• Ted Dawe is an award-winning author. He also teaches English language to foreign students.

Waitangi; tātou tātou. The day that makes us, us.

The two primal 'New Zealand' public holidays approach.

Let's forget Queen's Birthday and Labour Day for the moment. No need to go into those.

Advertisement

I sense a growing stoush between these two holidays to establish which one we want to 'own', and which one we just endure. My contention is that Waitangi is our most important national day but it has been devalued over the past few years, by media-driven, facebook-style 'likes'.

There has been a tendency to look with envy at the United States and France when they celebrate Independence Day or Bastille Day (or le 14 juillet as the French call it these days).

These are uncontested shows of patriotism, characterised by historical tableaus and awe-inducing military displays. They make such compelling images, don't they?

The question often asked is, 'Why can't Waitangi Day be like that?'

Why is it always these angry protests, punch-ups, flag burning, tee-shirt throwing? And prime ministers with their indifferent comments amounting to 'I'm cool with this.'

Why can't we join together and sing the national anthem (in Māori even!), then strike out for the barbie, the beach and the booze?

Let's think about that for a moment.

Waitangi commemorates a marriage between the European colonists and the tangata whenua. They gathered briefly, laid down a set of agreements and as a consequence were granted joint custody of Aotearoa, in perpetuity.

Every Waitangi day, we renew our 'vows'. 'In perpetuity'; that's a long time. But then there had been at least 800 years of habitation prior to this and there have been more than 170 years since.

The world turns but agreements must be honoured. Without diving into the arcane depths of 'The Treaty', with its 'they wrote/ we read', or 'they meant/we thought', let's consider what endures.

About 85,000,000 years ago Aotearoa parted company with a nascent Australia and headed east. It was a slow journey, but there was lots of time. By the time the first colonists arrived Aotearoa was 2,000 km east of Bondi Beach and slowly heading for Chile.

It was covered in trees, it had many birds, a lonely dinosaur and a few enormous invertebrates and virtually no mammals. It was in fact the last major landform to be colonised by homosapiens on the planet. Australia had been colonised some 50,000 years earlier.

The Polynesian colonists must have struggled to gain a foot-hold here. It wasn't a warm place for people who had never needed to invent warm clothing, nor was there a year-long growing season for their staple root vegetables.

Much of the land was only marginally fertile. Because the rugged interior was difficult to live in, and most protein was sourced from a turbulent and cold sea, they tended to live near the coast.

By the time the first Europeans arrived, most of these problems had been overcome, so in effect, the hard work had been done. Everything that the new arrivals brought to the country destabilised what was a relatively delicate equilibrium; in particular the tribal areas and the political balance of power.

What the settlers brought; technology, weaponry, literacy, trade, liquor, foreign diseases, and religion all played a part in the chaos that ensued.

The imposition of private ownership had what was probably the most devastating long term consequence because it disempowered the bedrock of indigenous tradition.

By the time the treaty was signed there was no going back for the tangata whenua. Just as it had been for the plains Indians in North America, the Inca, Aztec and Mayans in Central America or with the arbitrary mapping and colony-creation of Africa. The original inhabitants of this country had little choice, the initial trickle of immigration would eventually turn into a flood.

A treaty was drawn up and signed by all those who could be persuaded to participate.
What they understood about what they were signing we will never know.

What they have lost since the signing, is all too clear.

So where does that leave us? That leaves us with our national day.

It's a day to reflect upon where we have come from. What we have lost and gained. Where we are heading.

We have plenty to celebrate, but we even more to analyse and interrogate.

Anzac Day? I don't think so. Hakas at Anzac cove? Wilfred Owen? Peter Jackson's over-sized figures depicting soldiers in extremis?

We are always torn between celebration and commemoration.

We celebrate the bravery and sacrifice. We commemorate the absurdity of the operation. Invading the Ottoman Empire .

Keeping the 'enemy' busy by catching bullets while our colonial masters, the Brits, were doing 'more important things', elsewhere.

Look at us, the little guys, playing a part on the world stage.

If we want a day to celebrate bravery and sacrifice then look around us. We don't need a war to find these qualities.

They are evident every day, both here and also overseas. We see these qualities in how people cope with illness, pain, deprivation, disaster, prejudice and neglect. Here in New Zealand much of this a result of the growing divisions within our society at large.

The heroism, sacrifice and the loss? It's all here, now. Unacknowledged for the most part and quickly forgotten. Think about it.

It is so much easier, so much tidier, to focus on those golden boys back in 1914.
Waitangi or ANZAC? Give me Waitangi, any day.