Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Waitangi Day

Today is New Zealand’s national day, Waitangi Day. It commemorates the signing of a treaty between the British Crown and Maori chiefs at Waitangi in Northland on this day in 1840.

The Treaty is now considered the founding document of New Zealand, but in the nineteenth century colonial governments sometimes ignored it or deliberately broke it. In more recent times, New Zealand governments have attempted to settle the historic grievances of Maori. This has meant returning confiscated land, paying compensation and other attempts to right earlier wrongs.

The major significance of the Treaty in world history is that for the first time the British Crown extended to a country’s first people (in this case, Maori) the status and rights of British subjects. In other words, they were essentially equal with the British colonists.

It’s been argued that the British, who didn’t have the resources to conquer New Zealand, but who wanted to keep the French from claiming the land, had no other option. Maybe so, but it set in motion development entirely different from that of Australia or the United States. Here, the native peoples intermarried with Europeans and in many places the two peoples lived peacefully together.

In the nineteenth century, greed got the better of many of the colonists, and the resulting wars and injustices were what later had to be addressed through negotiation under the framework of the Treaty.

In recent years, Waitangi Day has been the focus of often bitter protests as Maori demanded that the government “honour the Treaty”. That same call is still heard, but without the aggression of earlier years. For the past couple years in particular, Waitaingi Day has been generally peaceful.

There’s still a way to go before Waitangi Day becomes the pride-inducing celebration of, say, Australia Day or America’s Independence Day. Maybe that’s as it should be, as the descendants of the oppressors and the oppressed find a new place for themselves in this land they share with each other and those of us who are more recently arrived.

Maybe New Zealand will have the chance to forge a national day built not on myths and fiction, but on a firm understanding of the real past with all that was wrong as well as right. That’s something worth waiting for.

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