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Waitangi: for a nation or for Māori?

I wonder if it seems ironic to a foreigner, that a national day would be marked by conflict.  The protests that annually mark this day are probably something most of us have grown used to.  Most countries have a national day where they celebrate their country: our national day seems to be one where we battle over what our country is.  It sounds so sad when it’s worded like that, but in reality, it’s almost as if we’ve accepted that as part of our annual calendar.

I still struggle to understand what Waitangi Day is truly about.  The Treaty of Waitangi is known as New Zealand’s “founding document”, but every time I hear about the treaty, the words “Māori” and “rights” are invariably lurking around.  Every time Waitangi Day comes along, the same thing.  It beggars the question: is Waitangi Day a day for a nation, or a day for a nation to talk about Māori?

Moreover, which should Waitangi Day be?  Any true national day would be a celebration of what it is to be a countryman, not a day to discuss race relations.  It would be when we wave our national flag, not a flag to signify one ethnic group.  It would be when we feel good to be a New Zealander and when we think about how we can move forward as a country.  Plainly, it would be about all of us—not just Māori.

When I read the treaty, I see a small mention of Queen Victoria’s being “desirous” to establish government, and three articles on the outcome of negotiations between the British and the Māori.  The negotiations would pave the way for a country to be established, but this fact is rarely remembered.  Perhaps it is that the Treaty of Waitangi dates back to a time where New Zealand was a diethnic society, and so we focus squarely on the diethnic (or monoethnic) aspects of it.

But New Zealand has come a long way since 1840.  We are no longer a diethnic country, but one with too many ethnicities to count.  There is a lot more than the treaty to celebrate on this day.  There is the entire of what has shaped New Zealand through 167 years, our highs, our lows, those wars that never quite came here, those influxes of Asian and Pasifika immigrants.  There is no reason why we can’t celebrate all this.  It’s just an especially appropriate time to do so, on the day where our founding document was signed.

In this vein, the proposal to rename today “New Zealand Day” has some substance, but Waitangi Day is a perfectly appropriate name.  The country is in a sad state when recent immigrants feel excluded plainly because it has an indigenous name.  Te reo Māori is just as much a part of the country as they are, and a day called Waitangi Day is a fine excuse to make a hoo-hah about being a New Zealander.

Then again, perhaps we are in a confused state as to what being a “New Zealander” is.  A modern custom is to talk about our ethnic diversity and how proud we are of it.  I can relate to that, but I sometimes wonder how many of us can.  Perhaps we could focus on our achievements, our standing in the world, and what it’s like to live here.  You don’t have to be a rugby fan to enjoy watching New Zealand waste Australia in rugby.  You don’t have to have grown up here to know that you like living in one of the world’s least polluted and least corrupt countries.  You just have to be as much a part of this place as anyone else is.

While the focus of our national day is on where Māori are, we will never have a national day.  Perhaps, one day in the distant future, the word “Waitangi” will mean something to all of us, rather than one or two ethnic groups.  But for that to happen, Waitangi Day will need to stop being used as a medium for protest and Māori politics.  Then, maybe, we’ll find meaning in being New Zealanders.

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