Garth George: No value in Waitangi Day

By Garth George


No matter how hard some people try, it will be several generations before Waitangi Day becomes, in the words of Prime Minister John Key, a day with a sense of "national participation".

As it stands, the celebration of Waitangi Day is a joke, and it has been for decades. Most New Zealanders, both Maori and Pakeha, couldn't care less about it.

In one online poll on Wednesday, just 25 per cent of respondents saw the day as "remembering the history of our nation". The rest, three-quarters, saw the day as merely "the chance to take a day off" or as "a day of protest and conflict".

In his address at Waitangi on Wednesday Mr Key said there was no other day on which the weight of history was felt quite so heavily - which is arguable - but on trying to make it more acceptable to all, "I'm not sure that we can or should try to force it".

There is no doubt about that. The history of the day is so riddled with hostility, violence and rancour - both Maori v Maori and Pakeha v Maori - that those of us who have lived through it can see no value in persevering with it.

This year's observance was no different, thanks to the aged, has-been protester Titewhai Harawira, whose insistence at self-glorification at the side of the Prime Minister soured the entire event days before it dawned.

The matriarch of the bumptious Harawira clan - I won't refer to her as a kuia because that would imply some respect - duly did take her wrongful place in escorting Mr Key on to Te Tii marae, but only after keeping the Prime Minister driving round aimlessly for more than half-an-hour while marae elders indulged in an acrimonious shouting match.

And those of us throughout the land looking on, Maori and Pakeha alike, sneered in disgust at the discourtesy and animosity and turned our minds elsewhere.

As I said at the start, it will take generations for Waitangi Day to become meaningful to all New Zealanders. And three things have to happen before that can even begin.

The first is that my generation and several more will have to pass away, taking with us all the negative baggage of Pakeha-Maori relations and leaving, I would hope, a much more enlightened nation in which people like the Harawiras and their ilk are consigned to a footnote in history.

The second is that all claims by Maori for restitution for past wrongs - and make no mistake, those wrongs were real and far-reaching - will have to be settled once and for all and largely forgotten, for only then will the grudges held by so many Pakeha gradually fade into forgetfulness.

The third is the renaissance of te reo. I do not believe that te reo should be made compulsory in schools, but I do believe that all Maori tamariki, and as many Pakeha kids who can be encouraged to do so, should learn it.

For it is only through language that mutual understanding can come.

And unless as many Pakeha as possible learn te reo, they will never really understand where Maori are coming from.

I spent a year and a half in a Te Wananga O Aotearoa class trying to learn te reo, and while I came to understand the extraordinarily convoluted grammar and construction, my elderly mind was incapable of retaining the vocabulary.

But it surely wasn't time wasted because along the way I learned much about Maori culture, and that alone was a real revelation.

I might not be able to speak much of it, but I know enough not to make an ass of myself, or give offence, at any Maori function.

When it comes to Maori-Pakeha relations, that's a good beginning.

garth.george@hotmail.com.

- ROTORUA DAILY POST

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