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A Land Wars-shaped hole in the NZ psyche

New Zealand society today still feels deeply the repercussions of the New Zealand Wars. So why are they not taught in schools? Marc Daalder asks

It would be difficult to imagine advertisers for a friendly football match between Germany and England riffing on the Second World War to sell tickets – but the Hurricanes made a gaffe of similar proportions with their advertisement for the Chiefs game earlier this month, proclaiming it a rehash of the “Taranaki Land War”.

Although the Wellington team later apologised, the stunt triggered a broader call for increased education and awareness of the New Zealand Wars, particularly as it came in the wake of Waikato high school history teacher Defyd Williams’ call for the wars to be formally added to the curriculum.

The New Zealand Wars, also known as the Land Wars, spanned almost three decades (1845-1872), claimed thousands of Māori and Pākehā lives, and saw more than 12 million acres of Māori land lost to confiscation and sales. They took place throughout the country, including in isolated parts of the South Island, and featured a handful of memorable battles, from the Kingitanga’s defeat at Orakau to the famous siege of Ruapekapeka pa.

Beginning just five years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which is conventionally thought of as the country’s founding document and the commitment to peaceful relations between Māori and Pākehā, the New Zealand Wars problematise the traditional story of nineteenth-century New Zealand. Neither a tale of idyllic settlements nor one of civilising colonialists, the course of Aotearoa in the nineteenth century is better represented as a difficult and sometimes violent process of figuring out how two nations and two cultures can coexist.

The Wars are a crucial part of this tale and true leadership on the part of the government and the Ministry of Education is the best way to ensure their legacy is taught to students.

The results of the Wars can be seen today in the disproportionate numbers of Māori men in prison, the persistence of poverty in Māori communities, and the long, tangled, and controversial Treaty settlements process, with all its attendant tales of long-sought justice and endemic corruption. New Zealand society today still feels deeply the repercussions of the New Zealand Wars.

Why, then, are the Wars not taught? In large part, the cause is the structure of the curriculum. The National Curriculum for the social sciences and arts is largely choice-based, designed to allow individual schools and teachers to craft courses of learning that are relevant to their students. Only a handful of History topics, including the Treaty of Waitangi, are required teaching.

Professor Elizabeth Rata argues that this creates a disparity in educational content and strips subjects like History and English of their “academic identity”. It also means that there is currently no requirement that students learn about the New Zealand Wars, despite their major impact on the country’s history.

Ellen MacGregor Reid, the deputy secretary for Early Learning and Student Achievement at the Ministry of Education, confirmed this. “Māori history or land wars is not compulsory in schools and kura, however they have an important role in defining the unique identity and culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. The curriculum empowers schools and kura to talk about our historical past in a broader context and encourages them to also [look] into the opportunities to use local community based history.”

The recent conversation around amending the curriculum is in fact a repetition of numerous earlier debates. Two years ago, Otorohanga College students petitioned Parliament to add more content related to the New Zealand Wars to the curriculum and to recognise the Wars with a national holiday. Although the latter request succeeded – the first holiday was held in Northland this year and next year’s commemoration will take place in Taranaki – the Ministry of Education at the time refused to alter the curriculum.

In informing the Māori Affairs select committee of its decision, the Ministry – then under National Minister Hekia Parata – argued that any alteration to the curriculum along the lines proposed by the petition, which included the provision of physical and online resources and the creation of Learning Outcomes and Achievement Standards for the topic, would threaten the choice-based system already in place. Now under Labour’s Chris Hipkins, the Ministry of Education told Newsroom there remained “no plans at the moment” to alter the curriculum.

It’s past time that Kiwi schools follow suit with a similar level of education about the wars that took place in our own backyards.

Reid, the Deputy Secretary, emphasised there were resources in place for those teachers and schools which wished to incorporate the New Zealand Wars into their course plans. “Te Takanga o te Wā (Māori History Guideline) - provides a framework to support teachers to teach Māori and New Zealand history with their students. It encourages collaborative engagement with local iwi and hapū to build on local opportunities to incorporate history into the classroom with the aim to use the stories and histories relating to the school’s geographic location to assist with instilling a deeper sense of personal identity and belonging for every student.”

However, the Ministry does not track how many schools take advantage of these resources to teach the Wars – or, indeed, how many schools incorporate the New Zealand Wars into their curricula at all.

The Hurricanes advertisement debacle is just one sign that, whatever the numbers, the importance and meaning of the Wars aren’t broadly known to New Zealanders. Allowing schools to decide on their own whether or not to teach the New Zealand Wars, while also requiring that they teach the Treaty of Waitangi, risks firmly establishing an ahistorical view of the course of 19th century Māori-Pākehā relations in the country’s psyche.

Defyd Williams, the St Paul’s Collegiate history teacher who made headlines with his call for more New Zealand Wars content on the curriculum, has sought to address this in his own classroom by teaching the Te Reo version of the Treaty alongside the New Zealand Wars. This helps students reconcile the Treaty with its aftermath. “Look at the consequences of it,” Williams told Newsroom, “Twenty years later, Māori and Pākehā were at war.”

One school, though, isn’t enough. These strategies ought to be employed by all schools so that New Zealanders can have a common – and factual – basis for understanding how and why New Zealand society came to be the way it is today. The Wars are a crucial part of this tale and true leadership on the part of the government and the Ministry of Education is the best way to ensure their legacy is taught to students.

The Treaty approach, Williams says, is where he sees the greatest opportunity for policy change. Because the Treaty is already required teaching, mandating that “the Treaty of Waitangi can’t be taught in isolation” but must be examined in context could allow for the introduction of New Zealand Wars content to the curriculum.  

New Zealand, rightfully, teaches students about the great events of the 19th and 20th centuries. High schoolers graduate aware of the import of the Great War and the Second World War – that’s why my analogy at the start of this piece made sense. It’s past time that Kiwi schools follow suit with a similar level of education about the wars that took place in our own backyards.

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