Our ghosts have never slept: a response to Chris Trotter on the NZ Wars

Let me say upfront that Chris Trotter’s column in the Stuff is far more nuanced than the headline “Sleeping ghosts don’t need to be woken” suggests. He also asks some important questions as to what it may mean for Pākehā to commemorate the New Zealand Wars when faced with the uncomfortable reality of the causes and motivations of our British and Pākehā ancestors in bringing war, death and loss to an entire sovereign nation during the nineteenth century.

He questions which principles Minister Bill English thinks underpinned the stalwart defense of Māori sovereignty in that period, wondering whether it firstly signals a readiness to engage with the Kingi Tūheitia’s call for shared sovereignty by 2025 and secondly if it is an acknowledgement that the New Zealand Wars constitute an international war crime as we understand it today. Trotter asks how this history will be taught and justified to our children and grandchildren. He is bemused by the regret expressed by Minister Maggie Barry, unsure if this signals a change of heart about the eventual victory of Pākehā that saw the systematic dismantling and destruction of Māori society over the next century.

Trotter asks some important questions and is discomforted by the thought that if our narratives in that commemoration reflect any modicum of truth, they will be narratives that question the foundation of Parliament’s sovereignty, question the legitimacy of the foundation of New Zealand society, and lay bare an ugly history people have spent 175 years trying to bury. All of this I can agree with. But his conclusion shook me:

There is a reason why so many of the signposts to old battle sites are weathered and overgrown; why lichen has been allowed to obliterate the names of those who fell.

Sleeping ghosts, like sleeping dogs, should never be needlessly awakened.

If there has ever been two lines written in the modern era that better demonstrate the void between Māori and Pākehā, I’ve not read them. It is a privilege afforded the dominant victor to feign forgetfulness. It is a privilege not extended to any Māori person who has had to opportunity to learn of their history and whakapapa. It is a Pākehā fantasy, created out of need and force of will, that the unjustly killed lay buried and have nothing left to say. Chris Trotter is neither a fool nor an ethnic narcissist, but in his short opinion piece he wears the blinkers still donned by many Pākehā. Whilst he regrets this, he sincerely believes that our Māori ancestors who died in defense of our land have had their names obliterated from the historical record and are now mere bones and dust.

I am a member of Pirirākau, a hapū of Ngāti Ranginui in Tauranga Moana. Our ancestors have been here for a 1,000 years. And as an heir to a proud legacy, I say you cannot awaken that which was never asleep.

My ancestor, Te Pōhio Tahatika joined his parents and older brother in providing succor to horrifically wounded Māori warriors and British soldiers on the day following the 29 April 1864 battle at Pukehinahina. My ancestor Te Kāpaiwaho of Ngāti Rangiwewehi joined Rawiri Puhirake and our Tauranga Moana forces at Te Ranga, and fought and died on 21 June 1864 in an uncompleted pā alongside Māori men, women and children. My ancestor, Joseph Bidois, a member of the Bay of Plenty Cavalry, was one of nine soldiers killed by Te Kooti Arikirangi’s raiding party at Ōpepe near Taupō on 7 June 1869.

The New Zealand Wars are not an historical event or a particularly knotty problem for our national identity to me or to my whānau. The New Zealand Wars are a period in which our ancestors were robbed of their land and economic foundation, fought, died and killed in defense of their land or in service to the British empire, and established, for better but mostly for worse, the foundations of the society we live in today where Māori are still suffering the consequences of losing those wars. Those ancestors are not ghosts; they are alive and guiding, forming and challenging me, my cousins, my relatives and my children. They fought 150 years ago for us; their power, desire and hopes have been passed to us through our whakapapa.

So what will I tell my children on a day to commemorate the New Zealand Wars? What will I tell adult students and learners that I teach about that day? I am not twisted with the discomfort that Trotter demonstrates. I will tell them of my ancestors, their lives and the small role they had in the New Zealand Wars. I will explain what I understand of why they fought and the bigger context regionally and nationally. I will tell them that I wish we had triumphed over the British and Pākehā invaders, but we didn’t. I will tell them that whilst battles were lost by the pen and by the sword, ultimately that victory has been for nought, because we are still here and we retain the same hopes and dreams that our ancestors fought for. And I will say that I agree with Kingi Tūheitia and I want shared sovereignty by 2025.

