Twelve Questions: Dame Claudia Orange

Almost 30 years after her book The Treaty of Waitangi became the definitive reference on our nation’s founding document, Dame Claudia Orange is part of a team telling the story of the Treaty at the Museum of Waitangi opening this weekend.
Historian Dame Claudia Orange plans to step down as head of research at Te Papa this month and take up a research fellowship.
Historian Dame Claudia Orange plans to step down as head of research at Te Papa this month and take up a research fellowship.

1 How did the new $14 million Museum of Waitangi come about?

The government gave funding to build a new museum on the Waitangi Treaty grounds that were gifted to the nation in 1932 by the Governor General at the time. It was an amazing gift - 500ha of heritage property and the museum itself is going to look quite beautiful. Carin Wilson has carved a forest into the stone walls and seven bronze pillars symbolising the seven values of the Treaty.

2What's your role?

I was hired as a subject expert to tell the story of the Treaty of Waitangi for the inaugural exhibition Ko Waitangi Tenei. We're expecting a 50-50 mix of New Zealanders and tourists. There are layers of information, so if you only have 20 minutes you could zip through and enjoy it. But for those who want to dive in, you could spend half a day going through a wealth of information. It's a mix of interactive technology and nearly 100 taonga from around the country.

3 Any objects of special importance?

Dame Whina Cooper's family are loaning us the pou that was carried from marae to marae in the Land March of 1975. Pou whenua was not allowed to touch the ground to mark the fact that not one acre more of Maori land should be lost. We've also got Hongi Hika's self-portrait, a bust he carved in 1816, and a member of the public has loaned us the first bilingual publication of the treaty from 1844.

4 If visitors could take just one message away from your exhibition, what would it be?

There's a marvellous quote from Dame Whina: "The seed I would like to plant in your heart is a vision of Aotearoa where all our people can live together in harmony ... and share the wisdom from each culture."

5 Your 1987 book The Treaty of Waitangi was based on your PhD thesis. Nearly 30 years on, has your research stood the test of time?

I did make two or three corrections when I published a revised edition in 2011 because of more research I'd done into the reasons why Maori did and didn't sign, and I added two chapters tracing what's happened since 1987. I also put out a smaller book called The Story of the Treaty which is easier to read.

6 Does the exhibition contain new research?

I've done a lot of research into the great Kohimarama Conference of 1860 when the Treaty was reaffirmed. All of the speeches are in the Auckland City Library. What was interesting is they didn't just read out the Treaty in Maori, they gave detailed explanations as well. We still don't know the names of everyone who signed the Treaty. Some signatures are just a name - Marama, Andrew, Matiu. About 20 years ago we created an online database to try to identify everybody who signed. I recently started working through information that's come in from the public, diaries and newspaper obituaries. Birth, death and marriage certificates are much more available now.

7 Do you go to Waitangi every February 6th?

We've been almost every year since I began researching the Treaty in the 1970s. My husband and I used to go up and camp on the marae and then sit and listen to the talk. The talking really happens on February 5, which was when William Hobson presented the Treaty and Maori debated it. I can understand some te reo but it's still not enough. It's a great family day. At the end of the day they formally bring down the three flags; the British, the New Zealand and the 1834 flag of independence.

8 Is it time for New Zealand to have a new flag?

I have mixed feelings about that. I truly don't know. I did think when they started that, maybe it's not the right time for people to be asked. I actually quite like the alternative, but with red instead of black. I think no one's going to be satisfied with the result for lots of reasons.

9 What do you think of media coverage of Waitangi Day?

It's pretty good on the whole. The downside is when they focus on the protest, which is often so tiny you miss it. The other problem is a lot of people don't understand the difference between Te Tii marae and the Treaty grounds at Waitangi.

10 Has New Zealand made much progress towards bi-culturalism since your book was published in 1987?

It was a real shock for the public when the Labour government began engineering Treaty hearings. It hit people between the eyes. The difference now is people realise there's a whole history of Maori trying to get their voices heard. We still have a long way to go in terms of sharing the decision making.

I think increasingly people are going to see that the Treaty settlements have been good. People who are committed to the environment are finding Maori views in alignment with their own. The only protest at Waitangi last year was against deep sea oil drilling and all of us felt in agreement after the Rena disaster. Part of the Manukau Harbour settlement was to clean up the beaches and water quality and we saw public opinion rally behind the Waitangi Tribunal's finding that Syngas was damaging reefs off the Taranaki coast.

11 Are we doing enough to educate people about the Treaty?

Primary schools have gone a long way, but New Zealand history is still an optional part of the secondary school history syllabus. I think every New Zealand child should have the experience of being at Waitangi at least once in their growing years. I'm keen to see Civics - a core subject in countries like America - taught here. It's important for everyone to understand how central and local government work and their role in a democracy. There's a push for that in Wellington at the moment.

12 You're 77 now - do you have any plans to retire?

No, historians don't retire. I'm stepping down as head of research at Te Papa this month, but I'll be a research fellow for at least another two years. I met with my publisher last week and we've already cooked up two books. I make sure I keep healthy and I've got good genetics - two of my sisters are in their 90s.

- NZ Herald

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