The Racist Lie New Zealanders Taught Their Children

The genocide used to justify colonization


Moriori karāpuna (ancestors) at Manukau, Rēkohu (Chatham Island), in 1884. Photo from E-Tangata

Up until last week, I believed a lie taught for over 100 years to New Zealanders about our country’s historical origins. Even though historians tried to set the record straight as early as the 1920's, teachers, parents, and politicians continued to tell the same story: a story of the cannibalistic wiping out of an entire people group.

The lie that refuses to leave

For most of the 20th century, schools taught that the original people of New Zealand, the Moriori, were a red-headed tribe from Melanesia. They lived peacefully in New Zealand until the early 14th century when hundreds of Maori arrived on the beaches in canoes (waka) ready for war.

They attacked the Moriori, killing and eating them, until the entire group was wiped out. Moriori, according to the history books, were extinct. Some teachers claimed they never existed at all.

It’s a story that thousands of New Zealanders still believe today. There are a number of issues with the story, but the main problem is this: the thousands of individuals who identify as Moriori are sick of being told they don’t exist.

Setting the record straight

In February 2020, Moriori representatives and the government officially set the record straight. A treaty settlement was made which included a correct historical account, restoration of significant Moriori land, financial compensation, and an official apology.

Still, many New Zealanders don’t know the true story and I suspect it will take a long time before that changes.

The Moriori myth stuck so firmly in the culture because of the purpose it served. Pakeha (white New Zealanders) used the story to justify their own colonization of New Zealand: “If the Maori can push out the Moriori, then we can push the Maori out too.”

Darwin’s survival of the fittest was quoted at the time. Pakeha saw Moriori as inferior so, according to Darwin’s theory, their extinction was the natural order of things. Maori were stronger and, so naturally, they beat the Moriori. Of course, that extended to the colonizing Europeans own belief that…



Kelly Eden | Essayist | Writing Coach

New Zealand-based essayist | Personal Essay Workshops | @ Insider, Mamamia, Thought Catalog, ScaryMommy and more