A sense of purpose

Ann Parsonson-4
A conversation with historian Ann Parsonson about her life and work makes it clear that she was always destined to work on the Ngāi Tahu Claim. Kaituhituhi Tony Bridge reports in the second of our series on the historians who played an integral part in the Claim.

Ann Parsonson was born and brought up in Dunedin, but from her mid-teens she made trips north to stay with her aunt and uncle, Joan and Ces Badley, who were teachers — first at Okere Falls,(Lake Rotoiti) where they had close associations with Ngāti Pikiao, and later at Bernard Fergusson School at Ngāruawāhia. Joan and Ces spent a lot of time working at Tūrangawaewae Marae, supporting the Kīngitanga, and Ann began to go up each year for the Koroneihana (the Coronation).

“Those visits opened up to me a history I knew little about. The Raupatu (war and confiscation of the mid 1860s) cast a very long shadow, and Te Puea Herangi’s building of Tūrangawaewae Marae in the 1920s to bring the Kīngitanga back to its home in Ngāruawāhia did not seem that long ago. In Waikato, the impacts of colonisation were very tangible.

“Joan worked in the “kapok gang”, so I would go along with her, helping make up beds, and in the long pauses while we waited for mattresses to come from surrounding marae, the women would sit talking, and there and on the marae, I began to understand the importance of Kīngitanga to the motu and in our history and that was why I came to start a thesis on the Kīngitanga.”

Hers was an academic family. Her father Gordon taught history at the University of Otago. She remembers him as a fine teacher, who taught her Pacific Islands history in her final undergraduate year.

She took foreign languages and history, in which she majored. “By the time I got to the end of my degree, I knew I didn’t want to do languages any more. Well, I wish te reo Māori had been taught; in the end I started the Correspondence School te reo courses.”

The future for her would be in history. Later she moved up to the University of Canterbury where she did her master’s thesis on a history of the Kīngitanga in the difficult years after the Raupatu when the government was pushing to open the King Country.
She moved on to her doctorate, studying early land transactions in central New Zealand, and focusing on understanding the outbreak of war in Taranaki in 1860. She read “a great many minutes of Māori land court cases, with (her) head stuck inside an ancient microfilm reader.

“The minutes record some remarkable evidence, given well over a hundred years ago, even though the court was hardly a traditional forum. The old people brought their oral traditions and histories out of their tribal context and into the land court to prove their rights and obtain title in the Crown’s new title system. So they had to decide what aspects of their history to present which would identify them with their land — histories whose purpose was to maintain the mana of their ancestors and community.”

By then Ann was getting a real sense of purpose. As she moved further into her studies, she felt both chastened and challenged by what she didn’t know. In 1978, with her doctorate nearly completed, a door opened. She was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Canterbury, teaching New Zealand history. “It was a surprise — I hadn’t expected that. It was a sudden transition.”

It was also a time when Māori tolerance of New Zealand’s mono-cultural institutions had worn thin. The writing and teaching of history, she says, wasn’t immune either. Why should it have been? “The Māori challenge to Pākehā historians as being not competent culturally, in the sense of understanding Māori beliefs and values and tikanga, was widespread. Many Pākehā historians pulled back from writing about the Māori past, as being intrusive and inappropriate, accepting the criticism that they might not in fact be knowledgeable enough culturally to avoid the distortion of tribal histories. And if you couldn’t get that right, you might not write well either about the history of the relationship between tribal groups and the Crown. So it was a particularly sobering period for a Pākehā historian.”

Then the door opened again. In 1985 the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act was passed, allowing the Tribunal to hear Māori historical claims dating from 1840. “Once the Tribunal began its historical inquiries, iwi had to provide detailed evidence about Crown acts and policies over 150 years, and wanted their own understandings to be reflected in the evidence too.” And that was something historians, working in the back room, could be involved in.

