COMMENT

I've often wondered why history is so prone to whitewashing. What does it say about the human psyche that we prefer a sanitised version of events rather than the truth? Is our preference for tales of glory and honour over their darker realities an example of the success of social control, suggesting that we are all ignorant lambs, blissfully bleating from the same national song sheet that was distributed by our mid-20th century overlords, or are we secretly relieved to be able to ignore the more disturbing parts of our history?

In New Zealand, our history is taught haphazardly, left to the individual leanings of Social Studies and History teachers. History teaching in New Zealand has historically obscured (to put it mildly) a number of uncomfortable truths about the establishment of our fine country. Now, an understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi is a part of the curriculum, but beyond that, there is no legal requirement for New Zealand students to have anything more than a cursory knowledge of the events that shaped our nation.

As such, it is possible for Kiwi students to make their way through school without encountering subjects like the New Zealand Wars, the Native Land Court, Parihaka, the systemic obliteration of te reo Māori, the voter suppression tactics known as the Māori seats in Parliament, or the story of Māori women and their fight for political power and representation.

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It's little surprise that most New Zealanders are, frankly, woefully ignorant about New Zealand history. Most of what I know about New Zealand history I learned through reading books after I'd left school. An understanding of our history is not something that we're guaranteed as a birthright, it's something that we have to seek out for ourselves.

Still, you'd have to have been living under a rock this year to miss the fact that 2018 marks the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage. Suffrage Day in September passed in a blaze of nationalistic glory, with news bulletins dominated by pictures of women around the country commemorating our historic achievement. Images of Kate Sheppard and her petition were beamed into houses all around the country. The mood was jubilant, and I was wholeheartedly on board. I even hosted a suffrage party for some female friends; and no, the irony of serving alcohol at said party wasn't lost on me.

Even as I celebrated, however, I knew that we were only acknowledging half of the story. While I heard a lot about Kate Sheppard and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the odd mention of Meri Mangakāhia, it was the omissions that spoke most loudly to me. Nowhere did I hear the names Niniwa-i-te-rangi, Ākenehi Tōmoana, Heni Pore, Maata Mahupuku or the various other unsung heroes of the Māori women's movement.

I've spent the past five months working on a documentary about Māori women and political activism in the 1890s. It has been a sobering, enriching and deeply frustrating experience. The more I learned about the women that Pākehā history forgot (or perhaps never knew to begin with) the angrier I felt. I am still angry. Kei te riri ahau. I studied suffrage at high school. I even spent a term learning about New Zealand "women's history". Yet nowhere in my schooling was the story of the staunch Māori women who were organising politically way back in the 19th century.

The story of Māori women in the 1890s is a far less illustrious one than that of the affluent Pākehā suffragists. While Kate Sheppard was sitting in her mansion in Christchurch, living with the man she'd later marry… and his wife (there's a bit of historical scandal for you), Māori women were struggling for survival, living off what little land they had left.

The Native Land Court, that infamous helpmeet of the land-grabbing Crown, had squeezed Māori whānau half to death. It has been called the engine of destruction, and to my mind, such a description is far too polite. Its methods were hardly benevolent. There is evidence of land agents offering large loans to Māori in order to intentionally wheedle them into debt. There were obligatory surveys that had to be paid for by Māori, even if they were responding to a land claim they wanted no part of and had not initiated. Deaths were reported when respondents couldn't afford food or lodging as a result of Land Court proceedings. This is the ugly side of New Zealand history that many of us just don't want to know about.

Against the backdrop of poverty and increasing landlessness, Māori women started to fight back. Niniwa-i-te-rangi, for example, beat the Crown at its own game, winning a case against the Crown in the Native Land Court. She, Maata Mahupuku, and a group of other influential Māori of the Kotahitanga movement set up and funded Māori language newspapers, organised committees of women, and spoke out for Māori rights around the country.

The vote for Māori women wasn't just about alcohol, as it was for most Pākehā women. It was about land, desolation, and a refusal to sit back and watch Māori be decimated. The colonial Government of the time spoke of "smoothing the pillow of a dying race". In reality, they had taken that pillow and used it to try to smother us. In agitating for political power, Māori women weren't just hoping to get alcohol out of their communities, they were fighting to survive.

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And even as they fought alongside their Pākehā sisters in the WCTU, they were still required to make sacrifices. The compulsory temperance pledge involved not only swearing off alcohol, but also a vow not to take moko kauae. The arrogance of such a requirement staggers me. Māori women were welcome to volunteer for the cause, but not without leaving their sacred cultural practices at the door.

It's time for us to stop picking and choosing which parts of history we'll remember. In He Māngai Wāhine (The Women's Voices) we've tried to set the record straight.

Hē Māngai Wāhine airs on Māori Television at 8.30pm on November 19.