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.

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