Young Kiwis shatter silence about our difficult past

If we are to have genuine reconciliation, it is important to acknowledge our nation’s difficult past, and own it. And young people are leading the way, writes Victoria University's Joanna Kidman

Remembering the past isn’t what it used to be. The first ever national day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars is set for October 28 and it was young people who made it happen. Six years ago, a group of Māori and Pākehā students from Ōtorohanga College, a small rural secondary school in south Waikato, began a petition calling for statutory recognition of difficult events in the nation’s colonial past. The idea came to them after they went on a school visit to some nearby battle sites where a series of violent clashes between Māori and British imperial troops had taken place 150 years earlier.

Local kaumātua accompanied them on the school visit. They explained what had happened during the 1863-64 military invasion of the Waikato and how it continues to affect Māori people in the region today. The stark brutality of these events and the devastating aftermath for Māori communities left a strong impression on the students. But what really surprised them was the almost-complete public silence they encountered when they spoke about these pivotal episodes in New Zealand’s past. They were determined that historical accounts of the invasion should not be forgotten and began to collect signatures for their petition. By the time they delivered it to Parliament, nearly 13,000 people had signed.

Public silences around the New Zealand Wars are deeply ingrained. It is not a subject that is extensively taught in most schools and there is a widespread lack of understanding about how these conflicts shaped the modern New Zealand nation. By calling for recognition of the Wars, the young people of Ōtorohanga College and their supporters tapped into a growing public curiosity about these difficult histories and how we remember— and forget — them. The nationwide conversation they sparked included many adults, both for and against the petition.

There is a growing awareness that collective memories of the difficult past linger over time and are passed on across generations.

But the campaign was driven mainly by young New Zealanders. They are part of a generation that publicly remembers wars fought abroad, for example in Gallipoli or the Somme, but until now has not been given the opportunity to commemorate the devastating battles fought on our own shores or acknowledge their consequences in the present.

There is a growing awareness that collective memories of the difficult past linger over time and are passed on across generations. Some academics have called this ‘postmemory’— a kind of inherited memory that affects how people who were born after periods of violent social upheaval think about what happened and how it affects their families or their communities in the present.

Among young people, these kinds of memories can offer a strong emotional connection with the pain of those who came before them.

In New Zealand, young Māori especially are exposed to competing versions of the past. In the face of official denial about the lasting effects of these Wars, many turn to family or tribal members for information. How they do this in everyday practice is not well understood but what we do know is that for much of the 20th century the New Zealand Wars were told as celebratory tales of nation-building — and battles fought honourably and courageously by all parties. Māori communities that were at the epicentre of these conflicts remember them very differently. It is these understandings that are passed on to younger generations.

Tribal memories are important not least because they speak of a past that is all too often shrouded in public silence.

International research tells us that these silences about history will not heal. Difficult as they are to hear, the stories need to be told. The first national day to commemorate the New Zealand Wars will be hosted by Te Tai Tokerau iwi in the North. Each year the commemorations will move to other regions where battles were fought and all parties will have the opportunity to speak, and to remember— together.

Māori have a saying, ‘Ka mua, ka muri’. This refers to the idea that we walk backward toward the future secure in the knowledge of what has happened before. If we are to have genuine reconciliation in the years ahead, it is important that we not only know about the nation’s difficult past, but also that we remember it, acknowledge it and own it. And, as New Zealand’s young people have made clear, a national day of commemoration is a good beginning.

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