November 14, 2021

Ngāpuhi Speaks and government history websites

By Dr Susan Nemec

Recently, I was a co-facilitator of a reading group that discussed Ngāpuhi Speaks, an independent report summarising Ngāpuhi evidence from the initial hearing of their 2014 Waitangi Tribunal claim.  Written by a group of independent observers of the hearing, it records and comments on the oral histories of Ngāpuhi kaumatua and kuia, and the contributions of Māori historians and academics.

The reading group participants read and discussed over several weeks the historiographies of the various events that led up to the 1835 He Whakaputanga (the Declaration of Independence- officially acknowledged by Britain on 25 May 1836), and its intrinsic links to a subsequent treaty signed at Waitangi with the British Crown in 1840. Te Tiriti essentially built on He Whakaputanga, rather than replacing it, and many Ngāpuhi rangatira signed both.

Māori understood te Tiriti o Waitangi (also known as the Treaty of Waitangi, the formalised version of the English language draft)  as a treaty based on the continuing assertion of Māori independence and sovereignty, a concern for ongoing peace and stability and the advancing of their trading interests , together with a basis for a sharing of power and authority (Māori Law Review, 2014). All of the Ngāpuhi claimants dismissed the English version as irrelevant, because it was neither understood nor signed by their tūpuna. The weight of the evidence presented at the Ngāpuhi hearing led to a declaration by the Waitangi Tribunal in November 2014 that the signatories of te Tiriti o Waitangi did not cede sovereignty.

This was the second time our Ngāpuhi Speaks reading group had been run and like previous times, many participants confronted the myth that Māori voluntarily ceded their sovereignty in te Tiriti o Waitangi. This myth still pervades Pākehā discourses about the constitution and national identity, and implies that Māori loss of land and mana was simply a result of misunderstandings of the meaning of sovereignty between the English version and the Māori text.

During our 10 weekly meetings, as various members read the chapters of  Ngāpuhi Speaks, with some doing a little independent internet research, we found discrepancies between what we were reading and what was written on government websites such as NZ History and Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. These official sites fail to engage with Māori history, law, and motivations for signing te Tiriti, which further legitimises the current exercise of the Crown’s sovereignty.

This myth that the treaty ceded sovereignty is also part of a broader narrative. It supports the continued reluctance of Pākehā to engage with the violent realities of colonisation. It also makes it difficult for Pākehā to engage in genuine conversations about how the treaty should be reflected in constitutional arrangements.

The Government history websites are preoccupied with narratives of mistranslations of the Treaty. Te Ara in its section Nga Take Maori – government policy and Māori blithely explains, after briefly describing the different translations, that these differing understandings eventually led to warfare.

How can mistranslations and misunderstandings justify the Crown’s land acquisitions under laws such as the Native Land Act (1862,1865) and the NZ Settlement Act (1863), its violence and invasions, its imposition of institutions, laws and values, and its attack, as Moana Jackson describes, “on the indigenous soul”? The 1835 Declaration of Independence was acknowledged by the British Crown, and Māori rangatira never signed the English version. They most certainly would never have signed away their mana as to do so would have been politically untenable and culturally incomprehensible (Jackson, 2014).

An example of how the NZ history website fudges Māori history in its description of what rangatira understood they were signing in te Tiriti is an unsubstantiated statement says, “some Māori believed they were giving up government over their lands but retaining the right to manage their own affairs”. After reading Ngāpuhi Speaks, we found the way this site glossed over the context of He Whakaputanga, and Māori understandings of te Tiriti o Waitangi, misleading, especially after the Waitangi Tribunal in 2014 had affirmed the evidence of the Ngāpuhi hearing.

Using another example from the Waitangi Tribunal’s consideration of Ngāpuhi evidence, there is clearly a need to update discussions of what are called the Principles of the Treaty. While the Tribunal’s empowering legislation binds it to consider the treaty as comprising of two texts, in deliberating on Ngāpuhi evidence, the Tribunal still considered that the Māori text should be given “special weight … in establishing the treaty’s meaning and effect” because it was the text that was signed and understood by the rangatira. They also stated that “in the case of any ambiguity between the two texts”, “significant weight” should be placed on the Māori text. This emphasis on the Māori text is evident in the Tribunal’s overall findings about Māori sovereignty, and arguably should be applied to discussions of the Principles of the Treaty found in the NZ History webpage about differences between the text in te reo and the English version. This website is also another example of the way the signing of the treaty is described without the context of He Whakaputanga, and without mentioning that no rangatira signed the English version on February 6, 1840 and that Captain Hobson, signing on behalf of the Crown, signed Te Tiriti, the Māori text.

