 Moriori living on the islands in 1835.

Tolley called the textbooks a "gift of peace" between the Ministry of Education and the Chatham Islanders.

The journals feature stories, pictures and illustrations about Moriori and carry a preface explaining who they are and why the journals are dedicated to them.

One reads "The 1916 Part 1 Journal described [Moriori] as "lazy, stupid people with flat noses and very dark skins. In 1916 many people believed this story, and they also believed that all the Moriori had died out. In fact, we know that none of this is true."

In a publication marking the centenary of the New Zealand School Journal, the early journals were lambasted as a "lamentable lapse in the veracity" of the books.

Hokotehi Moriori Trust general manager Maui Solomon, the grandson of Moriori leader Tommy Solomon, said the presentation was "a dream come true". In 1986 he told officials that until Moriori was taught in schools, the misconceptions would continue.

"Actually getting it into schools in English and Maori – and some Moriori – is a great fillip, a milestone in Moriori renaissance. It was a fantastic day – a very emotional, powerful day."

Tolley said the people gathered at the presentation were "so gracious".

"You know they have suffered as a result of New Zealand's ignorance of who they are, where they came from and their history."

She said the journals were a correction and apology that has been in the works for many years.

"I'm just the lucky one who was in the position to hand over the final result.

"For the first time Moriori have an authentic voice in the pages of the School Journal," she said.

In the 2006 New Zealand census, 945 people said they were of Moriori descent.

King said Moriori were not a pre-Maori race driven from New Zealand. "Their language, artefacts and bodily remains show them to have been Polynesian."

Sunday Star Times