The importance of the archives in unsettling official myths
Dr Tiopira McDowell explains the importance of the archives — and working for the 'other side' — in unsettling official myths about Māori-Crown relations.
"I love archives; that's my special place, that's where magic happens for me as a person. It's my church. Our ancestors are in the archives, and the sins of our country are laid bare in the archives and that's what I am interested in.
"I want to hear the voices of my ancestors and know what was done to them. Our literacy rates were higher than Europeans' in the mid-19th Century; our rangatira were writing manuscripts, sending letters of complaint; they were making posters and certificates and ribbons. It's all sitting there, you just have to be nerdy enough to access it.
"With Professor Margaret Mutu, I have been researching the Treaty claims settlement process for the last three years on a Marsden-funded project. The main focus is hearing and presenting Māori voices, and our work has been extended because so many people wanted to be interviewed — which is rare."
Our ancestors are in the archives, and the sins of our country are laid bare in the archives and that's what I am interested in.
"Our initial research indicated Māori were searching to understand why the Crown was keen on the Treaty claims settlement process, and I realised that we didn't know, so I tracked down Cabinet minutes and other documents from the early 1990s and wrote an article explaining why.
"Basically, the Crown was fearful of the newfound powers of the Waitangi Tribunal, and wanted to entice iwi and hapū away from the Tribunal process into the settlement process by saying it would be quicker for claimants and cheaper for the Crown.
"From both sides of the settlement process — claimants and public servants — we've heard things during our research that people are not willing to discuss publicly. As a researcher, knowing such information — even if you can't repeat it — can inform the questions you ask and the documents you consult, and how you string all the pieces together."
It's all sitting there, you just have to be nerdy enough to access it.
"Even before this project began, I worked for the Office of Treaty Settlements (OTS) myself for five months. One of my mentors in History had said 'We know all about the Tribunal but we know nothing about OTS. It's a frosted window, we don't get to walk through those doors. Someone's got to go there and find out what's going on.'
"So I did. I was honest with OTS about my intentions. The most important thing to me was seeing the day-to-day process. As historians we were constructing fictional narratives about what had happened, was happening and would happen in New Zealand; we were writing cartoons complete with 'bad guys' such as Governor Grey and Donald McLean and a set script. Māori were often painted as the damsel in distress without much agency."
We can't let the Crown get away with declaring that "we are all moving
into a bicultural sunset holding hands" with no further action necessary.
"I've realised that studying the settlements isn't a three or four year project; I see that this will be the rest of my life: unpicking what's been woven here, the myths about the settlements.
"All the settlements will be done and dusted in the next few years and we can't let the Crown get away with declaring that 'we are all moving into a bicultural sunset holding hands' with no further action necessary.
"We need to destroy that myth. We need to put on the record the truth that Māori negotiated these settlements under duress on the understanding that these are the beginning, not the end, of negotiating our grievances. We need to make sure that future generations don't buy into the hype and that they continue this work."
The generation coming in now, my students, are incredible — they don’t think like us, they have gone to Māori schools all their lives. They’ve got degrees, they go to the gym, they’re very different. They give me a lot of hope.
"That's what I tell them in my lectures: 'these settlements are the Crown paying rent — but when we finally get the house back, we will have a house warming. That's your job: we don't need lawns, plant native trees. Put in a hangi pit on the front yard.'
"What the generation of people who became active in the 1970s have achieved is amazing — they have achieved the impossible. And the generation coming in now, my students, are incredible —they don't think like us, they have gone to Māori schools all their lives. They've got degrees, they go to the gym, they're very different.
"They give me a lot of hope."