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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

ĀteaNovember 20, 2023

Taonga tuku iho: How a new curriculum brings Māori history to the fore

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Schools are encouraged to work with local iwi and hapū so students learn history that’s locally relevant to them, is open to different interpretations and isn’t so rigidly focused on the past.

With our nation’s new history curriculum becoming mandatory this year, generations to come are set to be raised with deeper understandings of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s history than their parents or grandparents received. Part of that deeper historical understanding is a view more inclusive of Māori and more honest about colonisation. To get a grip on what all this will entail, The Spinoff spoke to an iwi historian and a history kaiako.

The problem with western history – and how Māori history is different

Western history is an academic field founded on cultural supremacy, says Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei historian Joe Pihema. It has an absolutist view of there being only “one truth and one viewpoint” and is rigid in its focus on the past, leaving the future and the present up to sociology and political science to speculate on. “The only way that you can break Pākehā from this particular philosophy is to show them the different elements of Māori history,” says Pihema.

Joe Pihema (Photo: supplied, additional design: Tina Tiller)

Māori history is often conceptualised as “kōrero tuku iho“, roughly translating to narratives gifted down. History was traditionally passed down orally, hence the word kōrero. However, social studies and history kaiako Kārena Ngata – kaiarahi Māori for the New Zealand History Teachers Association – prefers “taonga tuku iho“, or treasures gifted down. This approach “serves to remind us of our Te Tiriti obligations to support the right of tāngata whenua to define, protect and determine what happens to their taonga”, Ngata says. It also counters oral source dominance by acknowledging that taonga like whakairo are not just narrative prompts but repositories and transmitters of knowledge in their own right. 

Since oral sources were what early Pākehā researchers could access, understand and record, they have dominated our history. Those researchers “were often not able to access the mātauranga carried within our tangible taonga, our whakairo, tukutuku and kōwhaiwhai, for example, and so these have been marginalised as historical sources of information”, says Ngata.

Within taonga tuku iho, the past, present and future converge and subjectivity is accepted. Māori acknowledge that being members of certain whānau, hapū, iwi and waka influences their historical understanding. Different rōpū remember the same people, places and portions of the past differently. “There is an ability to accept other people’s views, other people’s truths about a point in history,” says Pihema. In a way, it’s looking at the past through a “let’s agree to disagree” lens. 

Carvers at work at Te Puia Cultural Centre, Rotorua. Whakairo is a repository and transmitter of knowledge in its own right. (Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Pihema gives the example of two Tāmaki Makaurau iwi, Ngāti Te Ata and Ngāti Whātua. “It’s really important that we’re able to accept that our view on the same kaupapa, the same piece of land, the same event, may vary.” The two iwi have different historical understandings about Maungawhau, for example. “But when we do meet, there’s an ability to agree that some things are common ground and other spaces are quite different,” he says. “Now that’s quite different from a western point of view, where there is only one fact or one honest truth.” 

How will this come through in the curriculum?

To authentically incorporate mātauranga Māori in our teaching programmes, learning must be “co-constructed, place-based, cross-curricular and experiential”, says Ngata. She gives the example of a heritage hīkoi co-designed with mana whenua incorporating history, tikanga and mita alongside an ecological study, including, for instance, biosecurity issues. 

Ngata – who helped develop the new NCEA history curriculum – also says, “We need to move away from teaching a programme centred on just a few well-resourced contexts.” Instead, a deeper and more critical understanding of “big ideas” (like how power dynamics steer history’s course) and making content locally relevant to ākonga is crucial. Relevant content helps students “connect to their own power – their own mana – to address injustice and help to effect change in their own communities”, explains Ngata.

A graphic explaining the foundation of the new history curriculum.
The foundation of the new history curriculum, from the Ministry of Education website

To ensure content is locally relevant, Ngata advocates for mātauranga ā-hapū/ā-iwi to take prevalence over homogenised mātauranga Māori, so local history about schools’ areas and ahikā are brought to the fore. Each school has the scope to teach extremely localised history, relevant to their region, city/town, suburb, school, communities and tāngata whenua. This approach requires schools to construct mutually beneficial relationships with mana whenua. “It’s their tikanga, their reo, their narratives that should take priority over any generic mātauranga Māori resourcing,” notes Ngata.

But Pihema warns against “brownwashing” history content by talking to the wrong groups. “You’re not speaking to mana whenua in speech marks – but you’re talking to the ahikā of that particular piece of land and that area,” explains Pihema. “If you’re not talking to the ahikā, all you are doing is recreating a colonial process which is stifling and hindering the flow of an authentic indigenising process,” he adds. “The key thing is ensuring that you’re speaking to the right storytellers and then you’re also able to sit with confidence.” 

