Critical mourning and teaching difficult histories

Dr Avril Bell and Elizabeth Russell

The new Year 1 to 10 Aotearoa New Zealand Histories curriculum is an incredibly exciting – and challenging – initiative. From 2023, our young people will no longer grow up like many of us older ones have, learning nothing, or very little, about the histories of our own country and people. This is a hugely powerful, identity- and society-shaping, curriculum that comes with big responsibilities and opportunities for teachers. Here is an opportunity to foster inclusive, reflective, informed and critical understandings of local and national pasts and how they connect to our present and orient us to the future – and to each other.

But the new curriculum also presents many challenges to teachers. The focus of our research was on just one of these, particularly relevant to Year 9 and 10 teachers – how to approach the teaching of the ‘difficult histories’ of the nineteenth century colonial wars that cemented the dominance of Pākehā society over Te Ao Māori.

Difficult histories

Difficult histories’ are histories that are important to a nation’s story, that challenge widely understood versions of the past, that connect to present day societal problems, and that typically involve violence, often state-led (Gross, et al 2018). Consequently, difficult histories are unsettling. These features make them exciting opportunities to create new understandings that can impact our present relationships and hopes for our national future. But the unsettling and contested nature of difficult histories is also what makes them challenging to teach. How can teachers design programmes that maximise student engagement with sometimes uncomfortable new learning? And how can teachers best support their students to grapple with painful stories in ways that foster connection and understanding rather than division and animosity between them (especially Māori and Pākehā students in this case)?

In our research we looked at some of the reasons why we have not taught this history before and how the ‘forgetting’ of nineteenth century colonial violence has supported Pākehā to comfortably occupy the centre of our national identity as New Zealanders. We traced how previous eras of monoculturalism and then biculturalism supported forms of ‘forgetting’ in the teaching of history in different ways. And we argued for critical mourning as a productive orientation to teaching the difficult history of colonial violence in the new curriculum.

The idea of ‘forgetting’ history seems an odd one. The nineteenth century wars have not really been forgotten have they? If they had, how could we suddenly decide now to ‘remember’ them? What this idea of ‘forgetting’ history really points to are strategies for downplaying, glossing over, or denying the violence and injustice of the past. British anthropologist, Paul Connerton, studied ‘how societies remember’ – and how they forget. One type of forgetting he identified is constitutive forgetting – forgetting that supports the development of a new identity. Our argument is that forgetting nineteenth century violence and injustice against Māori was crucial to support the new identity of ‘New Zealander’ for migrants from Europe. For example, the early school history text, Our Nation’s Story, remembers the wars but crucially forgets their consequences for many Māori communities, instead emphasizing mutual admiration for the bravery of each side in a conflict now long settled into a present of friendship and unity: ‘Today [Māori and Pākehā] live side by side as friends and fellow-citizens, loving the land whose broad and fertile acres support them both’ (Our Nation’s Story, n.d. p. 50). In this account, the losses suffered by Māori communities are ‘forgotten’ and glossed over to tell a story of peace and unity that allows Pākehā to feel comfortable. Even the more recent era of biculturalism has not supported us to confront our difficult pasts. Instead, Māori and Pākehā histories have tended to be told separately – with some important exceptions, such as a Taranaki War exhibition at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth in 2010.

Critical mourning

With the new curriculum, we argue for critical mourning as a productive approach to teaching the difficult histories of the nineteenth century wars and their legacies. We need to mourn the losses accrued from the violence of the past – for our ancestors on both sides. And we are taken by Paul Connerton’s (2011, p. 4) argument for the link between ‘mourning’ and ‘caring’ and the vision of histories that allow us to mourn care-fully for the losses of all the nation’s communities.

But mourning also carries risks – tendencies to romanticise the pre-violent past as a ‘golden era’ we might hope to restore, for example. This is where the critical element comes in. In contrast to the histories of the monocultural and bicultural eras, with their tendency to narrate ‘tidy’ and ‘happy’ endings to the nation’s stories, critical approaches interrogate the past and raise questions about its connection to the present and future. Rather than ‘tidy up’ our history, we need to ‘open it up’ – to mourn mistakes, to celebrate achievements and survivals, and to present it as still developing, not yet settled, but a living legacy that we all contribute to. This means not glossing over terrible things that happened. As Anne Salmond says:

Don’t varnish the narrative. Then you’re left to make up your mind. It’s not preaching. You don’t tell people what moral position to take. You tell the story. And the way it’s told is not on the basis of binary hatred, but rather that this is what happened. The heartbreak of that. We’re still living with that legacy.

Telling the local stories of your community is a powerful way to avoid that ‘binary hatred’ Salmond alludes to. As Rachel Buchanan says, when you ‘zoom in’ on local stories, a complex picture of interaction between Māori and Pākehā individuals, families and communities comes into focus, dispelling any simple narrative of ‘goodies and baddies’ and encouraging understanding and a sense of connection with the people and events of the past.

Taking a critical mourning approach to history, teachers do not need to have all the answers, or the end of the story, but will need to have the questions and an ability to hold those questions open and to encourage openness and care in their students ­– for the past and for each other.

Dr Avril Bell has recently retired from the University of Auckland where she was an Associate Professor in Sociology. Her research interests centre on topics that shed light on the relationships between Māori and Pākehā – settler colonialism, indigenous-settler relations and critical settler family histories. She is still researching and writing on these topics.

Elizabeth Russell is a Pākehā sociology graduate from the University of Auckland. Elizabeth currently works as a historical walking tour guide and mother of a toddler. 

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