What Am I Doing Here?

Abel Tasman,
Dutch Explorer, noted as first European to New Zealand, not a great communicator.

It has been far too long since I promised an explanation of my project, though I must say the page and you have been spared the evolution of my research design, now adapted to variables I could not have anticipated before arriving in New Zealand. However, unlike some early explorers to these faraway islands (no names here…Abel Tasman, you know who you are) I have not been driven away, nor have I discouraged others from approaching these island for over 100 years due to some initial setbacks. I am adapting, slowly, to create an inquiry that is better suited to my environment. If only Abel had been so flexible.

In 1642, Abel Tasman arrives
but doesn’t stay too long
in an area he later names
“Murderers’ Bay”

So, why am I here? The taonga I am after is not to be dug from veins of gold hidden in the rugged hillsides or to be rendered from the life of a whale into precious oil. I am not launching my canoe on an outgoing tide with the swift assurance that, if I find no new lands on my ocean journey, the incoming tide will help me turn back to home. The earliest inhabitants of Aotearoa New Zealand navigated canoes into the unknown for weeks to reach these shores. My journey pales in comparison to the four months on a schooner that many settlers had to survive before actually attempting to settle. Really, I’ve had it easy so far, though it doesn’t feel that way every time I mess up the bus schedule and end up further away from both my apartment and my intended destination. If it weren’t for Uber, I’d probably be in Australia by now.

I’ll get there, eventually. Sometimes you gotta let others do the navigating.

So, taonga, treasure, in a general sense, for my exploration is knowledge. There are a few things I want to figure out while I am here. There are a few questions I’ve dragged here from home, most of them around how we teach history and how students can be influenced by that teaching. If you know me, you know that I’m not an activist. I speak softly and have no stick. I’ve never known where people acquire a soapbox. It is my belief that you lead by example, that the work you do speaks for itself, and that you can influence the next generation of thinkers by asking them to practice that skill often. Push them into uncomfortable knowledge and watch as they rise to new understandings about themselves and the ways the world is organized around them, both today and is it was in the past.

The United Tribes Flag of 1834
Created so that ships could sail undisturbed under New Zealand’s flag. To some Māori, the flag shows Britain’s recognition that New Zealand and the Māori chiefs are independent at this time.
https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/taming-the-frontier/united-tribes-flag, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Apr-2016
New Zealand’s Current Flag of 1902
Stars of the Southern Cross on a Royal Navy blue background. The history of New Zealand as a British colony and dominion also included, but not much else.

I have come here to research uncomfortable history. We have plenty of this in the US. But sometimes it’s easier to study out of context, which is part of the beauty of the Fulbright program. Just being here allows me to question presuppositions that I’m unaware of, some of them remnants of the education I received. I am not undercutting the US system or dismissing the advancements and theoretical shifts that shape our learning environments today, merely noting that it’s hard to see subtleties in the way you were educated and now educate if you are a product of the system you’ve been educated to educate in. And that’s a lot of education. In addition to that mouthful, the beauty of being here is that New Zealand shares with us the dubious honor of an uncomfortable history of colonization, particularly around contact between colonizers and indigenous people. Depending on whom you ask, both here and at home, teaching this topic is going splendidly well or it’s a national shame. So there is room for inquiry here.

My project will soon take me back into the classroom where I will interview students, teachers, and principals about teaching the Treaty of Waitangi in schools. The treaty was signed in 1840 by representatives of the Crown and more than 500 Māori chiefs. Upon its initial signing, Governor William Hobson declares British sovereignty in New Zealand. Though the treaty attempts to set the parameters of sovereignty, its existence in two different languages, Te Reo Māori and English, leads to two different interpretations based not just on language, but on cultural norms and the idea of sovereignty. What begins as a pact dependent on the equality of the signatories and built on assurances of mutual protection between the parties quickly devolves into a power imbalance as more colonists arrive looking to recreate lives here based the lives they had left behind. And what do the settlers require? Mostly land. The South Island is sold for a parcel of goods. Māori who aren’t taken by European diseases move further inland, away from ships full of strangers arriving in the sheltered bays. Any of this sounding familiar?

On Waitangi Day, we join in the celebrations of Māori culture.

There is energy around discussion of the Treaty of Waitangi. The signing of the Treaty is considered a seminal moment in New Zealand’s past that establishes the rights, responsibilities, and status of citizens and their government. It is used as a tool of arbitration in current day disputes in a governmental agency called the Waitangi Tribunal. It is used to establish the rights of Māori today in areas that might have been historically affected by overreach of the British Crown and colonists, from land disputes and outright land grabs to the rights of Māori families to influence the education of their children in schools. Yet, the history of the document, and the difficult history surrounding colonization, is generally not taught in schools. Waitangi Day is a national holiday, but on February 6th of this year the Dominion Post newspaper decried the lack of understanding of what was actually being celebrated, and placed some of the blame on a system of education that wasn’t giving enough attention to the difficult history that shaped this country. A national holiday celebrated around a mythologized version of events that, when taught in schools, whitewashes the experiences of the less powerful. Somebody hand me a turkey leg and a side of stuffing.

From our travels in Taranaki, on the North Island

Why am I here? Colonization happened, here and in the United States. It is difficult history, but our students deserve to analyze the documents that tell the story, to listen to the voices of indigenous people who have powerful lessons to teach us about their beliefs and experiences, both today and in the past, and ultimately to question the mythology that they have heard throughout their lives to come to a better understanding of what it means to be a citizen. Our countries are stronger when our truths are fuller, and we are better able to tell the story when all voices are contributing to the conversation.  I am here to discover how New Zealand’s schools are tackling some of the issues raised by a colonial past and hope that my work can be woven into the larger conversations happening in both of our countries. Is my work taonga yet? Probably not. I’m just beginning. And I’m spending a lot of time on the bus. But I’m going to work really hard to turn this time into valuable treasure.


  1. Susi, I love this explanation of the benefit created by leaving our own cultural divide and walking into a very new one. The parallels begin to emerge and crystallize. It’s a great tool to help break out of our own egocentricity. Keep writing!


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