Helping all New Zealanders feel secure in their cultural identity

By David Woods Age: 50, 1st year Social Anthropology student Massey University, Palmerston North

Reading time: 6 minutes

While some may feel that history is in the past and we should just move on, history starts now, and the present becomes the past, moment by moment. In 2023, a new way to explore the stories of those of us who call New Zealand home will be introduced, in Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum. Every family who lives in New Zealand came from somewhere else, whether it was 800 years ago traveling in a waka, or just yesterday on a Boeing 787; we are all settlers/migrants.

By David Woods
Country of Origin: New Zealand

Age: 50, 1st year Social Anthropology student
Massey University, Palmerston North

Reading time: 6 minutes

While some may feel that history is in the past and we should just move on, history starts now, and the present becomes the past, moment by moment. In 2023, a new way to explore the stories of those of us who call New Zealand home will be introduced, in Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum. Every family who lives in New Zealand came from somewhere else, whether it was 800 years ago traveling in a waka, or just yesterday on a Boeing 787; we are all settlers/migrants.

Recognizing this fact, education is taking a fresh look at this journey with a new curriculum which will explore families’ stories, how they came here, and why; trials, challenges and missteps, recognising each family’s path to New Zealand. This bold step recognises the history and cultures of all those who live here, potentaly strengthening their identity and affirming their place in New Zealand.

There will be some resistance, as some Pākehā will feel uncomfortable with this new perspective. Change can be difficult, especially when it deals with sensitive issues.

The history of settlement within New Zealand is a complex topic including land wars, misrepresentations, Treaty violations and ongoing public debates and disputes. The relationship between Pākehā and Māori is complex. While Pākehā culture has been dominant for the last two hundred years, there is an undercurrent of insecurity about what it means to be Pākehā and decided discomfort regarding both their culture and role in history. The British colonisation process simply said “Forget your home. You are now a New Zealander.” The result being a fragile and fractured cultural identity built over time using stereotypes and elements co-opted from Māori culture and media, producing a general uneasiness about Pākehā’s place within the country. This has not been aided by previous curriculums which were very superficial, focusing on dates and events from a colonial perspective with a condescending view of other cultures.

Today such a viewpoint would be unthinkable, but for students from the 1970s and ’80s that was the perspective they received. Then in the mid to late 1980s a new paradigm was presented: a grimmer view of New Zealand history, with no conversation or attempt to help these students adjust; they found themselves and their families at fault, guilty of oppressing of another race, soon finding themselves facing increasing and confusing expectations regarding culture and ethnic groups. Feeling pressured to conform and atone for the past, in response to this, many withdrew hoping that someone would sort it out as it was too big for them, finding solace with those who felt the same.

Why does this matter? Well these former students are the parents and grandparents of the Pākehā children who will be taught Aotearoa New Zealand’s new histories curriculum; these are the very people of whom these children will ask: “Where did we come from? What was it like there? Why did we come here? Did we leave family behind? What things make our people special … ?”

If in this multicultural nation these Pākehā fear losing what remains of their place they may feel they have nothing to offer in response, become defensive and insecure, wanting the questions and those asking them to go away. It could easily make them feel more alienated, or, it could prompt a renaissance of discovery as lost and forgotten roots with customs, traditions and heritage are discovered, generating a new culture. A true Pākehā culture, one they can be proud to share with others, but this depends on how we respond to their trepidation. At the moment some feel overwhelmed; others are just going through the motions; and a few are engaging and exploring their past.

Multicultural day at a New Zealand primary school
Image source: ero.govt.nz

Changing the focus from events to routes will help this and that’s what Aotearoa New Zealand’s new histories curriculum is designed to do. Elizabeth Russell suggests that this will go some way with helping students process the past, but it’s not just the students on this journey – it’s parents and grandparents as well. Schools will be the stage where this new foundation will be tried and tested. Teachers will not only be guiding students, but families as well as they explore their past and their roots, and find their place in today’s New Zealand. We may expect anger, frustration, confusion, and a lot of discomfort. The temptation to brush these reactions off will be present but this will only reinforce the underlying insecurity that is felt; hence schools are a perfect place to address these issues. The combination of a community atmosphere with the chance to interact across cultural boundaries, building friendships and connections exploring cultures in an inclusive enviroment can go a long way to defusing the paralysis and fragility parents may feel. Caring, supportive communities to come alongside these parents and teachers as these issues are worked out, will be key.

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