06 Feb 2019

Resentment, Conflict and Opportunity on Waitangi Day

Written by Kristian Rusten

Waitangi Day is New Zealand’s national day. It’s the day we see as the most significant in the founding of modern Aotearoa. 6 February 1840, the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, when representatives of certain Iwi met representatives of The Crown and, for relatively simple reasons, reached a relatively simple agreement.

Relatively simple, but incredibly complex.

And herein lies the conflict. Our national day is also what we look at when unpacking the horrors of colonisation.

A Good Country

We take pride in New Zealand. And we should. Our people are known as warm, welcoming, our country is often called the most beautiful in the world. We have the All Blacks, and great mince and cheese pies.

But at some point, for Pākehā kids like me, the illusion that we were living in a post-racial Pacific utopia had to be addressed.

The origin story we’d been told was contradicted. And, if we made the effort, we eventually started to see things differently. How law after law, action after action, subverted Māori self-determination, dispossessed Māori of taonga, reinforced the assumption of European cultural superiority through policies of brute assimilation.

We saw the broken promises, the wars, the land grabs, Parihaka. Today, despite the growing influence of Māori culture on all of New Zealand, we see enduring disparities, inequality on ethnic lines.

And now we’re left with a question. How should we Pākehā approach our national day? Where do we fit into our country’s Waitangi celebrations, caught between our guilt and our pride?

Resentment

Our guilt is not individual, it’s collective. It’s the guilt of a population living on ill-gotten gains. Despite this, our guilt and the reaction we have to it is still raw and personal.

We’re filled with resentment. For the guilt, for the blame, for the day itself. We’re struck by this because these injustices invalidate our view of ourselves, what we’d like to be, what we thought we were.

We can’t make that go away. Our self-image as decent human beings doesn’t make our history disappear, nor can it redefine the acts of our predecessors, from which we now benefit, in the context of which we’ll live our lives.

And here, if we look hard enough, with level heads, we can find an opportunity.

Reflection

A political theorist named Max Harris wrote a book a while back, called the New Zealand Project. He discusses the idea of values-based politics, the contention that politics shouldn’t be carried out on a random, issue-to-issue basis. That politics shouldn’t be a matter of pragmatism, but one of values.

It’s an elegant idea, which can speak to any New Zealander. Our frustration with politics is as clear as the water lapping onto our finest beaches. We’re alienated.

We’ve been crying out for an idea like this, a review of our society and government to see how they gel with everything we hold dear. One which requires an effort to understand, define, and more fully inhabit our values.

And Waitangi Day is the perfect day for it.

An opportunity for reflection, for learning. A day for establishing a platform for the pursuit of everything we wanted to live up to, but never had the chance to be.

Values-based politics is a conscious effort to craft the country we want. It’s a politics of purpose, of intent, of tino rangatiratanga, self-determination.

We would be drafting our ideal Aotearoa. And through this political realignment, we can confront our past. We can think of what an injustice-free Aotearoa would look like.

Cultural Leadership

Māori culture is more prevalent in New Zealand today than it has been in a long time. But it remains excluded from key parts of our society.

We can welcome Te Reo in schools, look at different approaches to justice, to governance, to how we interact with and treat our land.

That also means Pākehā have to take a step back and give cultural leadership to Māori.

It demands that we embrace new ways of looking at ourselves, that we shift our perspective. It means Pākehā being open to and investing in Māori culture, relinquishing in a small way our comfortable position of power and privilege.

Pākehā have often used this day to call for inclusion and unity while making little effort to embrace the culture of our indigenous people.

If we change this, we can set Aotearoa on a course to becoming the country it might have been, had past promises been kept.

Waitangi Day can’t be that naïve day of pride, a ‘yay for New Zealand’. It’s the day the colony came to be, and it can never and should never be distanced from what followed. But it can represent something new. The day on which we come together to shape our future. To carve a country just and self-possessed, no longer restrained but empowered by the past that binds us.

Kristian Rusten

About Kristian Rusten

After spending two years working with Amnesty International in New Zealand, Kristian Rusten worked as a refugee caseworker in Greece and now lives in Paris, while writing, freelancing and volunteering.

View all posts by Kristian Rusten