Each Anzac Day, thousands of us turn out to dawn ceremonies, largely to remember soldiers who fell in wars abroad.

So why have we forgotten those conflicts fought on our own soil?

A new study seeks to understand why we're selective when it comes to remembering difficult and violent events from our colonial past.

"A starting premise for us is that what a nation chooses to remember and forget speaks to its collective priorities," said Associate Professor Joanna Kidman from Victoria University of Wellington, jointly leading the study with Dr Vincent O'Malley of HistoryWorks.


She said the research was partly sparked by a smaller project that had looked at responses to a 2015 Ōtorohanga College petition, which led to a national day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars.

"That ignited a really interesting debate around memory, identity and history that we felt deserved closer consideration."

At the same time, the researchers were visiting a number of historic sites associated with the Waikato War as field research for O'Malley's book on the topic, The Great War for New Zealand, and saw first-hand just how neglected many of them were.

"These were sites of immense historical importance that in many places were not even signposted," Kidman said.

"They are most commonly marked by a road through the middle of them. What's that all about, we wondered. And who decides what is important to remember and memoralise and what is not?

"So that got us thinking about these themes of selective remembrance and forgetting, especially in connection with difficult events in New Zealand's colonial era, and specifically the New Zealand Wars of 1845 to 1872."

At the peak of the conflicts, fought between government forces and some tribes over sovereignty and land, 18,000 British and colonial troops were pitted against just 4000 Māori warriors.

Over the course of the wars, fought in Taranaki, Waikato and elsewhere across the North Island, an estimated 2800 lives were lost, and a further 3000 wounded.


Nearly three-quarters of the casualties were Māori.

Land confiscations to punish tribes that fought against the Crown left a long legacy of grievances that continued today.

The study's overall goal was to understand how different groups remember and forget this history.

The 150th anniversary of the battle of Orakau, which took place in 1864, was marked east of Kihikihi in the Waikato in 2014. Photo / Christine Cornege
The 150th anniversary of the battle of Orakau, which took place in 1864, was marked east of Kihikihi in the Waikato in 2014. Photo / Christine Cornege

A key focus was contrasting wider public and state narratives with tribal ones - and looking specifically at how Māori youth exposed to these competing representations of the past formed their own understandings of it.

One major part of the research would examine how state and Pākehā collective memories of the New Zealand Wars had evolved.

O'Malley would draw on archival documents, letters, diaries and newspapers along with monuments, memorials and flags.

He would also explore the place of the New Zealand Wars in popular culture, and how these had been represented in films, TV shows and literature.

The other part of the study, led by Kidman, involved working with Māori communities in several regions heavily affected by the wars.

"The focus here is on understanding how memories of these often quite devastating events are transmitted across generations," she said.

"That will include interviews with Māori youth and kaumātua, hui and wānanga, and where appropriate documenting and observing visits to the actual battle sites where this history is relayed.

Auckland's Zealandia War Memorial remembers the New Zealand Wars. Photo / File
Auckland's Zealandia War Memorial remembers the New Zealand Wars. Photo / File

"The specifics of this will probably differ from region to region depending on the preferences of the iwi and hapū involved. We are committed to working with them on the final research design."

O'Malley said the past had a powerful hold over both our present and future.

"One of the things we'd like see come out of this project is a better understanding about how people remember important historical events in New Zealand's past and why some episodes aren't widely known about or understood," he said.

"We need to find ways of speaking about the past, even when it's difficult or uncomfortable."

Kidman agreed.

"These are our stories and our histories and we need to know about them - there's huge violence associated with some of these events but by opening them up, we begin to give ourselves opportunities to heal," she said.

"That's a really important step towards genuine reconciliation in the future."

The study is being supported by an $859,000 grant from the Marsden Fund.