Awakened by a need to understand Aotearoa’s forgotten history after hearing the stories of kuia and kaumātua whose ancestors fought and died at Ōrākau and Rangiaowhia, Leah Bell and Waimarama Anderson collected 13,000 signatures to commemorate the New Zealand Wars. 

Four years on, they reflect on that journey and the impact of the petition they took to Parliament.

In March 2014, 189 pupils from Ōtorohanga College took five buses to nearby Rangiaowhia and Orakau where they sat on the side of a dusty road and they listened to the stories of kaumātua and kuia whose ancestors had fought 150 years earlier in the New Zealand Wars. 

Leah Bell – who was  14 at the time – describes her shock at hearing those stories for the first time at these unmarked battle sites. 

“We were looking at the ground in shame. There we were surrounded by bugs and dust and it was crazy to think that people had died there, that history had been covered up. There was this shared sense of horror that this offence had occurred in our own country in our great-grandparents’ time,” says Leah Bell.

One of the most horrifying stories they heard on the day was about the raid on Rangiaowhia, when buildings were burned, killing those trapped inside. 

The dawning realisation that a part of New Zealand’s dark history lay just 30 minutes from their school only compounded their shock – especially given that they were learning about atrocities from much further afield. 

“It was really hard for us to understand that we were learning about people being burnt alive in churches in America during the Civil War, but, not far from our school, it had happened to our people.

“In America and Germany, they remember their history in its fullness, they honour it and they understand that history has made them. We’re such a forward-thinking country, but we’re not educated about who we are as a people. It feels like we just take the pretty bits,” says Leah Bell.  

Fueled by this burning desire to share, remember and acknowledge our nation’s stories, the two pupils set about the task of collecting the thousands of signatures for a petition requesting a national day of remembrance.

The tautoko (support) of Kiingi Tuuheitia, Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta, Tainui and iwi further afield helped to kick-start the petition, though Leah and Waimarama concede that undertaking this task was something they were woefully unprepared for. 

Their initial optimism about collecting signatures over the internet quickly faded, so they took to the streets, community halls, shopping centres, festivals, golf courses and kura.  

It was hard to keep going. We really didn’t know what we had started,” says Leah. 

Thanks to their grit and perseverance, the group of fellow students grew to include Tai Te Ariki Jones and Rhiannon Magee – and these four pupils gathered, vetted, and verified all 13,000 signatures.


Caption: Presentation of the petition at parliament, 8 December 2015. Credit: Courtesy of the NZ Labour Party. 

“We were treated in a very adult manner. We had to grow up a lot. Every one of the 13,000 signatures was hard won. Each signature represents a conversation and through this we realised that we had started a conversation about our own history.”

Leah Bell 

 

In some respects, the thousands of curbside conversations prepared them for a much a larger conversation around the importance of remembrance in nation building. 

Indeed, at the Māori Affairs select committee in March 2016 following the presentation of the petition to Parliament, the two pupils faced some big questions around our colonial country’s future.  During the hour-long hearing, the panel asked all number of questions, including: “If this day goes ahead, what will this nation look like in 25 years?”

“I answered this nation will be a peaceful, honest, united, and conscious country,” says Waimarama.

In 2016, her wish was honoured, when it was announced by the Crown that a national day of commemoration would go ahead with $4 million to help support events nationwide.

On the first commemoration day (He Rā Maumahara), Waimarama, Leah and Zak Henry – a stalwart supporter of the commemoration day from its inception - spent three days at Korerāreka (Russell) where they visited battle sites, addressed a youth forum, and gave a speech at the commemoration and spoke about their journey to mark this day. 

During the New Zealand Wars (1845–72), Waikato was home to five major battles, and throughout the country many battles took place, taking the lives of over 150,000 people. A commemoration day is a chance for people from across the country to reflect on these conflicts. 

For Leah and Waimarama, sharing these stories and starting those difficult conversations at street-side sausage sizzles and continuing them on a nationwide stage has moved forward their intention to honour their past. 

The larger kaupapa of creating a dialogue about our history is something they feel will be done through many, many more conversations – in school halls, dining rooms, radio stations, and on marae – for many years to come. 

"It's hugely humbling to have been involved with the establishment of the New Zealand Wars commemoration and while it may have been initiated by us, we were really carrying a kaupapa that was bigger than we were. History enables you to know who you are, it grounds you. I am excited to see historians, like Vincent O’Malley  and Dr Tim Roa, and  kura pushing for a curriculum whereby students can learn more about our history,” says Leah. 

“It was a very emotional, very honourable, very uplifting, very proud moment for us to be standing on behalf of our ancestors so the truth could be told.”

Waimarama Anderson 

One of the petition boxes presented to Parliament is currently on display on Level 2, between the Pou Maumahara and the New Zealand Wars galleries. 

Leah Bell is currently studying History, Te Reo and English at Victoria University and Waimarama Anderson is now the mother to a new-born boy, Walter Marley