John Roughan: revised history curriculum will reveal events unknown to many, both Māori and Pākehā

Māori history has been given central place in the “histories” curriculum that will be a compulsory subject in schools from next year. That should be interesting. The Prime Minister wants schools to focus on their local history and draw on local knowledge. That should make it doubly interesting.

Auckland teachers, attentive to her, should be taking keen interest in a tribal dispute that came to the High Court this week. Ngāti Whatua of Ōrākei are contesting the claims of the Marutūahu Confederation to a couple of sites in the city.

Not many Aucklanders may have heard of the Marutūahu, though many have been inside their ancestral meeting house, Hotunui, at Auckland Museum. I’d never heard of them until 2010 when I was doing research for a Herald project called “Auckland – Our Story”, published as five booklet inserts in the paper that year.

The confederation consists of four related tribes now based in Thames but once having dominion on both sides of the Hauraki Gulf, including the eastern half of the Auckland isthmus. They are by no means the only iwi who lived on the isthmus at various times before a hapu of Ngāti Whatua moved from the Kaipara to Ōrākei around 1740, just a century before the Treaty of Waitangi.

Even the Crown seemed not to have heard of the other tribes when it reached a Treaty settlement with Ngāti Whatua. The others objected strenuously and the settlement had been redone to provide for them by the time we did the Herald series.

It provided a brief introduction to them but I thought it fair to invite Ngāti Whatua and one other to tell their stories at greater length. The one chosen, for no particular reason, was Marutūahu.

I went to Thames to meet their designated writer of the piece, William Peters. He took me into a room where a map of the Auckland region, the Gulf and the Western Bay of Plenty covered a wall. There he proceeded to tell a story that began with the arrival of the waka Tainui and continued through the centuries, giving meaning to the names of many places around Auckland today.

He did not speak like an academic or a venerable kaumātua. He seemed a regular working guy, entrusted with a history that had been handed down through generations to him. It was pure oral history. He spoke for hours, with not a scrap of paper in sight.

It was a story of battles and conquests and, early in the course of it, he found it necessary to explain that when a war party found a village in its path, neutrality was not an option for those living there. If they did not side with the taua, they were killed – men, women and children.

His tone was not judgmental, it was just the way things were. It was history. I felt sickened, of course, but also immensely privileged to be told. Māori, I knew, regard their history as a treasure to be respected, not readily shared.

Peters’ written piece, published in the first part of the Herald series on August 23, 2010, included an account of an attack on Maungawhau (Mt Eden) by a Marutūahu taua led by Rautao of Ngāti Maru.

“Rautao avenged his murdered father and brother,” he wrote, “by ordering that no quarter be given and no prisoners to be taken or consigned to the hāngi. Everything was destroyed and burnt to the ground. So severe was the destruction that Maungawhau was never again occupied.”

Schools are going to be given a very judgmental curriculum about the British colonisation of New Zealand. The draft published last week assures students that, “By acknowledging the benefits of hindsight and reflecting on our own values we can make ethical judgments concerning right and wrong.”

The only colonisation of interest to the curriculum appears to be that which has been “central to our history for the past 200 years”, yet colonisation is as old as human history. If ethical judgments are to be made about this one, comparisons need to be made, not just with other British and European colonisations but those of other cultures, including Māori in pre-European times.

Students will not need to look back very far from 1840 to find comparisons. Aotearoa was a cauldron of tribal migrations after conflicts were turbo-charged by the arrival of firearms in the early 19th century. How did displaced people fare? Were they enslaved, at best or were they made citizens of the colonising power with equal status in its law?

If the curriculum means what it says and schools do what the Prime Minister suggests, teachers will seek out local tribes and pupils may hear some history in the raw. They will hear conflicting stories that are still unresolved. It’s history alive.

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