Waitangi, Elephant in the Motu? – part ii

Waitangi Day is over for another year, the elephant didn’t exactly roar around the motu, but it made its presence known. The day was recognised in various ways. Many of us commemorated the signing where it all began, others in different settings around the motu, while the majority probably simply enjoyed the ‘free’ day.

the lower marae Te Tii

February 6th has yet to enter into the national imagination like Anzac Day, which many have adopted as symbolic of our national identity and as a metaphor for our ‘coming of age’ as a nation. I wish to question this perspective without at all diminishing the sacrifice of so many young Kiwis on that beach in Gallipoli. There was, truly, great trauma, woundings and death on that foreign soil. Instead I question the way so many revere Anzac Day, while comparatively few view Waitangi Day as significant.

I  noticed the somewhat cynical comments by the presenters of TV 1’s Seven Sharp. Mike Hosking referred to Waitangi Day as, ‘that annual ritual that masquerades as our national day, and which we brace for some level of upheaval and acrimony…’ His co-presenter, Toni Street continued, ‘And so we are braced, we are waiting for it all to hit the fan…’

So what about the ‘masquerade of Waitangi Day as our national day’? Does it deserve such condescension? What should a national day look like? These questions could yield a variety of responses, but for a good number of New Zealanders, Waitangi Day is a day worthy of commemoration. A brief glimpse at this year’s gathering reveals a little of ‘what the national day looks like’.

At Waitangi and its environs, thousands turned up to participate in a variety of activities over a three day period.  Hosted by Ngapuhi, the Crown and local residents, these thousands included the rich and the poor, Māori and Pākehā, the political elite, the young and the old. They included the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Little, and the leaders of the minor parties. The National Māori Council hosted a hui in their marquee with a variety of voices, including Sir Eddie Durie, Donna Awatere-Huata, Winston Peters, and Gareth Morgan, who amongst much good-natured banter covered a range of topics from Māori ownership of water, to Māori wardens and the current role of the Treaty.

Close by, anti-oil exploration protestors rubbed shoulders with John Key, curious bystanders and a benign police presence. Our own Karuwhā Trust marquee ensured that the contribution of early missionaries to the Treaty was not forgotten. The marquee, a few metres away from the spontaneous rapping of a member of the multi-talented Harawira whanau, hosted a variety of visitors and inquirers.

Discussions both informal and formal were held in Waitangi meeting houses, hotels, marquees and over cups of coffee, fried bread and raw fish. The Constitution, water ownership, the flag, the Treaty itself and the Black Caps’ chances in the World Cup were discussed and debated. People participated in the powhiri at Te Ti Marae, the Dawn Service and the later church service at Te Whare Rūnanga – the nation’s marae on the Treaty grounds. They watched the navy band, the flag being raised and waka being launched. Some bought stuff from the craft markets, Māori bibles from the Bible Society, while others protested in close proximity to those doing bombs off the bridge. Add to this, buskers, Ardijah on the main stage, swimming, sleeping on the beach and political fora against the backdrop of a sparkling Bay of Islands, and a glimpse of our national day can be seen.

Not a ‘masquerade’, and neither did whatever ‘hit the fan’, but it was a day of significance that provides an opportunity for our nation to commemorate, celebrate and also ponder how the Treaty relationship can be restored. This is a day of conversation that looks back, examines the present, and dreams about the Waitangi aspiration of unity or kotahitanga, spoken of 175 years ago by Lt. Governor Hobson in his famous words: He iwi tahi tātou! We are now one people! Not all the same – no – but all belonging to this land because of the Treaty’s invitation to be here and prosper here, together.


Alistair Reese

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