Waitangi Day AKA How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Day

We’ve arrived at another Waitangi Day. The usual players have grumbled about Te Tii Marae. A grumpy Bill English’s trying to remind us all that we should be taking Waitangi Day away from Waitangi. I’ve only seen one opinion piece so far about renaming it to New Zealand Day. And a few people were waiting for baited breath for some kind of confrontation between tikanga Māori and Jacinda’s gender and pregnancy (they’re still waiting).

So pretty much par for the course. Nevertheless, here in the eye of the storm, I’ve time to wonder what Waitangi Day mean?

Even though I grew up a child of the 80s, I have no memories of protests, of anger, of outrage. Waitangi Day was that great day we often got off in the first few weeks of school when we didn’t really want to be there.

I didn’t really know I was Māori and I had no idea of what was in te Tiriti o Waitangi. For me it was a day without history. A bookmark at the conclusion of the endless summers of childhood.

As I’ve come to know myself as tangata whenua, I’ve felt like it should mean something more. But again, I never went to Waitangi for Waitangi Day, so I have no anchor there.

When we came home to Tauranga Moana, Waitangi Day became more complicated.

A sheet of Te Tiriti o Waitangi came to Tauranga Moana. Archdeacon Brown gathered the 21 signatories between April and May 1840. Brown was a bit hesitant to discuss the treaty here in Tauranga Moana because there was quite a bit of fighting.

Of the 21 signatories, only one of our Ngāti Ranginui rangatira is reported to have signed it: Kapa from Ngāi Tamarāwaho.

In 2012 Ngāti Ranginui signed its Deed of Settlement with the Crown, agreeing what will ultimately be full and final settlement for raupatu. But we don’t talk about that settlement as a Treaty grievance. We talk about Kīngitanga, battles at Pukehinahina and Te Ranga, Te Weranga and finally raupatu.

The tragedy for us is not the failure to live up to the words of a treaty. It is the impoverishment of a people who refused to bow to the Crown. Te Tiriti was merely a vehicle for us to reach resolution with the Crown.

At every turn, I feel like te Tiriti o Waitangi has eluded the personal connection I’ve wanted to have with it.

My Waitangi Day is not about the sheets of paper. It is not about lamenting the wrongs and asserting our survival; April 29 and June 21 are our days to do that.

I feel like Waitangi Day in Tauranga Moana is our only day where some truly wrestle with the bicultural spirit of te Tiriti.

The Waitangi Day celebrations today are at Hopukiore, but they used to be atop Mauao. A special event in a special location.

I remember arriving pre-dawn, the night lit by dull streetlights at Waikorire.

I never quite knew how to dress: warmly for the initial start, or just a t-shirt in anticipation of the day to come? Waitangi Day is almost inevitably glorious in Tauranga Moana. Hot, clear blue skies, warm waters. The home of a summer people.

I tended to go with the initial desire for warmth, and cursed my choice later.

We’d climb away from the urban hustle and our maunga would wrap us in its dense bush, a quiet darkness, punctuated by the heavy breathing and coughing of the unfit. Every now and then a 4WD would grind past carrying the elderly to the peak.

A short walk of only a half an hour, but a time to focus the mind. At the top, we’d all crowd around the triangluation station. I was always struck by the silence of 200 or 300 people pre-dawn. Like we were waiting for something.

Takiri o te ata.

The light struck the exposed stone. Only once did I capture that moment and it is one of my most cherished photos. The perfect round unbearable light of Tamanui Te Rā accompanied by a karakia.

And then it felt like we all let out a breath and the noise started again. People shuffling and fidgeting, low conversations, the loud conversations of half-deaf kuia and koroua.

Then we’d have the speeches. Because we were all so close together on the peak of Mauao, the formality of space was absent. So politicians and kaumātua and special guest speakers were all nested amongst the crowd.

It looked like an old time rally. People acted like that too; shouting down the racist or arrogant politician and buoying up those who found the words to express the day.

Then they had an open mike. I love the open mike. It brings out the obsessive conspiracy theorist in every community. The two who stand out for me were the Pākehā woman who took the opportunity to talk about the plight of dolphins (who knew they suffered just as Māori had?) every year and that one time an elderly Pākehā man launched himself at the microphone from crowd, screaming out “Tihei Mauriora!” only to trip, and completely disappear into the crowd.

The speakers who drew the most approval were always on the same message: this is our treaty; Māori have a special place in our community; and we should celebrate our bicultural society. The crowd favourites always posited a vision of a society where we prospered together.

Now don’t get me wrong; it’s not like 120,000 people in Tauranga stand around holding hands and singing ‘kum ba yah’ on Waitangi Day. Most don’t even engage. But the 1,000 or so who do engage are trying to get their head around what we mean by biculturalism.

If I find any meaning at all in Waitangi Day it is with these hopeful dreamers. Waitangi Day is a repository of our hopes for this wonderful little country.

It’s on a day like this that I can believe that the hope of partnership endures despite the betrayals, the racism, the hate, the failure and the loss.

We know we’re different from each other, but we have something to offer each other in that diversity.

We are trying to be a nation together and the gift of our tāngata whenua is worth protecting, learning and honouring.

We don’t need to fear each other, but we do need to be honest with each other. That honesty will include a time for grieving. But that’s not forever.

Happy Waitangi Day.

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