However, Ngata explains, “Some mana whenua groups have the infrastructure, capacity and means to meet the demand that the new curriculum places on them, whereas others do not.” Since the education ministry set up this compulsory curriculum – expected to be taught in a Te Tiriti-honouring way – the ministry must fund and resource it appropriately so tāngata whenua can interact with it while exercising their tino rangatiratanga, says Ngata.

How the curriculum will help honour Te Tiriti

Ngata says the new curriculum “has the potential to be a big part of how we move forward in a way that honours Te Tiriti”. Pihema agrees, saying, “For this nation to move forward, we actually have to sit down and have an honest conversation about us as a people, the events that happened in the past and how those particular events created the people that we are today.” He argues those honest conversations will enable mokopuna to better understand their identity, adding, “It’s that old kind of Socrates moment, know thyself, eh? You’ve got to know your own history.”

“Honouring Te Tiriti is understanding you’re in a relationship,” adds Ngata. If one party can’t speak or even pronounce the other’s language, only superficially understands their values and experiences and is unwilling to share power, it shows they lack commitment to that relationship, she says. Power-sharing relationships “might be tricky, might take time and effort, and you may have to learn things, but this is what’s required of kaiako and kura in Aotearoa in 2023”, she says. “I think it is wise for schools to prioritise building their understanding of what honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi looks like in their context, so that they are equipped to move beyond tokenism and break this harmful cycle of Te Tiriti grievance, redress and reconciliation, followed by another grievance.” 

Protesters on Waitangi Day in 2007 (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The role of kaiako and kura

Although Ngata argues that kaiako and kura have a professional responsibility to actively support and protect tino rangatiratanga, schools should start by looking introspectively. “There is preparatory work that needs to be done before engaging with mana whenua so that you can come into that relationship with the tools you need to engage with them equitably.” She says te reo Māori courses and reading up on Waitangi Tribunal mahi plus Treaty settlement historical accounts are good places to start.  

English-medium teachers have varying levels of cultural competence when working with Māori history, says Ngata, who explains, “some are aware of the principles that should inform engagement with taonga tuku iho, whereas others are just starting on this journey”. Either way, tāngata whenua are the experts of their knowledge, and Te Tiriti affirms their tino rangatiratanga over taonga. “Gone are the days where kaiako are the fount of all knowledge”, says Ngata. Instead, they must collaborate and network with tāngata whenua, becoming what Ngata calls “more of a guide on the side… and very importantly, tāngata tiriti – a power-sharing, supportive ally”.

Bringing tauiwi along

“I think it’s important to reindigenise history,” says Pihema, “because often it’s local, it’s authentic, and it gives people a point of connection, particularly non-Māori who are reading the history for the first time”. He and his iwi – Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei – say it is vital to bring tauiwi along for the decolonisation ride. “If we don’t take Pākehā on this journey of the indigenisation of history, then what we have is a standoff between the different historical viewpoints,” Pihema says. He argues that learning local history allows tauiwi to build their own identity unique to Aotearoa-New Zealand. “Not only is the reindigenisation of history critical for Māori communities, but it’s also crucial for our non-indigenous communities so they can make strong, local connections,” says Pihema. “There’s an opportunity here to take tauiwi with us, to help them to create rich and deep local connections that can provide them with spaces to build their identity as well.”

Pihema has some guidance for New Zealanders keen to engage with taonga tuku iho and our colonial history. Firstly, “Ensure that the storyteller is authentically and uniquely placed to tell that story.” Next comes truth-telling: “The second step is to unbundle and peel away the layers of colonial and academic kōrero that have hindered an indigenous narrative being able to breathe, be enjoyed and engaged in,” he says. Last comes “the confidence to be with the people who own the kōrero, to socialise the kōrero along with them”. 

When it comes to the role kaiako and kura can play, Ngata says, “Moana Jackson reminded us that treaties are meant to be honoured, not settled, and I think many of us in education are not only ready to listen to his wisdom but to act on it.” 

For more details about the new history curriculum, read these stories by Don Rowe and Airana Ngarewa. To learn more about the Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei mission to reindigenise the history of Tāmaki Makaurau-Auckland, click hereOr read how a group of Māori educationalists in the Rotorua District are advocating for ākonga and kaiako to engage with Taonga Tuku Iho.

This is Public Interest Journalism supported by NZ On Air.

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