Many years ago, when I was a young man, I visited London for the first time. I was amazed to see how much I actually knew about the city - the River Thames and its many bridges seemed familiar, I recognised the landmark buildings and the statues of historic leaders, I knew the streets by name. I knew what lay ahead of me, over the hill or around the corner - it was almost as if I had been there before.
And yet, with this realisation, I was overwhelmed by sadness. Because it brought home to me that, while I had learned much about Britain, back home in New Zealand my friends, my neighbours and Pakeha society generally knew almost nothing about my history, my culture and my identity as Maori and as tangata whenua, first nations people of Aotearoa.
I knew about the kings and military heroes of Britain. But could they name a single one of my great ancestors and chiefs, male and female, who had brought their people safely across the Pacific, had settled Aotearoa, who fought and intermarried to establish the tribal nations who welcomed the European explorers and settlers to their shores? Not likely!
Many Kiwis know of London's Tower Bridge but how many are aware of our fascinating Maori history? Photo / AP
So instead of feeling excited and empowered by my knowledge of London, it actually made me feel alienated from my own country and my countrymen and women who knew so little about the history and cultural heritage of Aotearoa.
Times have changed since then, but not enough for my liking. The Waitangi Tribunal, and a modern generation of New Zealand historians, have done a great deal to unearth and document the facts of our colonial history. The tribunal's reports record various interpretations of the facts, and offer guidance on how to apply the lessons of the past in our lives today. But their audience is restricted, and many people still draw on myths and prejudice to shape their opinions on current affairs.
Learning something about early Maori society, their settlement patterns, their tribal movements and their life entirely within matauranga Maori (Maori knowledge and world-views) would be a positive contribution to our country's history, and also to local race relations. At schools, children could learn about their local village, its history, its hapu structure and its marae.
I have witnessed many instances where the inclusion of local Maori history within programmes such as Te Kotahitanga has lifted the pride and mana of not only the Maori students, but also the entire local hapu. This has been reflected in improved scholastic outcomes for students, and also a positive increase in the involvement of parents and whanau in school affairs.
I think we need to get serious about teaching and learning New Zealand history, for everybody but especially in schools. To know something about someone's past, and how it has shaped who they are today, so enriches your relationship. We share a rich tapestry of history, as tangata whenua and tangata tiriti. A knowledge of that history is the basis of mutual respect and understanding, and a rock-solid foundation for national unity in all our cultural diversity.
For we are diverse! People have come to Aotearoa from all corners of the world, bringing their histories, languages and cultures, their art, music and dance, their food and traditions of hospitality, and their spiritual and religious beliefs. Among tangata whenua, each tribe has its own history and traditions, its dialect that distinguishes it from other tribes, and variations of marae kawa or protocols.
So there is no one national history of Aotearoa. History and culture are local and community-based. When we can recognise and embrace our diversity as New Zealanders, then we can be united as citizens, without all being the same. We can bring our different viewpoints and engage in debates about the big issues of our times, instead of being alienated from each other by our ignorance.
I believe that this is the promise of the Treaty of Waitangi. Far from entrenching differences and divisions between New Zealanders, the Treaty sets out a basis for mutual respect, understanding and co-operation between the various hapu and Maori groups on one hand, and all peoples who come to Aotearoa under the authority of the Crown.
I also know that many people would disagree with me. Some would say the Treaty is an historical artefact that Maori cling to to protect their position of special privilege. I would venture to suggest that most of those people have never read the text of the Treaty, nor any of the Waitangi Tribunal reports that discuss what the Treaty means. Probably not a single one of them would speak or understand Maori, and few would have visited a marae. New immigrants are taught very little about any of these things.
The problem is that, without any agreed basis of historical fact, we can never resolve these differences of opinion. Deeply held beliefs that are not grounded in facts are holding back the development of our national identity and unity of purpose.
Fortunately, there are some really good history texts being published these days. A recent addition is Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History. This single volume covers Maori pre-history out of Asia, traditions of migration across the Pacific to Aotearoa, tribal histories of this land, contact with Pakeha and colonial history up to the present day. There are many other books, so there is little excuse for ignorance.
Our ancestors truly blessed us by establishing a foundation of goodwill, good faith and co-operation for our nation. It is our responsibility, and that of each generation of New Zealanders, to live up to their aspirations for us. We owe it to our ancestors, to ourselves and to future generations to learn about our history, and to make sure that's part of our children's basic education. Kia ora!