We found further examples of the whitewashing of Māori historical narratives in the depiction of Busby’s role in He Whakaputanga and the choice of the Māori flag. While he facilitated the international recognition of  both the Declaration and the flag, the NZ history website does not acknowledge that it was the rangatira who debated and recrafted the Declaration at a council of chiefs (te Whakaminenga) and it was the rangatira who initiated the flag.

Ngāpuhi Speaks records that Busby wrote a draft Declaration in English, which was translated into Māori by Henry Williams. It was the desire of the rangatira to have their mana internationally recognised that led to conversations with Busby and others. Rangitira took Busby’s draft and after much discussion within te Whakaminenga the text was re-drafted.  The subsequent document, He Whakaputanga, was signed by 34 rangatira on October 28, and another 18 around the motu in the next four years. The Tribunal found that because only He Whakaputanga was debated, and only he Whakaputanga was signed, the Māori text must be seen as authoritative. However, the NZ history website ignores the extent of Māori involvement and agency.

Turning to Busby’s role in the United Tribes Flag, Te Ara firmly places Busby as being the initiator of the idea and design of a flag in response to the ship George Murray (partly owned by Māori) being seized in Sydney for not being registered. As New South Wales was the major trading market for Māori, boats were subject to British navigation laws which included flying a flag.

Nothing could be further from the Ngāpuhi account of the choosing of the flag. Ngāpuhi chiefs went to Sydney in 1831 and asked the authorities to allow Māori trading ships to fly a flag that would be internationally recognised.  The rangatira, Patuone and Taonui, had three examples of flags made up, brought them back from Sydney, and presented them to all the rangatira to make a decision.

How can there be such varying accounts of historical events? Underlying Pākehā attitudes of colonial superiority and the placing of the colonist as the protagonist in the story of Aotearoa, drive the narrative in favour of the colonist. Māori academic Manuka Henare observes that New Zealand historiography tends to see events as individual and unconnected. A Māori approach places events within a longer narrative and weaves in the context of various events and the stream of ideas around at the time. A position of cultural superiority sees the colonial narrative of history foregrounded.

It is concerning that these official government websites, and the colonising discourse they articulate, are used by students and teachers in schools and tertiary education and anyone interested in NZ History.  To  my mind the narratives of many of these sites reads as if it is Māori who are the antagonists in history. Sites such as the ones I have discussed have a continued role in shaping the paradigms and discourses of our society’s institutions and structures, and the everyday attitudes of civil society.

We should all challenge these government educational websites to include new Māori histories that have been incorporated into Waitangi Tribunal hearings. Such histories should be included into the continued shaping of our nation’s historical narrative.

September 14, 2021

Playing fast and loose with New Zealand history

Letter to the New Zealand Listener, February 7, 2021

I want to draw attention to several revealing flaws in John Robinson’s carefully crafted argument that all persons living in New Zealand should be treated as if they were the same (Becoming One People, Listener, February 6). Firstly, he blithely assumes that the nineteenth century model of ‘nation’ that underpinned European nationalism then and into recent times, works universally. With others who espouse such homogenisation, he promotes that specific cultural model as the only possibility. And, like those others, displays the colonising mindset that considered it proper to superimpose foreign practices and institutions while pushing indigenous peoples aside. History’s judgement will be that this model has routinely fostered rancour and division in Europe and wherever it has been imposed. In Aotearoa New Zealand we should all be looking for new possibilities that do not require peoples to surrender their cultural identity just to be accepted and respected.

Secondly, Robinson grossly misrepresents the northern Rangatira’s call for the British king to control his people as requesting British intervention in “the explosion of tribal fighting”.  Such fighting had always been resolved, as this eventually was, within Māori tikanga, whereas the King’s trouble-making people were setting themselves above and apart from Māori authority. As part of his argument, he provides a high-end guess at the number of deaths caused by the musket wars.  There are major difficulties with any such estimate, caused by the uncertainty about the total Māori population in 1800 and the tendency of British to overestimate both the number of Māori involved in such fighting and the extent of their casualties.

