'Let The Facts Speak For Themselves'
Dame Claudia Orange is a woman ahead of her time.
Many would argue that Aotearoa New Zealand has never been more engaged in discussion about the Treaty of Waitangi, the role Te Tiriti o Waitangi plays in our country and whether it is being correctly honoured.
It’s driven much of Dame Claudia’s writing and historic research career for more than three decades.
She tells The Big Idea that at the beginning of her work, “many people thought that much had been said about the Treaty and that NZ had done pretty well for Māori.
“When you research in history - you owe the reader a neutral voice in your data-gathering and the way you use expressions in your writing. This was a pattern which was important to maintain, as primarily I was writing to present to the public a situation that surprised so many and was one they really did not want to know about.
“There was antagonism - born of fear, anger and disbelief very often. When I first published The Treaty of Waitangi in 1987, it began to provide answers to people at a time when the Tribunal mandate had been extended back to 1840 (previously the act only allowed enquiries to claims after 1975).
“Even if you felt deeply dismayed and angry about what you were portraying, you had to write it up in a way that left the facts to speak for themselves and for people to come to their own conclusions.”
Despite being a late starter - not attending University until she was 30, “after I had married, had three children and lived in Bangkok for three years” - Dame Claudia’s dedication to historic research in this country has seen her accrue a hefty swag of titles and accolades.
Now she’s being recognised with the 2021 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in the non-fiction field.
Of the Creative New Zealand-driven recognition, Dame Claudia says “The PMs award is one of the top awards in the country and because the assessment decision is made by independent assessors, it seems to have more weight and significance than if your own historians’ organisations had made the evaluation.”
Launch at Parliament of the Treaty of Waitangi, November 1987: Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves, Claudia Orange, Geoffrey Palmer, and Michael Bassett. Photo: Supplied.
Dame Claudia was drawn to the Treaty through a range of factors, including growing up with a father who worked in Māori affairs and discovering of many dramatic statistics on Māori in her MA research on the first Labour government of 1935 to 1949.
“It was the Treaty on the ground in NZ and how it had brought Māori into such a dire state that I wanted to unpack. In essence, it is a history of relationships between Māori and the state. It was obvious to me that the public and successive governments had not grasped Māori needs and the urgency of their many pleas for action.”
Dame Claudia has gone on to play an important role in Te Papa’s historic research and had many other books published, including this year’s The Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi: An Illustrated History.
The most gratifying part of her writing career is “when students and members of the public approach you and say how special understanding has been for them in reading some of my work – that is like being given a lovely bouquet of thanks. What more can you ask for?
“It encourages one to continue researching and writing to clarify if possible and influence where one can. And this continues to be needed as changes in a range of policy areas impact on the public.”
Dame Claudia is confident there are more to follow in her footsteps - with more perspectives to be told.
“For some time the need for Māori researchers and writers has been obvious. Numbers are gradually increasing. They and those in the wider public who train in university or tertiary study in wānanga are going to expand our knowledge hugely, especially in areas where history research (especially documentation in te reo) has not really delved deeply enough.
“It is exciting because with history in schools for years 1-10 levels there is a great need for more research.”
Dame Claudia winning the Goodman Feilder Wattie Book of the year honour in 1987. Photo: Supplied.
Such thorough and all-consuming research can make a major impact on our growth as a nation but Dame Claudia points out you need to make sure it doesn’t become all-consuming.
“The most challenging aspect of the history role is detaching oneself to share one’s life in a balanced work/life role with those close to you and with good friends and the community at large.
“I have always found that talking through ideas and arguments with others is a great way to work through what one is trying to convey. It means those close to you possibly find you more boring than you think you are!
“Having that support is crucial and I have been fortunate in that. When you are in writing mode, it is extremely difficult to detach yourself from it and to be part of what is going on around you.
“In fact, one’s head is still sifting through and arranging ideas in the middle of the night – not good for sleep, so a pad and pen close to the bed is a must!”
The 2021 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement recipients - Dame Claudia Orange (non-fiction), Anne Kennedy (poetry) and David Hill (fiction) - along with Michael King Writers Fellowship winner Dr Monty Soutar came together for an engaging panel discussion, with live readings and answering questions from the creative community - you can watch it here.