Teaching Aotearoa New Zealand Histories

Aotearoa New Zealand has come a long way in the past few years in its efforts to engage with its history in a more upfront and honest manner. For those of us who have campaigned for such a change, this is not before time.

This new-found willingness to move beyond a rose-tinted approach to the nation’s past in which anything uncomfortable or considered to reflect poorly on the Pākehā majority is shunned and ignored has taken considerable effort and is still very much a work in progress.

Confronting the often bloody and brutal realities of colonial dispossession of Māori has come as a shock for many non-Māori New Zealanders brought up to believe that they lived in a country with the greatest ‘race relations’ in the world. A more robust and truthful understanding of that history is to a large degree dependent on the education system. And while there is good news on this front, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the campaign has been a long and at times difficult one.    


 A monument unveiled at Ōrākau in April 1914, marking the centenary of the final and bloodiest battle of the Waikato War of 1863-64 (photo: Vincent O'Malley)

In September 2019 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand history would be taught in all schools from 2022. It felt like a momentous decision given abundant evidence that most students left school having had little or no exposure to the history of their own country. Generations of New Zealanders had grown up without even a basic awareness of pivotal moments in the nation’s past, unable to understand how events like the nineteenth-century New Zealand Wars and subsequent land confiscations resonated today in myriad ways, including in the often dire socio-economic statistics of Māori communities around the country.

The Prime Minister’s announcement followed a campaign begun five years earlier by a group of students from Ōtorohanga College, a small rural secondary school in the King Country, about 20 minutes’ drive from where some of the bloodiest and most brutal battles of the 1863-64 Waikato War took place. After visiting some of these sites on a 2014 school trip, the students returned to class dismayed not to have learned any of this history before. They vowed to take action, organising a petition that was eventually signed by 13,000 people calling for a national day of commemoration for the victims of the New Zealand Wars and for this history to be taught in all schools.

Naturally, attention turned to that petition when it came to understanding the background to the September 2019 decision, which followed a long period of opposition to compulsory teaching of New Zealand history on the part of politicians and education officials. But as it turns out, there was a now little-known earlier plea for New Zealand history to be taught, again led by a school student.

In 1992 Arlana Delamere was in her final year of secondary school at Green Bay High School in Auckland. Students opting to take history as part of the Seventh Form (now year 13) syllabus were offered two choices: Tudor and Stuart England or nineteenth-century New Zealand. Except in many cases the decision had already been made for them by their schools, which offered a choice of English history or nothing. Green Bay High School was one such place.

Arlana’s father, and future Cabinet minister, Tuariki John Delamere, was working in Wellington as a negotiations manager at the Treaty of Waitangi Policy Unit when he received a phone call from his upset daughter.

‘She was in her last year of high school in Auckland. And she wants to study New Zealand history and found out she couldn’t, she could only study British history, and she was pretty incensed about it. She thought this is bullshit.’

Tuariki, who had gone to school in Tauranga a stone’s throw from Pukehinahina (Gate Pā), another famous New Zealand Wars battle site but learned nothing about it during his own school years in the 1960s, readily agreed. He persuaded Arlana that they should lodge a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal, the body tasked with deciding on whether the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi has been breached, in her name.

Gate Pā (Pukehinahina), Tauranga, site of of an important New Zealand Wars battle on 29 April 1864 (photo: Vincent O'Malley)

The history syllabus claim was filed in April 1992. It states that ‘the history of Aotearoa is a taonga [treasure] under the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi and that its teaching must be given priority over the teaching of the history of any other country’. Arlana further added that ‘it is my right as a person of Māori descent, as indeed I believe it is the right of all students in Aotearoa, to have the option of being taught the history of Aotearoa as the primary focus of the history syllabus rather than the history of another country.’ The failure to teach this, it was noted, had led to feelings of whakamā (shame or embarrassment) among Māori at the bottom of the socio-economic rung, the victims of widespread hostility directed at them by non-Māori who had no understanding of the history of Aotearoa.

Arlana’s statement of claim concludes with a plea for it to be heard soon as she was in her final year of school. Nearly thirty years later the Waitangi Tribunal has still to consider the claim, though she and her father both say that hasn’t stopped the Crown from trying to say that it has been settled as part of wider tribal claims.

For Arlana, looking back now the Treaty claim is a source of pride but it was more challenging for the awkward teenager back then. ‘I found it very difficult at the time because I was very shy and now that I’m older I realise really what it meant. At that stage, I don’t think I had a real idea of how advanced it was.’

She remembers a TV news crew turning up at school to interview her, the situation saved by a call to relative and respected Māori academic and activist Professor Ranginui Walker, who made a quick dash to the scene to speak alongside her in support of the cause.

As for the Prime Minister’s 2019 announcement, Arlana says ‘I love it. I think to end racism, to help broken people today, you have got to learn the history. You’ve got to have all the facts in front of you. And I think it’s great more children who learn it in school will grow up with a more cottoned-on kind of attitude’.

Tuariki agrees, describing the move as hugely transformative. But he adds that if things turn out badly with the implementation of the new Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum, Arlana’s Treaty claim is still there, ahead of its time and now ‘hugely relevant’, even after being ignored and forgotten for all those years.

A lot is riding on the success of this new curriculum and its delivery. The 1992 claim serves as yet another reminder that meaningful social change often does not happen overnight and that the early advocates for transformation can sometimes be overlooked when it does finally come about.  


[This is the unedited version of an article published in the Guardian in November 2021].  


  1. The history that has never been taught and which this article conviently avoids is the slaughter, canablism, enslavement and massive scale theft of land rights that is the Musket wars. They are the inconvenient truth not the introduction of British law and goods which the native peoples sought ... hence their desire for the Treaty and for land sales.


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