Several years ago students from a local school gathered on the side of a small country road and watched as kuia and kaumātua wept, as they remembered their whānau who had lost their lives during the New Zealand wars 150 years earlier.
This year on October 28th, New Zealand will, for the first time, have a day to commemorate the New Zealand wars where 25,000 people lost their lives. The former principal of Ōtorohanga College, Timoti Harris, tells the story of the Commemoration Day Petition and the girls who, after hearing the kuia and kaumātua that day, worked so hard to have these stories remembered and acknowledged.
The whole idea started when some kaumatua approached Ōtorohanga College in February 2014 and said, “The commemorations of Ō-Rākau are in a few weeks and it would be really crowded, what we would like to do is to take you to these sites first and we will tell you the stories of these places.
After a wide discussion with staff to decide who should or shouldn’t go, it was decided to open it to all the students in our 400-pupil country school. So around 250 people left the school that day on six buses and went to Rangiaowhia and Ō-Rākau, and we sat on the sides of the country roads as the kuia and kaumatua told the stories.
The stories were that much more real because they were talking about their whānau. We were exposed to stories of both colonial and Māori bravery, strategy, sadness and victory. During the korero, we noticed some of our students were incredibly surprised by a number of things, not least that these sacred sites were operating farms.
Many of the students were standing amongst the cow muck thinking, “Is this really a sacred site?” It doesn’t resemble a sacred site in any way, shape or form. Sure, on Ō-Rākau, there is a memorial, but it was a working farm, although the farmer has allowed for families to grieve there as a commemoration.
Many of our students also questioned why the stories of these battles, located just a 27 minute drive from our College, were not known to them. And that raises the whole issue of the education curriculum, who was teaching it, who missed out and indeed, begs the question - should everyone have the opportunity to hear these stories?
The particular story that affected the students the most, was the raid on Rangiaowhia, when buildings where the elderly, children, and babies were taking shelter from the fighting were burned, killing all those trapped inside. It is hard to see your kuia openly weeping for their whānau and not act.
During the outing, two Year 11 students - Leah Bell aged 15 and Waimarama Anderson aged 16 - independently approached me and another staff member and asked, “How didn’t we know about this?” And said, “It is wrong that these old people should be left to fight to remember what happened here, it should be us, the young people because the future is ours.”
The idea that these kaumātua were still asking for these events to be remembered and acknowledged was something that really struck these young women.
The next day, the two girls came to us and we discussed options which then were discussed with their families, with teachers and kaumatua, and it was decided that a petition would be launched. We said that we would walk with them – advise them, protect them, strengthen them - but it had to come from them. They discovered they needed a sponsor, so they approached Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta who has strong links to the Kingitanga movement.
Nanaia Mahuta worked with Leah and Waimarama on the correct wording and process for the petition. Once that was completed, the girls rallied together a group of friends, senior college students, and staff and they went out into the world with four boxes, screeds of unfilled petition forms and a big hope.
After the word got out, television interviews, radio spots and newspaper stories followed. Leah and Waimarama, together with other students, travelled across the country, from other commemorative events, a Polynesian festival in Auckland, to the Maori King’s residence in Ngāruawāhia with the Prime Minister and Governor General in audience. They were quizzed at shopping centres, town halls, and across the air-waves. Within a year they gathered, vetted, and verified 13,000 signatures.
Then it was off to parliament. On the day, Tainui sent buses, Ngāti Porou sent buses, Tuhoe sent buses and the various Iwi from Wellington came in support/tautoko along with a number of schools. By the time we assembled little Ōtorohanga College from the Waikato had a troupe of supporters and 1,500 people marched up to the gates of Parliament with our girls in November 2015.
Not all the kuia and kaumātua who had told their stories that day were well enough to travel to Poneke/Wellington, however, our love and gratitude to and of them all, travelled with us and their gifts of story live on in us. Nei ra te kara mihi aroha e koroheke maa, e ruruhi maa, e kore rawa ra e mutu te mihi.
On the grounds of Parliament, we were met by four members of parliament – Te Ururoa Flavell, Maggie Barry, Marama Davidson and Nanaia Mahuta. That moment came, where Leah, Waimarama, Tai Te Ariki Jones and Rhiannon Magee carried four boxes – one carved box and some decorated by our students, and the petition was presented to Parliament. After that, we enjoyed a beautiful lunch made by our Wharekura from down the road, Te Wharekura o Maniapoto. Then we piled back onto dozens of buses back to our homes across the country.
In March 2016, the girls were invited to present to a panel by the Māori Select Committee in support of the petition. They were the youngest people to appear in front of a Select Committee in Aotearoa. We sat on the side-lines. During the Select Committee process, Leah and Waimarama were asked many questions, some of which were big questions to answer. When they asked, “If your petition is accepted and this is all passed, what will our nation look like in 25 years?”. We sat back and waited with bated breath as Waimarama fielded this question.
She said, “It will be transparent. Because at last we will all have been told the same stories and when all the same stories have been told, then we know when people make up their minds it is on the same facts.” Then Leah responded, “Our nation will have peace and the peace will come because we all know the story”.
In 2016, it was announced by the Crown that this commemoration would go ahead, and the first day would take place this year, in 2017. The thinking around the day is for each iwi, each people and each town to tell their story. At Ō-Rākau , there will be tears. At Pukehinahina, there will be tears. At Rangiriri, there will be tears. At Te Teko, there will be tears. At Gisborne, and all the other sites where people died, there will be tears. The commemoration will give these places a chance to tell their people - and particularly their young people - about what happened all those years ago.
Some further outcomes of the petition were that the land of the battles would be returned to its sacredness and 4 million dollars would be put into schools to allow them to teach the story of their area. If one more person finds out about what happened locally then we are already learning. The flow on effect is only going to grow as schools, communities and museums reflect on these stories. Māori have always known that these battles occurred, now they are being talked about.
The young women were told at the beginning, “If you are successful in this petition you will change this nation forever”. And they have. These two young women – who later became four - have done an amazing service to this country to build a future that is more tolerant and more understanding. We have a day where people are truly talking and asking the question, “What is that all about?”
And although our students were specifically interested in the five battles in the Waikato region, this commemoration day is a time to reflect on every battle that occurred in this country where people lost their lives, regardless of whether they were part of the militia, constabulary or Māori Iwi. Hopefully these stories will become known and the thinking of our nation will become much more informed.
I am proud of those young women, they taught a beautiful lesson to an awful lot of people – young and old – when you know something needs to be done, do it, don’t wait.
The petitions that were presented to the Government previously were not successful, whereas this one was….why? I think in its own strange way, this was because it was grassroots, legit and from young people. It was something that grew on the side of the road when two people heard something that made them think, “This is just not fair”. If this story inspires anyone and everyone, when something is just “not fair” to address it or redress it, then that’s a success.
It has been three years since it all began and we still think of those aunties and uncles who shared those stories that day on the side of a country road, in the sun, with tears, as they talked about what had happened to their family members.
It’s amazing to think that from a little country school, on a little country road, came a petition that got passed by Parliament and now our country is going to get to see the New Zealand Wars remembered, so at last our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren will know these stories.