This year we asked some of our contributors to write about what the day meant to them. Their views show that there’s cause for celebration, potential for greater involvement and appreciation of the day’s significance. First off, freelance writer Chris Horan:
Like most New Zealanders I’ve never been to Waitangi and doubt I’ll ever get there. What I’ve seen on TV has very often been divisive. However, a few years ago I happened to be in Oamaru on Waitangi Day.The event was celebrated a few miles from town. We drove over a grass track through a field ready to harvest sun-flowers.
A lovely setting. And until that day I’d not realised how many ethnic groups lived in Oamaru. All were keen to show their stuff and a great day was had by all.
What I’d like for the future is for the Prime Minister or Governor General to visit provincial towns on the big day. Imagine how enthusiastically the residents of small towns would work to make the event a success, and make Waitangi Day a day for us all!
When I think about Waitangi Day, I think about togetherness. I’m reminded of a story. When Hone Heke (Ngapuhi) signed te tiriti, William Hobson tried to say to him, “we are now one people” in te reo Maori. He said, “he iwi tahi tatou” – which is grammatically incorrect. Rather than having a go at him for his error, Heke corrected Hobson’s grammar: “He iwi Kotahi tatou”, he said. I think this whakatauaki demonstrates that when we work together, we do things correctly – and history teaches us what happens when we don’t!
As I reflect on Waitangi Day, I’m reminded of all those who have worked to bring our peoples closer together – Dame Anne Salmond and journalist and former Race Relations Conciliator Harry Dansey (Ngati Tuwharetoa, Te Arawa, Ngati Raukawa) are two shining examples.
An American’s Perspective
New Zealand is the only colonised country I’m aware of that bases its founding day, not on violence or winning a war, but on a treaty made between the settlers and the indigenous people of the country.
As a new immigrant to NZ from the USA in the 1970’s, I was impressed by how different that was to the story of America’s founding day, first celebrated in 1777.
July 4th marks the day when white American settlers won independence from Great Britain. This didn’t include the indigenous tribes, whose ancestors had occupied the land for 15,000 years. In just over a century they lost their lands, cultures and languages and were forced into reservations.
Our history counts…
I recently encountered a Saturday sausage sizzle; a regular event outside our local mega hardware store. When I inquired what they were raising funds for, the chap flourishing the BBQ tools replied ‘It was to travel to the South Island to put on street theatre performances about New Zealand’s role in the liberation of the French village of Le Quesnoy in World War I’.
Putting aside my thoughts as to whether we need any more street theatre, nevertheless his explanation led to a rather terse exchange about the wisdom of the venture. My objection to their project was that there had already been an inordinate amount of attention to WWI; much of it overly sentimental and too little of it actively engaged with the futility of the conflict. There has also been a surfeit of banal claims that it was the birth-place of a ‘New Zealand identity’.
My argument was the Land Wars of the mid-to-late 1800s were far more significant in shaping our country, with consequences which resonate in 2019. They were particularly important in respect of the Waikato; a history laid out in Vincent O’Malley’s magnificent ‘The Great War For New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000’ (Bridget Williams Books, 2016). O’Malley writes of a complex web of deceit, treachery, double-crossing and outright theft; conducted by settlers, politicians and British invasion force against the legitimate interest of Maori.
It is history which I reflect on, on Waitangi Day. I hope others do the same but I suspect that most of us just regard as a welcome day off, coming just as we gear up for another work or school year. What might make it more significant would be if we shifted to a different date; maybe bumping observation of the Queen’s birthday out of the way (she has had sufficient birthdays) in favour of properly local commemoration.
Looking North on the Day
I always wait for news from the north on Waitangi Day with concern for what it will mean for our country. This year promises to be very interesting with the second visit from Jacinda Ardern – fresh from Europe and talks of caring leadership.
It will also demonstrate just how much influence the politics of Oz play here after the strident Australia Day demonstrations. Will local protest groups follow their Aussie counterparts?
As for me personally, I now have a foot in the Hokianga with a second home (and maybe my last one) there so I now feel a greater empathy for northern tribal issues.
Let’s hope this year’s celebrations will honour the past and move forward with a new mood of unity.
Siege, celebration, reconciliation?
“The pot’s on the boil” poet James K. Baxter once told me with a sense of glee, as he lounged on the grass at the Te Ti Marae watching a growing crowd of anti-Waitangi protesters gather for the march to the Treaty grounds. As a reporter I covered five years of protests in this mix of siege and celebration.
Looking back, it’s clear that the protests led to positive change and to a more nuanced understanding of the Treaty. It may have felt at times as if society was rent by racial and cultural differences. But the debates were widespread and involved not just Maori, but Pakeha and different Governments. One result was our bi-cultural society.
Arguments over the Treaty will probably never end – nor should they, because we still have some way to go. But at the very least, the last 38 years displayed something precious – our moderate and eventually – our fair-minded national character.