Michael King with Ngakahikatea Whirihana in 1969. Nga’s estimated age was between 112 – 120 years and she had memories of the Waikato War in the 1860’s.
I’m not sure about any other Kiwi’s out there, but I didn’t really learn that much about New Zealand history when I was at high school, or school in general. There was the annual Treaty of Waitangi boredom session up til year 10 but that didn’t really say much except for the bare basics that a treaty exists. My school did not do New Zealand history in year 13, and to be honest I was pretty okay with that at the time.
Since I’ve been at University my opinion on the matter has changed and I’ve begun to find it completely ridiculous that I don’t know much about our history. This idea was reinforced when my Maori Health class received a speed run through New Zealand history. After class I walked out feeling a bit lame about my ignorance but encouraged to learn more.
Being Pakeha, by Michael King is a book that was recommended to my class by our Maori Health tutor. It’s a part history, part personal memoir about living in New Zealand. Knowing that Michael King was one of our premier historians I decided to take a trip to the library and check it out.
I ended up with Being Pakeha Now. Being Pakeha was originally written by King in 1985. At the time King believed that,
‘The most important task facing a historian of my background was to make Maori preoccupations and expectations intelligible to Pakeha New Zealanders; to make it clear why I believed that Maori had every right to be Maori in their own country and to expect Pakeha to respect them.’
Being Pakeka Now, was consequently a reevaluation published in the late 90’s to address the situation as it is now. Maori have a far greater position in society than they did in the 80’s and conscious efforts are being made to mediate the wrongs of the past. In Being Pakeha Now, King’s intentions were to,
‘Explain Pakeha New Zealanders to Maori and to themselves; and to do this in terms of their right to live in this country, practise their values and culture and be themselves.’
Reading the book was an incredibly interesting process for me. It was quite bizarre to think that many Maori were still living relatively traditional lives as recently as the 80’s and it was absolutely sickening to read accounts of land confiscations and the attitudes towards Maori in such recent history.
The great thing about this book however, and how it deals with quite sensitive issues of culture is that it’s written by King. A Pakeha who is completely at home with being part of New Zealand’s history and both Maori and Pakeha culture. The White Native.
I hear quite often from non Maori friends and peers that they feel uncomfortable when talking about Maori issues because they are the bad guy, or that they feel like it makes them not belong in New Zealand. That shouldn’t be the case. We do need to accept that there are major differences between the status of Maori and Non Maori New Zealanders but really New Zealand has only been addressing this for thirtyish years. It’s an ongoing discourse and process of bringing everyone up to a relatively even level.
It was addressing this idea of New Zealander identity that completely captured me in Being Pakeha Now. King begins the book by talking about his own predominantly Irish Catholic childhood in Wellington. Going to school at Sacred Heart in Auckland and then St Pat’s Silverstream in Wellington. Attending university at Victoria and then the newly created University of Waikato.
King truly began to involve himself in the Maori world as a reportedr for the Waikato Times in the 60’s. He began to learn how to speak Maori and became quite welcome with Waikato Maori. Over the course of his career he wrote a number of books and was involved in a number of tv programmes on Maori history and culture.
His works and experiences were not limited to the Maori world however. King was a receipt of a Fulbright Fellowship and the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship which allowed him to travel and write in Europe. He recalls travelling across the UK exploring his European roots but not feeling that at home.
It is this idea then, that King was a New Zealander that I think carries the greatest message for people reading today. As he says towards the conclusion of the book,
‘For me, then, to be Pakeha on the cusp of the twenty first century is not to be European;it is not to be an alien or a stranger in my own country. It is to be a non-Maori New Zealander who is aware of and proud of my antecendents, but who identifies as intimately with this land and as strongly, as anybody Maori. It is to be, as I have already argued, another kind of indigenous New Zealander.’
It is this acceptance and comfort with his own identity and with his place in New Zealand and everyone else’s place that makes this book such an important read.
I would recommend this book to every single person I know, regardless of their politics. I felt like it was non-offensive, accessible and intriguing. It gives context to the country we live in today and is a great place to start if you don’t know much.
Why we don’t know much – well that’s a discussion for another day.