College students petition for a national holiday to recognise Land Wars
More than 10,000 signatures on a petition show New Zealand is ready to set aside a day to remember the Land Wars.
Otorohanga College students have collected the signatures in support of a national holiday to commemorate the 19th-century battles.
They will march on Parliament in early December to present their request, supported by Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta, iwi leaders and fellow students.
The vision is for a national day of remembrance, similar to Waitangi Day and Anzac Day.
About 2750 people are thought to have died in the wars, although Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand says figures are uncertain.
The majority of deaths were among Māori who fought the Crown. And Māori lost a million hectares of land as a result.
New Zealand has no day of recognition for that and Otorohanga College students want that to change.
So they started up a petition after a 2014 haerenga (trip) to former battle sites at Orakau and Rangiaowhia, where a local historian shared tales from the Land Wars.
"It's shocking to hear that there were massacres half an hour from where you live, not that long ago," student Leah Bell said.
She and former Otorohanga College student Waimarama Anderson put their names to a petition and the school started collecting signatures - mostly face to face, but also online.
"For Anzac Day, every tiny little town, every little community does something. And that's what we want for the Land Wars," Leah said.
"But we don't want [it] to take over, just [be] something different," head girl Rhiannon Magee said. "We don't think we should hide our past. We should acknowledge it."
Visiting the battle sites was a sobering experience, student Tai Jones added.
"It's just a site now, or a paddock. But 150 years ago, it was where people died and, once upon a time, it was where they lived. So it was sad to hear what happened to them and all the destruction they faced."
Mentor and teacher Mariana Papa said students had support from King Tuheitia, Mahuta and iwi leaders from around New Zealand.
"A lot of [the iwi leaders'] people died. This wasn't just something superficial. This was something real," said Mariana Papa, whose husband, Rahui Papa, is also backing the idea.
Mahuta said she would take the petition to Parliament and would like to see it tabled before the Maori Affairs Select Committee.
"At that point, we'd like to see the Government pick it up as a bill and create a day of national significance.
"I'm hopeful the Government will see the importance in recognising the New Zealand Land Wars and its contribution to our national identity."
She said a national day of recognition would ensure people "continue to tell the story of ancestors who went to war to fight for their land, rather than have it taken by colonial government".
And there's high-level backing from Waikato-Tainui.
King Tuheitia and his family were among the first to sign the petition, Te Arataura chair Rahui Papa said.
Rahui Papa hoped a national holiday would encourage more New Zealanders to learn about and understand their past.
"It's not just a Maori thing, either, because colonial troops lost lives as well. So we want to commemorate them at the same time," he said.
Historians are also on board with the idea.
"We commemorate our war dead in every overseas theatre of war, so why not those who fell in New Zealand, too?" leading Maori historian Monty Soutar said.
"If a day of commemoration leads to a nation better informed about its past, then it can't be a bad thing."
AUT history professor Paul Moon said the Land Wars were "one of the most tumultuous things that ever happened to New Zealand".
A day of commemoration - even if it weren't a holiday - could be a launch pad for people to understand more.
David Bennett, MP for Hamilton East, doubted a holiday would be implemented, as public holidays were considered "some time ago".
When asked if he supported a holiday in principle to commemorate the wars, he remained unenthusiastic.
"It certainly is a significant part of our history, but we have Waitangi Day, which is symbolic of our history.
"It can always be considered, but I think it's unlikely."
However, Scott Simpson, National MP for Coromandel, said the idea "could be worth a conversation".
He recommended the students choose a date that isn't already an existing holiday.
"Maybe they need to do further research and tease out the concept."
Simpson also made the point New Zealand already has a large number of public holidays.
"Whilst not wanting to detract from the substance of what these pupils are doing, we have to think of the economic ramifications and the cost associated with yet another statutory holiday."
The march on Parliament is planned for December 8.
An online petition can be found at petitionbuzz.com/petitions/nzlandwars1963 or through the Facebook page called Petition to Commemorate NZ Land Wars.