“That mattered a lot to me. It mattered that the processes that had finally been set up to recognise the claims iwi/hapū had kept alive for so long — to ensure their deep-seated grievances would be heard and settled — should work. That was the path we’d embarked on in New Zealand to deal with our dismal past.

“We’d got to the end of the line in terms of pretending we had the ‘best race relations in the world’. It was quite clear to Pākehā by the 1980s — as it had been to Māori long before — that we didn’t. And if we wanted to be able to look ourselves as a society in the eye, we had to find a way of fixing what had become an awful power imbalance, and the historical injustices which had had such huge impacts on Māori communities. Tribal groups, their autonomy undercut, were left unable to protect their resources in accordance with their tikanga, or to develop their economies. That wasn’t right.”

In the years that followed, she worked with Tā Tipene O’Regan, first on the Ngāi Tahu Claim and then while teaching at the University of Canterbury, and also with Tā Robert Te Kotahi Mahuta at the Centre for Māori Studies and Research (Hopuhopu), assisting with research for the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu claim, and later the Waikato River claim.

“They were both courageous leaders prepared to take on the government, both visionaries who thought generations ahead. They travelled the same path, both committed to shaking off the weight of grievance and starting the new century in a position to rebuild a future.”

Te Kerēme was the first big historical claim to be heard from the beginning under the new legislation. The claim had been filed in December 1986, and the hearings were arranged to start in August 1987. Once this became clear, Ngāi Tahu moved quickly to assemble a team of historians. Ann was approached early in 1987 by David Palmer, a solicitor at Weston Ward & Lascelles. He’d been asked by Rakiihia Tau, whose son, Te Maire Tau, was then a history student at the University of Canterbury, to find out if she would be willing to help with Te Kerēme.

She describes working on Te Kerēme as a steep learning curve: “I was pretty appalled to find I had not known how South Island land had been acquired, how Crown purchases made so soon after the Treaty was signed could have left so many Ngāi Tahu landless within such a short time, how the Treaty itself had long been looked to by Ngāi Tahu, and how he Claim had been kept alive through generations right up till the time of the hearings.”

She helped assemble and present evidence on the Ōtakou tenths reserves and the Princes Street Reserve in Dunedin, working alongside Harry Evison (“the senior historian amongst us,”) and Jim McAloon, who gave evidence on other parts of the claim.

“For the iwi, the pace of the hearings was frantic,” she says. “They were four to six weeks apart, and the ‘A team’ was determined never to miss a start date. Sometimes we were getting our evidence back from the printer about half an hour before we stood up to give it.

The ‘two Trevors’, Trevor Howse and Trevor Marsh, did an amazing job organising each hearing.
“The issues were often knotty and it was unfamiliar territory for all of us, working with lawyers. Paul Temm QC could be both demanding and irascible.”

At  Ōnuku Marae for the Crown Apology to Ngāi Tahu, from left, Trevor Howse, Maarire Goodall, Kerepeti Paraone, Anake Goodall, Ann Parsonson.

At Ōnuku Marae for the Crown Apology to Ngāi Tahu, from left, Trevor Howse, Maarire Goodall, Kerepeti Paraone, Anake Goodall, Ann Parsonson.

It was important, Ann says, not just to unravel Crown policy at the time of the Ōtākou purchase, but to get across to the Tribunal how the Ōtākou leaders who had originally negotiated the sale and signed the deed had understood it. For Ōtākou, she had a lot of help from legal and historical researcher Dr Maarire Goodall and also from weaver and historian Te Aue Davis, who interpreted evidence given by Ngāi Tahu speakers at 19th century commissions and the Ōtākou purchase deed itself (from Māori back into English).

When the hearings began, no-one knew how long they would continue, and there was a great sense of relief when they were concluded in October 1989. Ann remembers that Ōtākou kaumātua Kuao Langsbury summed up what many were thinking when he said that it was “all very well to think that we had all worked hard”; but he now understood what it meant for the old people to have kept Te Kerēme alive for so long, and what it had cost them. For the first time, he said, he really understood.

