Alan Duff on revisionism


According to Maori lecturer Steve Elers, the name of his university – Massey – should be changed because back in history Prime Minister William Massey was a racist who believed in the superiority of the white race, had a particular dislike for Chinese and no doubt looked down on Maori.

The alleged “white supremacist” of the early 20th Century is being judged by present-day views. Not only does Mr Elers want to revise history, he wants to reverse it. Come on, mate. When would it stop? Different Maori war chiefs, pre-European and post, believed their tribes were superior to others and went out attacking other tribes all over the land. (It wasn’t a country then.) Should we toss them into the hall of shame? The planned slaughters spared none: not women, not children, not the elderly. Nor were any necessarily spared being eaten or being taken as slaves to be later eaten. It’s all right, Mr Elers, they are my tupuna too. However, I don’t judge them for doing what was perfectly normal back then.

Two great fighting chiefs’ names come to mind: Hongi Hika and Te Rauparaha. Our national sports teams perform a haka composed by Te Rauparaha. Hongi’s name lives on in Hongi’s Track, the place his men dragged their canoes through the forest between lakes Rotoehu and Rotoiti, thence onto Lake Rotorua. He slaughtered and ate and enslaved many of my Te Arawa ancestors. But that’s all right, Hongi. It’s what went down in your day. Are we not, each generation, of the times we live in?

This is a good point. If we are to judge politicians from 100 to 150 years ago based on today’s standards, should the same apply to Maori leaders?

My Maori ancestors kept and ate slaves. My Pakeha ancestors, somewhere along the line, may have traded slaves; or as slave overseers dished out brutal punishment. They too murdered enemy women and children in battle, took part in torture practices and as well participated in unjust acts against innocents.

Both lots did what was normal in their time. We have no right to look back and judge them by our standards.

The key is to judge them on the entirety of what they did, not just one aspect. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson beyond doubt were forces for great good in the world. They were also slave owners.

In my day kids were leather-strapped – hard – on the hands by our primary school teachers. At high school they used the cane. One principal caned me so violently my shorts and undies were stuck to my rumps by blood. (I deserved it.) Is that generation to be revisited and any tributes and painted portraits in school assembly halls taken down, their names deleted from history because they did what was normal in their time: inflicted violence upon children? Taking out of generational context makes all of them guilty.

Also a good point. Every former principal will be seen as a brute by today’s standards.

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