Finally I would say this on such a commemoration day: if you are Māori and are enraged by what you have learnt, then always push for a greater role for Māori as a Treaty partner nationally, regionally and locally, and never accept less than partnership in the governance of our country, our people, and our environment; if you are Pākehā, then it is appropriate that you feel regret and guilt for crimes committed by our collective Pākehā ancestors, but guilt and regret need to be transformed to a desire to return to a real, living and life-giving Treaty partnership. Conscientized Pākehā must join with Māori and always ask our institutions and leaders what are they are doing to fulfill that vision.

Let a day of commemoration of the New Zealand Wars be the day that we clean the inadequate signposts of their lichen and repair their rot and decay and that we erect new carvings as monuments to ancestors, Māori and Pākehā. Not monuments to ghosts, but mirrors in which we see ourselves and are inspired to heal, repair and grow.


10 thoughts on “Our ghosts have never slept: a response to Chris Trotter on the NZ Wars

  1. I agree with you, Graham: I am Pākehā (of Irish and Roma descent) and count myself as a Māori ally. I am honoured to be your guest in Aotearoa, and in my work as a teacher I endeavour to promote partnership as promised in the te reo Māori version of Te Tiriti/Treaty.

  2. A very good post Graham, I posted it on my Facebook, because we need more communication in Aotearoa.
    I’m pakeha.
    I grew up in a maori community.
    I’m a musician who has played with many brilliant maori musos.
    The people I love most in the world have maori whakapapa.
    The land wars and colonialism were an abomination.
    I completely support the treaty settlements process that can never compensate for the loss of land and mana.
    Last new years I went to Muriwai beach by myself and had bottles thrown at me and told to f off you white trash and go back to whatever bald head country I came from.
    As I was leaving I thought that if I could talk to these people they would be surprised to find out that I actually agree with them and if they feel I was responsible for taking their ancestors land, I would be angry with me to.
    These are my questions;
    1. where do I go back to when my father and grandfather were born here?
    2. given what I’ve just written about the injustices of colonialism, what is my responsibility for the loss of land and mana when I didn’t do it?

    1. Kia ora Harley, thanks for taking time to comment. The first question is relatively straightforward: Pākehā is an identity that has developed in relation to tāngata whenua, te Tiriti o Waitangi and the land, so of course you are from here e hoa. The land you feel under your feet calls and speaks to you in a way that commensurate with what I feel as tangata whenua. So don’t be toppled by the hate of a few.

      But understand their pain. At Muriwai, you just fulfilled a role: a representation of the theft of their own sense of failure and hopelessness. Plus they were drunk and dickheads. There’s that too.

      So what is our responsibility as descendants of Pākehā? Is it only direct descendants of Governor Grey and General Cameron that need feel shame? I think not. The houses I have lived in, the schools I went to, the universities I attended, the workplaces I made a wage in, the beaches I have enjoyed, the mountains I have walked upon, all are upon land taken from tāngata whenua. Every success and triumph of New Zealand society has at it’s foundation the removal of resources and land from the first peoples here. It doesn’t matter if you and I are direct descendants; as Pākehā we have benefited from Māori loss. It behooves us to acknowledge that and to seek to redress the balance. But don’t walk around weeping and gnashing teeth; support tāngata whenua, join movements for justice and learn more (particularly te reo Māori). That’s how we will rebalance.

    2. Thanks for your reply Graham, because I have asked this question to other Māori over the years and no one has answered it.

      Yes I understand as Pākehā I have benefited from Māori loss.

      I acknowledge that and seek to redress the balance where I can.

      “But don’t walk around weeping and gnashing teeth” – that’s nice that you’ve said that because I think some Pākehā racism arises out of guilt.

      I support tāngata whenua and movements for justice and am picking up te reo little by little.

      This is the sort of respectful, mature conversation we need between people, information and communication cures racism.

      I have a friend who sounds racist sometimes, but he’s not really a racist, and when I posted about Parihaka he was outraged.

      This is why I wrote when I shared your post on my timeline;

      “I cannot understand why Aotearoa New Zealand history is not taught in schools – or on public tv.

      Ignorance breeds resentment as awareness brings understanding.

      The “New Zealand Wars” is a misnomer, they should really be called “The Great Land Rip Off!” ”



  3. I keep hearing how “grown up” we have become as a nation. This is a bit of a setback for those complacent/complicit enough to believe that. Thank you for a dose of truth and clarity Mr Cameron; something that has been in relatively short supply.

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