Nearly 50 years after the Kirk Government swept into power with a call to embrace our national identity, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has taken a giant step towards completing the task. From 2022, New Zealand history will, at long last, be a compulsory subject in all schools.
It's always seemed weird we teach our kids how to play netball and rugby, to say nothing of the basics of sex, yet when it comes to our origins we leave it up to chance — or worse, radio talkback hosts — for them to work out how we came to co-exist on these remote South Pacific Islands.
Norman Kirk asserted a new spirit of nationalism at home and abroad. His vigorous campaigning against French nuclear testing in the Pacific was matched at home by moves to address century-old Māori land grievances. In 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to probe "contemporary" breaches of the Treaty. In 1985, this was extended to cover breaches since 1840.
Since then, over $2.2 billion has been paid out in token compensation to tribes for the 1.6 million hectares of land illegally confiscated during the Land Wars — of which only about half was subsequently returned or paid for around the time.
Unfortunately missing from the Kirk Government's reconciliation process was a public educative element. The piles of documentation and judgments the tribunal system created were returned to official shelves to gather dust.
At best, these days, there's a short TV news clip from Parliament, with the minister reading out a heartfelt apology and the affected tribe responding from the public gallery. But for most, after the shock of the first few results, it no longer registers.
When a contentious issue like Ihumātao or the 250th anniversary re-enactment of Captain Cook's visit to our shores emerge, out comes the old pub-bar ignorance again.
As a primary school kid in New Plymouth, I remember visiting the old St Mary's Anglican Church and being mesmerised by the narrow gun slits incorporated into the stone walls in case the "rebel" Māori attacked. It also served as the town war shelter. Draped above the pews were regimental flags, fluttering down from poles jutting out from the walls.
Outside were the graves of fallen soldiers and a few "loyal" Māori. I can't recall why I was there or any historical briefing. Who the rebel Māori were was left to my cowboys and Indians comic-fuelled imagination. A few years later, my Auckland Scout troop camped on the banks of the Mangatawhiri Stream at the foot of the Bombay Hills. It wasn't until years later at university that I realised the river where we speared eels by lamplight had, in 1863, been the trigger point for the Waikato Wars.
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A "rebel" Māori had crossed Governor Grey's watery boundary line, leading to the invasion of the Waikato by the British troops. As kids we knew none of this. Instead, we belonged to a scout troop named after Lord Kitchener, a British colonial warlord with no local links.
The last Government spent more than a $100 million commemorating the centennial of World War I, continuing to peddle the myth that NZ's birthplace as a nation was on the blood-soaked shores of Gallipoli. And while it continued the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process, it somehow failed to acknowledge the obvious, that our national birth pains were not felt on some remote Turkish beach, but much closer to home.
The Ardern Government's move will help correct this.
Historian Vincent O'Malley says at least 70 per cent of our students leave school without any introduction to NZ history. Add to this that at the 2018 Census, 27.4 per cent of people counted were not born here, and is it any surprise that ignorance of our past is so widespread.
In 1943, poet Allen Curnow in his poem The Skeleton of the Great Moa writes, "Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year/Will learn the trick of standing upright here." Teaching children our history brings that marvellous year a little closer.