Thirdly, Robinson depicts Governor Grey as responding to aggression. Yes, he did erect a monument to Rewi Maniapoto, but Grey began his second term as Governor determined to destroy the Kingitanga because he saw it as resisting British sovereignty. To that end his reports to London constantly talked of threats to Auckland, enhancing the credibility of those threats with exaggerated accounts of raids. Troops and finance from Britain enabled him to create a supply route, the Great South Road, and as it neared completion, he demanded Māori living on their land, in what is now Franklin, to surrender their arms and sign an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria or leave and join the Kingitanga.  The evidence is clear; Grey and his settler parliament were the aggressors, and subsequent governments have done little more than to occasionally assist Maori to assimilate into the ‘one people’ Robinson espouses.

Raymond Nairn

September 12, 2021

TTW letter to the NZ Listener July 2021

This Listener chose not to print this letter.

July 27, 2021
The Editor, New Zealand Listener

As scientists ourselves we disagree with the attack on mātauranga Māori effected under the cloak provided by a claim to be writing ‘In defence of science’ (July 31, 2021). Central to the practice of the science, that the writers claim is universal, is the strict separation of the scientist from the object, topic or reality being studied. That disjunction between practitioners and what they studied contributed to an explosion of technological advances across Western Europe and those advances aided the exploitation and colonization of other countries and peoples. As if buoyed by those triumphs, the separation of the (would-be) knowers from what they sought to know about became the hallmark of a science expected to deliver universal truths about the natural world, its peoples and societies.

Coupled with a readiness to constantly subdivide and isolate elements of the complex systems being studied this science simply ignored and, for the most part, continues to ignore, the role of scientists and other humans in those dynamic systems. The result is that the very practice expected to provide reliable knowledge creates a distortion because this form of science assumes that practitioners can step apart from the human activity of which they are necessarily part.

In marked contrast, through disciplined observation and experiment mātauranga Māori, and other systems for systematically studying how the world, physical, natural, and social works, recognise our human participation in and relationships with other parts of the complex, dynamic systems that we so desperately need to understand.

Dr Raymond Nairn
67/1381 Dominion Rd Ext,
Mt Roskill, Auckland 1041

Dr Susan Healy
81/38 Golf Road
New Lynn, Auckland 0600
On behalf of Tamaki Treaty Workers

April 29, 2016

Modernism and the colonisation of New Zealand

Colonisation of NZ falls within the era of modernist project(s) and also at a late stage of British imperialism, when both the techniques and justifications were well-established. This accounts for a lot of settler attitudes and actions. For example, assumptions about their own superiority and entitlements were not thought of as questionable, but as knowledge. Somewhat garbled Darwinism was rife. The English were the fittest, and therefore destined for survival, at the expense of ‘inferior’ humans and all other species. Self-appointed scientists, all over Europe and North America, pursued the study of extinction as an interesting and inevitable phenomenon.

Buller and his ilk sent thousands of the skins and skeletons of birds back to the Natural History Museums of Europe, in Buller’s case this included the shooting of the last Huia. Read the rest of this entry »

July 20, 2014

Colonial Street Names… Fenton Street

I remember buzzing along that big main road in Rotorua, Fenton Street, and idly wondering where the name came from. Well, I’ve just done a spot of research so now I know.


Francis Dart Fenton was a lawyer who became the first judge of the Native Land Court under the legislation of 1865. This Act put in place what was needed for the direct purchase of land – putting land into individual title. Recognising that huge numbers of acres hand been wrongly confiscated, the Court’s early task was the return of that land, but whereas the land had previously been communally held, and administered by rangatira, it was returned in individual title.
June 18, 2014

Colonial street names… Cameron Street

General Sir Duncan Cameron, who led the Highland Brigade at Balaclava during the Crimean War, arrived in New Zealand to lead the army assembled by Governor Grey. Made up of British troops, various volunteer settlers, and some “friendly” Māori  (fall-out from divide and rule tactics).
February 12, 2014

White-washing History with Monuments

This land war monument stands on Symonds St, Auckland, in a triangle of grass and trees at the top of Wakefield Street. As I recall, the lady used to be holding up a laurel wreath, which must have fallen victim to protest or student humor.

ss monument 3

symond street monument

When I first encountered it I should think I must have been five years old. I was excited to be in a city where even the buildings had writing on them! I was into reading in a big way, and my patient mother was no doubt glad of a few minutes to pause in front of a whole page of challenge.

Read the rest of this entry »

October 11, 2013

Colonial Myths: ‘He iwi kotahi tātou’

On 6th February 1840, Governor Hobson is reported to have first proclaimed the famous words “he iwi kotahi tātou” to Māori rangatira as they signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi. These words have often been translated to mean ‘we are one people’ and have had an enduring impact on our colonial relationships.


Read the rest of this entry »