Every year at Maxim Institute, we host a lecture named after one of Maxim’s founders Sir John Graham. The purpose of the lecture is to give the platform to a speaker who will inject some new ideas or perspectives into public discourse in New Zealand. One year, we heard from Professor James Tooley, an academic and author from the UK who helps set up low-cost private schools in the developing world; another year we heard from the Hon. Iain Duncan Smith, the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who talked about the welfare reforms he was introducing in the UK.
This year, at the lecture held last week, we heard from Hon Sir Pita Sharples. Most years, the lecturers bring an overseas perspective to the audience; this year, for the first time in the eight year history of the lecture, Sir Pita brought something new for this audience, not from overseas, but from the very heart of New Zealand.
Sir Pita began his lecture with a story. In his last year at school, his mother wrote him a letter in te reo. This was the first time she had written to him in their native language—though he had often heard her speak it with other adults, she had never used it with him. Sir Pita explained that his mother had grown up at a time when she and her classmates would have been beaten for speaking M?ori at school, and so she (and they) had learned to hide that part of themselves, and to be afraid of letting it out. The letter in te reo he received from his mother was then, in his eyes, the first time he got to see his mother as she truly was. It was clear as he wiped the tears from his eyes as he told this story that this moment from his earliest adulthood filled him with both joy and profound sadness.
As Sir Pita related different vignettes from his life and career over the course of his lecture—the start of kohanga reo and kura kaupapa schools, his own whakapapa, and the legacy he’s given his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren—this mingling of joy and profound sadness continued. Sir Pita is M?ori, and he is a New Zealander. His identity, his culture, and his land bring him great joy. But he can never completely escape the past treatment and marginalisation of his people in their own land and how this continues to haunt their present.
There is a sentiment among some New Zealanders that asks why we can’t just clear away the hurts of the past and build a better future, forgetting the bad that has come before. Sir Pita told us that this is impossible. This history is real, and the hurt is real and lingering. We must embrace this past to honour those who struggled to maintain their language, culture and identity, and weave their stories into our future.