aitangi Day today, our national day and anniversary of the signing of Aotearoa New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. So of course, it being the national day, everyone attends lots of patriotic events and celebrations… actually, no, most people just enjoy having a free day off, and otherwise try their best to ignore the significance of the day. Waitangi Day (although things have improved in the last decade or so) is mostly just a source of embarrassment, at least to Pakeha New Zealanders – are we supposed to celebrate? Commiserate? Commemorate? Apologise? Much easier just to pretend it’s not there.
The Treaty of Waitangi is, at its heart, a very good thing. A totally revolutionary idea for 1840, European colonists saying, “Hey, let’s not just slaughter all the native people and take over their land. Why don’t we actually reach an agreement with them about how we can share it instead?” The only trouble was, once the treaty was signed, the Crown pretty much ignored it for the next 150 years, gradually stealing the land that was supposed to be reserved for iwi, and denying Maori most of the rights they’d been promised. Which, strangely enough, Maori weren’t very happy about. Most of my childhood memories of Waitangi Day are of watching protests on TV, Maori justifiably asking why we were celebrating the signing of a treaty that wasn’t being honoured. Sometimes the protests turned violent, but even when they stayed peaceful there was a strong current of grief and anger.
In recent years, things have improved. Financial settlements have been negotiated with many of the iwi in recompense for the land that was taken from them, and the Treaty itself is slowly transforming from a lifeless piece of tattered paper stored deep in the government archives into a guiding principle for how our country should operate: a partnership between two peoples, working together to build a nation. There’ll always be those on the extreme right who mutter about “Bludging Maoris, why should we give them a handout?”, but a larger and larger proportion of the population at least pay lip service to the concept of biculturalism (and the thing about lip service is, if you say the right thing often enough, eventually it starts sneaking into your thinking as well). We’re getting there.
But there’s still something awkward about Waitangi Day. It’ll be a long time before it becomes our 4th of July.
Don’t forget – Americans did the same thing to Native Americans. I doubt Native Americans celebrate the 4th of July either.
Every country has a dirty history. But taking steps to right the wrongs that were made to indigenous people is a good move forward. I fear though, that it will take a long time before the grief & anger is completely gone (rightly so – it really is appalling how they were treated).
True, indigenous people have had a pretty rough deal from colonists all over the world. Perhaps it’s good to have a day like Waitangi Day that forces us to think about that fact once a year.