Looking to our past to understand the present

Te Herenga Waka —Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Liana MacDonald hopes her research into teaching iwi histories in the Marlborough region will contribute to reshaping Aotearoa New Zealand history curriculum in schools.

Liana, (Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne o Wairau, Ngāti Koata) is a lecturer in the School of Education and says her latest research was inspired by her time spent as a research fellow on the Marsden-funded project He Taonga te Wareware?: Remembering and Forgetting Difficult Histories in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

That project is led by School of Education Professor Joanna Kidman and historian Dr Vincent O’Malley and looks at how New Zealanders remember and forget difficult events in their colonial past, and why some conflicts are publicly remembered while others may be forgotten or overlooked.

Liana contributed to the research by visiting historic sites around New Zealand and recording how these locations of major significance were being presented in contemporary times, and how she personally responded to the sites.

The experience showed her how poorly many sites are sign posted and acknowledged, which made her consider how she could have an impact on the knowledge of future New Zealanders through our curriculum.

As a result, Liana applied for a grant to complete research that looks at how schools and iwi can work better together to incorporate iwi perspectives into the curriculum. It will also investigate what is referred to as “uncanny pedagogies”, which can be described as “teaching approaches that invoke the ‘flickering moment of embroilment in the experience of something at once strange and familiar’”.

“It’s to do with the way that indigenous memories of colonial violence have been suppressed by our society,” she explains.

“But what happens when we open up those memories. How does that affect our individual and collective psyche?”

Liana is conducting her research alongside Dr Peter Meihana, a senior lecturer in Māori history at Massey University. The research is based around an eight-week unit with year nine and ten students from Marlborough Girls’ College and includes field trips to the sites of former battlegrounds such as the Wairau Affray.

“We are going to different sites. Peter is telling the history and I’m collecting data about what’s happening through his teaching process. There will also be follow-up data from the girls to track how they’re experiencing and responding to learning about these difficult histories,” Liana says.

“A pre-test with the class and interviews with some students revealed that they knew very little about New Zealand history. I knew they wouldn’t know much but I was surprised at how absolutely little they knew. Like zilch in many cases.

“A handful of Māori students go along to iwi wānanga outside of school, so they had some understanding.”

Liana, who worked as an English and Social Studies teachers for 11 years, says the students were fascinated by the first field trip, which focused on pre-colonial histories of continuing significance to mana whenua. The second trip would likely be more confronting.

“The next one will involve places associated with colonial violence – the Wairau Affray, the Wairau reserves and other sites that can be emotionally uncomfortable and difficult for teachers and students.”

In her PhD, Liana argued that the school system is set up to reinforce the view that “we have transcended these violent colonial histories”.

At the same time, she says there is a feeling among many New Zealanders that our history doesn’t affect peoples’ lives today and there is a level of animosity and ignorance underpinning the view that Māori who speak up about ongoing colonial harm are troublemakers.

“These histories are so closely wedded to power and wealth inequalities, and injustice in our society,” she says.

“If we had an understanding of our history, how they impact society today, and why things are still so unsettled for many indigenous communities, Kiwis might be more inclined to support decisions to bridge that inequality.”

She points to the huge disparities in terms of Māori incarceration rates, health outcomes, achievement in school and suicide rates that can be attributed to colonisation.

Liana hopes to have the research completed by the end of next year and says her involvement with the Marsden project highlighted significant reasons for these inequities.

“It’s one thing to understand how racism and oppression operate and another thing to do the mahi to mitigate it. We need to do things differently to how they have been previously done and forefronting iwi and hapū perspectives of local history is a start.

“This research explores one way that we might speak back to some of the racism in our school system, and that gives me hope. However, we have a long way to go before we can actually claim to be the fair and equitable society that many imagine ourselves to be.”