Aotearoa Histories

This 1820 painting shows Māori chiefs Waikato (left) and Hongi Hika with Anglican missionary Thomas Kendall. Image: James Barry/Wikimedia commons
Published June 1, 2021

Decolonizing and reindigenizing church and society in New Zealand

Acting editor’s note: June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada. Recognizing that colonization has affected not just this land and its Indigenous peoples but many across the world, the Anglican Journal invited Māori priest and historian Hirini Kaa to share an update and some reflections for us. What have been the experiences of Indigenous and settler people in the islands known as Aotearoa, or New Zealand, as they have tried to move beyond a purely colonial perspective on the past? And how has this shaped the present?

Guest columnist Hirini Kaa. Photo: Contributed

In late 2019 the Labour government here in Aotearoa-New Zealand announced that by 2022, history would become a compulsory component of the New Zealand schools’ curriculum for ages 5-14. It was a big day for education, and for the future of our land.

The draft curriculum is exciting. Rather than reinforcing colonial tropes and narratives, it responds to a wide demand for history that can help us understand our present, including the inequities and injustices currently faced by Māori and the historical (and ongoing) drivers of this situation.

History and our historical narratives have been transformative here in Aotearoa over the past several decades. We have become more truthful with ourselves, moving from the settler narrative of hardworking, egalitarian, fair and “kind” communities to accepting and understanding that our society and economy was established—and still thrives—on the back of Māori (Indigenous) dispossession and marginalization.

The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 with significant Anglican input, has found its rightful place as foundational to our society in its affirmation of Māori rights and worldviews. And the Anglican church has been prophetic in this work, incorporating this truth into our constitutional arrangements in 1992, whereby Māori were finally freed from colonial oppression within the church, and could freely apply our mātauranga—our worldview—in the practice of our shared faith.

Despite this past, we still have obstacles. “Church history” here in Aotearoa, as across the settler world, suffers from the same challenges as wider histories. As those narratives seek to promote and defend the fictional glories of the nation state, so have church histories frequently sought to justify and glorify the “Mission” of the church even when it has been harmful to Indigenous populations.

Māori have been portrayed time and again as the subject of mission, the project of the missionaries to bring us into the supposedly benign British Empire. Māori “voices” were normally a form of historical ventriloquism, where settler sources spoke to our supposed aspirations and faith.

For the church, this is about more than just historical narratives, however. Theological education needs to be informed by this history. For too long Anglican history jumped from the Reformation to European evangelicalism to twentieth century European and U.S. theological innovations, with some liberation thrown in at the end as a chaser. This has bypassed the immense developments of the faith whereby Indigenous populations, essentially enslaved under the empire, found freedom and liberation through Scripture. Here in Aotearoa, and across the settler world, prophetic movements rose up in military, political and spiritual resistance to empire, moved and motivated by a powerful reading of scripture.

Even within Anglicanism we set about founding our own Indigenous churches. These were rarely recognised by the power structures of the church, but were powerful and prevalent for us. Our “Native Church” committees, liturgical translations and everyday life were expressions of who we were and who we aimed to be. We had our own theologians, trained both through settler demands and in our own ancient schools of learning, who showed us creative ways to be both Anglican and Indigenous. From my own tribe, the great Rev. Mohi Turei carved ancestral houses, composed theological masterpieces utilising ancient ancestral performance arts, and wrote prolifically for our Māori church newspapers to show us how this woven knowledge could be renegotiated, and how Christ could become central to our whakapapa (genealogy).

Mohi Turei was part of Indigenous Anglican churches founded on an Indigenous worldview that read scripture, doctrine and prayer through our own eyes and epistemologies. And that remains our challenge here in Aotearoa-New Zealand. As we begin to grapple with and discard the worst of colonization, we also begin to understand the value of these worldviews. In the context of climate crisis and racism, we now pursue not just decolonization but, perhaps more importantly, reindigenization. Pākehā (settlers) are for the first time beginning to really embrace and understand this land and context, no longer longing for Britain, but instead embracing the language, values and worldview of this land. Our language (which carries our values) after decades of attempts to erase it is now becoming “hot” in media, in corporate and in everyday life.

Our church, sadly, has now fallen behind on this. After our early prophetic constitutional moves, we have lately been recolonizing ourselves, slavishly following anything coming out of Western theological and liturgical centres. Our own Indigenous theological voice was sadly ignored during the painfully long (and yet important) discussion over human sexuality, while Western liberal and conservative forces strove for dominance.

And yet Aotearoa moves on. Soon generations of Pākehā school children will grow up far more knowledgeable of this land than the generations before them, hungry to embrace other ways of being that connect them to one another and to Creation. History that is founded on our Indigenous worldview alongside their own heritage will unlock that door, enabling and empowering and equipping them for the future. Our church just has to find the courage to follow.

Archdeacon Hirini Kaa is a priest in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Auckland and his recently published book, Te Hāhi Mihinare – The Māori Anglican Church, is a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2021.


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