Decolonizing the Archives: The Work of New Zealand's Waitangi Tribunal

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Rachel Buchanan


If history is to be decolonized, then the archives it is made from must be too. This article uses the work of the Waitangi Tribunal in Aotearoa New Zealand to explore how this might be possible. The tribunal is a permanent commission of inquiry that investigates contemporary and historical breaches of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Tribunal hearings are rich sites of public history-making. A hearing involves the research and production of ‘traditional’ and ‘historical’ tribal narratives as well as the performance of dozens of individual testimonies from Maori. By collecting and archiving the family and tribal histories that Maori claimants have chosen to speak, write or sing before it, the tribunal has made the private public. In the process, the colonial archive has been expanded, democratised and decolonised. This article argues that while the work of the tribunal is necessarily constrained by its brief to investigate post-contact grievances, the voluminous and precious archive generated by inquiries and by the settlement process that sometimes follows, provide the seeds for other more satisfying and challenging stories about New Zealand’s past and present. It reads the archives generated by the Taranaki inquiry to demonstrate how a significant feature of claimant testimony is the challenge it poses to conceptions of time that are central to academic history-making. The subaltern histories shared at tribunal hearings collapse the distinctions between past and present, placing ‘historical actors’ and ‘historical events’ on the same stage as present ones. Tribunal archives, then, are a new and overlooked collection of documentary evidence that refuses to locate colonisation in the past. The tribunal archives challenge historians to rethink ‘history’ and ‘the colonial archive’. If colonisation is something that is not over yet then the colonial archive is still being created (by bodies like the tribunal). It is a collection of documents that can be viewed as both historical and contemporary.

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Author Biography

Rachel Buchanan, Honorary Research Associate Monash University School of Historical Studies

Dr Rachel Buchanan is an honorary research associate in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University