In the early 1990s, Ann went on to give evidence for the claimants in the Taranaki Muru me te Raupatu claims to the Tribunal, about the events leading to the outbreak of war there in 1860, and the confiscation legislation. And by 1994 she was back in Waikato, this time with her nine- year- old daughter Katia, to write a report on the Raupatu claim. Tā Robert would settle the claim in 1995 by negotiating directly with the Crown.

She was still teaching at Canterbury as well. Professor David McIntyre, head of the History Department, had been supportive of the work for the Ngāi Tahu Claim, and the department was keen to create a Māori History position. Ann remembers working with Tā Tipene after he joined the department part-time in 1989. “How he managed even part-time I really don’t know; sometimes he arrived in Christchurch on his third flight of the day. But he was a compelling lecturer — he could engage students on any topic from the traditional Ngāi Tahu economy to modern Māori politics. With a wicked glint in his eye, he would compare the strange Pākehā habit of shooting ducks from uncomfortable maimais, with the sensible Ngāi Tahu practice of rounding up ducks when they were moulting, herding them into nets, and having a cup of tea, as he put it, till they were ready to deal with them.”

For the next 12 years, she and Tā Tipene also taught an honours course together on Rangatiratanga and Kāwanatanga, the sort of course which they felt needed to be offered to New Zealand history students.

In 2001, Ann was appointed a member of the Waitangi Tribunal; and a few years later she gave up her position at the University of Canterbury and moved to full-time work with the Tribunal. She regards it as unique for a number of reasons, not least as a bicultural, bilingual body. She speaks of the amazement of young Canadian law students when they come as interns to the Tribunal in Wellington.

“When they understand the range of people who sit on the tribunal, they’re blown away that the power’s not in hands of a single judge, but that the tribunal is a broad -based body, and especially that Māori and Pākehā sit together on it, and many of the presiding officers are Māori land court judges.”

She sees the Tribunal’s work as being important in several respects. Firstly, that the Tribunal holds its hearings in the rohe of hapu/iwi who choose to bring their claims to it, and people have the opportunity to give their own evidence there. They hear the researchers, including Crown historians, present their reports, and hear how the evidence is tested. This is often of enormous interest to the claimant communities.

Secondly, the Tribunal process has led to a “massive research effort into claims over the past 25 years so that they’re much better understood, and at the end of that process the Tribunal writes its own major reports on claims, and makes findings to assist the claimants and the Crown in reaching Treaty settlements.”

It is a process that began with Te Kerēme, and which has evolved in light of the lessons learned from that pioneering work.
Since her appointment, she has been involved with several major historical inquiries: Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (Gisborne), Te Urewera, and most recently, Te Paparahi o Te Raki (Northland). The tribunal has for some time heard claims by district to speed up its work. And, in every district some key issues recur, like the work of the Native Land Court, and the Crown purchase of land, connected to land court processes, as well as tribal efforts in the past to secure Crown recognition of their autonomy. But there are also issues that are unique to each district. In Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, for example, a little-known assault by Crown forces over several days in November 1865 on a defensive pā at Waerenga a Hika, in which there were many women and children, had consequences which played out over many difficult years in Tūranga. Such histories are still not widely known, even in the districts where they happened. The Tūranga Tribunal was struck by the far-reaching effects of this on Māori-Pākehā relations.

While only one side remembers the suffering of the past, dialogue will always be difficult. One side commences the dialogue with anger and the other side has no idea why.” But finally, Ann suggests, the stories of our shared past are becoming more widely known — and that’s hopeful for the future.

So where to from here? At present Ann is still involved in three Tribunal inquiries, so it’s not easy, she says, to see beyond that just yet. But the historical inquiries are approaching their end. And after years of being immersed in often highly-charged hearings about issues that matter so much to those involved, and of working intensively in small teams to write major reports on those issues, sitting in a library again might seem rather quiet.

However, judging by the mountains of documents in her small home office, there is a lot of work to be done before then.