Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day      —by Jinny Batterson

In early 2016, rather than heading to Florida to avoid the worst of winter, I went further afield—to the southern hemisphere and a series of walking and biking tours in New Zealand.  Most of the time, I was out of reach of media outlets, sheltered from both American and New Zealand politics. However, though I was out in the countryside of the south island bicycling on February 6, I could not entirely filter out news about preparations and celebration that day of what is generally considered New Zealand’s national holiday: Waitangi Day.

What has become Waitangi Day began with the 1840 signing of a treaty between a number of indigenous Maori chiefs and a representative of the British crown. The treaty was supposed to help insure peaceful relations between the European settlers then beginning to arrive in New Zealand and the more numerous and fierce Maori, whom historians think first arrived in New Zealand about a thousand years ago. In 1932, the British governor-general turned over the grounds where the treaty was signed, at Waitangi on New Zealand’s north island, to the New Zealand government as a national historical site. Annual celebrations began in 1934. Typical events on Waitangi Day incorporate Maori war canoes, sports contests, food, crafts, and singing.  In most years, the Prime Minister of New Zealand makes a brief appearance and gives a speech. A historical museum was opened at Waitangi in 2016.

The Treaty of Waitangi has not always been universally revered or agreed on. The treaty was created in two versions—a Maori language version and an English language one—and there are some basic disagreements about its provisions. Among the most fundamental differences are the meanings of terms like “sovereignty” and “ownership,” which differ significantly in the Maori and the English versions, resulting in ongoing disputes.

As this year’s celebration loomed, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key declined to attend, having received abundant criticism for his government’s recent signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Instead, he sent cabinet minister Steven Joyce, who was, not unexpectedly, beset by protesters angry over the signing. One threw a pink plastic dildo at him. Many others marched in protest of the agreement, which they claim takes away sovereignty that is not the government’s to negotiate. 

Now that I’ve returned to the U.S., I’ve had some fantasies about how any of our political hopefuls would react to a pink plastic dildo in the face. New Zealanders generally seem a calmer, less agitated lot than the average American these days. Some issues implicit in the ongoing New Zealand controversies are very much present in our U.S. body politic, though. How do immigrants and the indigenous populations of any area make peace? How do they preserve peace over time, as conditions change? How does an increasingly multicultural society remain inclusive and guarantee basic rights for all? What constitutes sovereignty, or ownership? 

A New Zealander I met later in my trip gave an answer that rang true for me. “None of us own anything, really,” he said. “We are only temporary stewards. The best we can do is to try to share our portion, however small or large, and to leave our homes on earth a little better than we found them.” 



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