Radio New Zealand has released a 30-minute documentary on the battle at Ruapekapeka, an incredibly sophisticated pā in the far north where 400 Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine warriors stood against a combined British force of 1600. Don Rowe attends the premiere, and considers what it means for New Zealand’s self-image.
There are good guys in this story and there are bad guys in this story. And for Pākehā New Zealand, the bad guys look a lot like us.
Maybe it’s a matter of seeing the underdog bloody the nose of an invading force for once. If your sensibilities are shaken by the image of a soldier brained by a wahine at Ruapekapeka, consider the 200 dead Ngā Puhi, and 100-odd years of economic hardship and inattention from a central government they never ceded sovereignty to in the first place. After viewing the documentary it’s hard not to.
This is our history and this is who we are. While uncomfortable, this knowledge ultimately makes us better. The only way forward is through acknowledgement of the injustices tangata whenua have faced for two hundred years. You to have to acknowledge the primary reason Māori are over-represented in our worst statistics is a history of fucked up treatment at the hands of the British Crown – at the time, as The Stories of Ruapekapeka reinforces, the world’s most dominant superpower.
There were tears at last night’s premiere of The Stories of Ruapekapeka from RNZ’s Carol Hirschfield and Mihingarangi Forbes. It was hard to tell in the dark but there were probably some from John Campbell too.
Kelvin Davis spoke, his first public appearance as Minister for Crown and Māori Relations (and, significantly, Corrections). Davis has ties to Ruapekapeka, as well as being the MP for Te Tai Tokerau.
The body of work is a testament to the rebirth of RNZ, and an affirmation of the value of Labour’s plan to pump $38m in additional annual funding into the service. The animations aren’t groundbreaking, this isn’t 300 just yet, but to see the ingenuity of Land Wars-era Māori brought to life is to marvel at their intellect, their strategy and their capability. Tying in augmented reality, live-action and text articles makes the overall package a serious body of work.
Mihingarangi Forbes is the perfect host, empathetic to the subject material, articulate, and surprisingly badass – there are some obvious parallels when it’s revealed the women at Ruapekapeka were directly involved in battle, finishing off injured soldiers and even defusing live mortars to harvest gunpowder.
But beyond the blood and glory, this is ultimately about the process of healing; recognition and reconciliation, not alienation or resentment. I felt guilty watching Stories of Ruapekapeka – not because I have some direct involvement in what went down, but for subconsciously disregarding the very real and present hurt that still pervades our communities. This is living history.
The Stories of Ruapekapeka asks questions of us all: How could this have happened? What else went down? And perhaps most importantly, why have we never heard of this?
Expect to see more – and the country to be better for it.
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