The folk story of NZ history, as told by drunk uncles, bores and columnists

Why the strange fixation with broadcasters using te reo? Probably because it raises questions about the legitimacy of the country they imagine themselves to live in, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.

I have this theory about Māori Language Week and the outrage it routinely provokes from a mostly older, mostly Pakeha subset of the population; outrage that reached its apotheosis last week with Dave Witherow’s instantly infamous column in the Otago Daily Times.

Witherow began:

“Maori Language Week, now a permanent annual fixture, is one of those occasions when our determination to give no offence blossoms into the urge to grovel. This year was the best yet, with media apologists the length and breadth of the land prostrating themselves before the holy altar of te reo. Radio New Zealand took the prize, in a seven-day fiesta of cringing servility that, were Billy T James still with us, would have provided him with material forever.”

And went on and on in similar vein. It’s easy to dismiss the column as racist, and Witherow has anticipated this response by citing Billy T James in his opening paragraph and expressed his anger at the number of Māori children living in poverty. “How,” he wants us to ask ourselves, “could anyone who likes Billy T and dislikes ethnic poverty possibly be racist? Checkmate!”

A few years ago I was reading a novel set in Tudor England and it struck me how odd it was that I knew a huge amount about that historical period, having studied it for an entire year in history at secondary school, but I knew absolutely nothing about life in New Zealand during that same era. My awareness of pre-contact Aotearoa was just a blank.

If you took school history back in the late 1980s and early 90s – it was an optional subject – you probably didn’t get much New Zealand history. We studied the origins of the first world war, Israel/Palestine, the civil rights movement in the US, Weimar Germany and the Third Reich. The only New Zealand component I remember was about the establishment of the New Zealand welfare state. If you wanted New Zealand history you needed to seek it out, which some did – Keith Sinclair’s History of New Zealand was a bestseller – but many didn’t.

In that vacuum I think many Pākehā absorbed what I call the folk story of New Zealand history, an oral history perpetuated by drunken uncles at summer barbecues, bores holding forth in work tea-rooms and, well, columnists and cartoonists in provincial newspapers.

It begins with Cook discovering New Zealand in the mid eighteenth century. The Māori were already here but only in the sense that the trees and the mountains were here. Also, Māori were cannibals! Musket wars. Warrior genes. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in which the Māori chiefs agreed to the establishment, legitimacy and sovereignty of a white colonial nation-state. Some Māori tried to renege on this just arrangement and were properly dealt with. Waves of settlers – our hard-working, ingenious and egalitarian ancestors – then built a modern country with ingenious western technology – “Which we gave to the Māoris!” – by clearing and making productive all of the empty, unused land. The Māori relationship to the state is parasitical, bludging off the rest either through the welfare system or the “treaty grievance process”.

There are some variants to this story. Sometimes they involve the Moriori, who supposedly occupied New Zealand before the Māori but were exterminated by them, surviving only in the Chatham Islands; others involve alternative pre-Māori civilisations. The Chinese. “Aryans.” Ancient Egyptians! The Celts! Others call the content or legitimacy of the Treaty into doubt. The subtext of all these theories being that Māori have no privileged claim to be the first and legitimate occupants of the land or any legitimate grounds for redress.

All histories serve an ideological purpose. The conservative philosopher Leo Strauss argued that modern nation states are based on a noble lie: that the state itself is legitimate and came to occupy its territory lawfully, and the folk history accomplishes this beautifully.

But the assertion of te reo threatens that story because it’s proof of the existence of an older civilisation that occupied the entire country prior to the current one, raising questions about its legitimacy. You can live in Otago and never think twice about the history of the area; you can talk about Lake Wakatipu and Oamaru and Timaru every day for decades and never wonder what the names mean, or where they come from unless you’re having te reo “rammed down your throat” by Radio New Zealand broadcasters reminding us that these names have meaning: that they represent a deep and secret history of a land many prefer to think has no history; they are evidence that our country is a much older and more complicated place than we like to think.

Dave Witherow and a fish (foreground).

Witherow claims that RNZ “is supposed to be free of political meddling”. Bless his little head for believing this. RNZ is the state broadcaster; its job is nation building, a deeply political project. Nowadays part of that job is to perpetuate an alternative to the Pākehā folk history, a modern liberal consensus in which injustices were done in the past and everyone acknowledges this, but are being remedied in the present via processes like the Waitangi Tribunal and the state promotion of te reo, so that we can march into the future, together as one people with no recrimination or guilt.

Just as Witherow is upset by the challenge of te reo, he challenges the notion that there’s a modern consensus, which – I think – is one reason people are so upset at him. People like Witherow and Don Brash don’t form a very sophisticated challenge, though. Knowledge of te reo is much more prevalent in the new generation of New Zealanders: groups of Pākehā children singing “Happy Birthday” to each other in te reo while their parents awkwardly mouth the words is a routine sight, at least on the Wellington birthday circuit. It will be hard to convince these generations of the merits of cultural and historical amnesia: hard to convince them they should simply forget what the names and stories of their own country mean, especially if that knowledge is accompanied by a story of injustice made right, and unaccompanied by any guilt. A much more palatable and robust noble lie.


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