Monday, February 06, 2006

Happy Waitangi Day

I just checked and saw the great variety of people viewing this blog from all over the world! Kia ora and welcome, visitors from Hawaii, the mainland USA, the Netherlands, the Czech republic, Chile, Britain, South East Asia, Greece, Turkey, Pakistan and Japan. To mention a few!

Because of the international nature of you, the reader, I thought it might be good for me to explain why New Zealanders are having a day off today (except for me, of course).

It's Waitangi Day, the 'celebration' of the Treaty which really launched New Zealand as a nation in 1840. I put 'celebration' in inverted commas because these days it's more associated with protests than peace.

Why is this?

Celebration and controversy
That's a question which many a pakeha (white) New Zealander, and many immigrants, ask. And it's hard to reduce to a nutshell, but I'll try:

The original 1840 Treaty had two translations, one English, one Maori. Seems the two translations ended up saying different things, the key difference being about the word rangatiratanga - nowadays generally agreed to mean 'sovereignty'.

So, whether by accident or deliberately, the aftermath of the Treaty had the British thinking they had complete control over the country - sovereignty - and the Maori thinking the same thing.

Back then, arguments were ultimately won by who had the most guns, and the so-called Land Wars of the 1860s established British governmental control over New Zealand. (The naming of the wars as the Land Wars reflected the thinking of the time, that the wars were simply about land. Historians now refer to the wars as the New Zealand wars, reckoning they were actually about sovereignty).

A culture's resurrection
As time went by, the Maori culture grew weaker and weaker, diluted, some say, by the white man's religion, by disease, by alcohol, and later on by urbanisation. Maori families moved from their rural land to new opportunities in the city, and new generations learned that they needed to abandon the old ways, the old language, to get ahead.

It could have been the end of the Maori culture, let alone hopes for the sovereignty promised in the Treaty. But a brave group of Maori intellectuals and radicals spearheaded the so-called Maori Renaissance in the 1970s, bringing back the language, culture and - most controversially - land claims into the public eye.

What began as a movement of (relatively) peaceful yet illegal protest eventually influenced the New Zealand government at the highest levels, and today the Treaty is entrenched in legislation, and the government of the day attempts to fulfil the spirit of the Treaty as best it can.

My perspective
That's a very short nutshell approach to what the Treaty is all about. Waitangi Day is a time which tests the leadership and PR skills of all the major political leaders, who in the past have faced protest, humiliation and challenge at Waitangi.

This year, Prime Minister Helen Clark has declined to be at Waitangi, a point she is trying to play down. However it's the sort of occasion when it doesn't matter what you do or don't do, as a leader you'll be noticed.

For me, as a fifth generation pakeha New Zealander, Waitangi makes me think of a lot of things.
  • I'm thankful for the system of government we do have, that we inherited from Britain. A constitutional monarchy, though archaic and complicated, is a very stable form of government that gives the people a lot of voice in the affairs of government - if they know how to take advantage of that.

  • On the other side of that coin, I'm sad that so often, the words that should communicate instead block the other party from being able to understand. That's what some say the Treaty was about in the first place - a bloodless war to plunder the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. I don't agree with that, but I can understand that point of view.

  • I'm thankful that I met Robyn (another erstwhile contributor to this blog) last year, a Maori activist who showed me what all the fuss was about. It makes a big difference to meet someone, share a meal with them and find out what a regular person they are. Much different to seeing marching protestors on TV.

  • I think about my own ancestors and their experiences with Maori. They came to this country as settlers with the New Zealand Company, but instead of the large, cleared land they expected, they found bush and hard terrain. Thankfully they formed good relations with Maori in the several places they lived, learned the language and customs, and lived peacefully side by side. At least that's how it comes across in their written accounts - which I realise may be euphemistic. Still, it's nice to think that while chiefs and governors were haggling, common folk such as my ancestors were simply getting on with the business of life, and looking not only to their own interests but the interests of their neighbours, brown or white. One part of me says that is incredibly naive, another part of me says, so what?


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