Joanna Kidman and Vincent O’Malley present research on colonial violence in New Zealand

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 9, 2023, Joanna Kidman (Professor of Indigenous Sociology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) and Dr. Vincent O’Malley (Founding Partner, HistoryWorks) delivered a lecture entitled “Contested Pasts: Remembering and Forgetting Colonial violence in Aotearoa / New Zealand.” In their Zoom lecture, Kidman and O’Malley focused on the public memory of colonial violence against the Māori in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the ways in which different groups have understood, remembered, commemorated, forgotten, or erased the history of the New Zealand Wars over time.

Kidman opened the lecture by speaking about the driving force behind their lecture: contested memory. Students in New Zealand petitioned the New Zealand government to have Māori history included in their curriculum. Until this year, there was no requirement to teach Māori history in New Zealand public schools. These students created an ultimately successful petition, which triggered a nationwide debate about memory, identity, and silences in New Zealand’s history. This drove Kidman and O’Malley’s project, as they explored what is missing from this history, what is publicly remembered, and why.

After speaking about European contact and arrival in the 17th century, O’Malley offered a brief history of the period of the New Zealand Wars. These wars were fought in the 19th century between the British and colonial military and the Indigenous Māori peoples. These were not two distinct categories, as there were Māori aligned with the Crown and settlers aligned with the Māori. Thousands were killed or maimed in these conflicts, over two-thirds of them Māori. O’Malley explained that the wars in the 1860s were most brutal. These clashes hold particular significance because they were the Crown’s direct response to Indigenous resistance. The conflicts ended with the Māori groups being stripped of their land, which massively impacted the livelihood of these Indigenous communities.

For far too long, the national memory of these events hid the truth. These wars were often romanticized, O’Malley described, with narratives perpetuating the myth of mutual heroism and chivalry from both sides of the conflict. The overarching theme of these colonial encounters was a fight for land sovereignty and racial dominance.

Kidman discussed the methods they use to discover the gaps in public memory and to trace the tribal memory of these events. Using methods from historical research and ethnographic studies, O’Malley and Kidman travel around the country to visit the old battle sites, many of which are now paddocks. These scholars investigate how the sites are memorialized, investigate the narratives surrounding them, always underscoring the ways in which this history is embedded into the landscapes all around the people living there and moving through them.

In the next part of the lecture, Kidman spoke about the Waikato War (1863-1864). These wars were not about land conquest, but punishment, she argued. Kidman described the moment where Māori defeat was imminent, and the Māori had a choice between surrender and death. Many tribes chose to die together, which Kidman defines as an act of love and intimacy in colonial violence. In 1864, the site of Ōrākau was at the center of these conflicts. The armed battle in Ōrākau was the final battle in the district. More than half of the 300 Māori were killed by 1400 Crown troops. The last day of the battle was the deadliest. The Crown’s Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron called for the Māori to surrender. However, he was met with courage and defiance. Cameron then called on the women and children to leave the fortress. They refused. Kidman described this as an act of loyalty, defiance, intimacy, and love. Immediately, troops opened fire. Kidman remarked that she never knows how to end this story, as in many ways it continues today. She ultimately calls on people to remember both love and violence in instances of colonial encounters.

The pair of scholars closed the lecture with a reflection on how memory and silence continue to permeate society today. Some of these silences exist within the tribal archive, as there are histories too painful to describe. One of the questions that emerges from this research is how to teach these painful histories in schools. For over 160 years, the omissions in the teaching of this history have prevented a more dynamic and informed conversation about colonialism in New Zealand. Kidman maintains that the success of this initiative depends on Māori involvement in the development of the school curriculum.

In the lengthy and lively Q&A that followed their lecture, O’Malley and Kidman touched on many topics, including how people can tell the stories of Māori people today: tell the stories of now, as they called them, highlighting the stories of survival and resistance, but also how Māori themselves made peace with former combatants. They discussed the trap that trauma porn creates, the prevalence of denialism in New Zealand today, which primarily stems from older generations, the status of the Indigenous Māori language, more about their methodology, the role of social media and digital humanities formats in communicating their research, and the necessity to consider the cultural labor of Māori elders when it comes to building new curricula and resources about this history. Kidman and O’Malley expressed hope about the role that young people can play in helping all citizens of New Zealand better understand the history and impacts of colonialism.

Learn more about their project here.

Find their book, Fragments from a Contested Path: Remembrance, Denial and New Zealand History, here.

Visit their YouTube channel here.