Independence Day in the United States has much in common with NZ's Waitangi Day.

The 4th of July is upon us. As an American immigrant in New Zealand, I will recognise the national day of the United States, if not quite celebrate it. My primary school-age son will bring red, white, and blue cupcakes for his class, and we will send greetings to our family and friends gathered for summer parties of barbecue and fireworks in the United States. I've always told my children July 4 is a celebration of a nation's birthday, just as is Waitangi Day.

The two national days of New Zealand and the United States contrast in their origins in the past and how they are commemorated in the present, but they also have important commonalities. Sharing a heritage as Anglo settler societies, the founding moments of New Zealand and the United States both involved the British Crown, but in different ways. In 1776, the 13 American colonies declared their independence from the Crown's sovereignty, while in 1840 the Crown signed a treaty with Maori as a means to assert its sovereignty over New Zealand. Out of both historical moments came new nations.

But that difference -- independence from versus assertion of British power and authority -- is what has made the commemorations of these events so different. From the start, America's declaring of independence was seen by founding father John Adams as a day to be "celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival".

In contrast, given the different English- and Maori-language versions and, thus, understandings of the Treaty of Waitangi, commemorations have been more fraught. The debates in New Zealand over whether or not to recognise the treaty signing as a national day or to call it Waitangi Day are not matched in the United States. Yet, like Waitangi Day, July 4 has often been a day of protest, not just a day of celebration. Most famous is the 19th century African-American leader and abolitionist Frederick Douglass who gave a powerful speech in 1852, called "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn," Douglass told his mostly white audience. Over time, many joined Douglass in using this day to call attention to the contradiction, even hypocrisy, between American ideals and the very different reality of US actions at home and abroad.


Another similarity between Waitangi Day and July 4 is the lasting historical significance of their associated documents: the Treaty of Waitangi and the Declaration of Independence. Although Acts of Parliament in New Zealand and the Constitution of the United States would follow, these founding documents laid out key political principles. Bold statements in the declaration such as "all men are created equal" and hold "unalienable rights" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are rightly famous. Similarly, the treaty stated important principles of partnership, rangatiratanga, and protection which have been confirmed since.

These documents also inspired people around the world. In the United States, the 19th century women's movement asserted that "all men and women are created equal" in their "Declaration of Sentiments" in 1848. Martin Luther King jnr quoted the same line in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." This language has been used by many to justify their causes, from Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam to Solidarity in Poland. Similarly, the 1975 establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal to ascertain the meaning and adjudicate violations of the Treaty of Waitangi has been recognised worldwide as a major advance in the direction of achieving justice for indigenous peoples in colonial contexts.

And this development is one in which New Zealand can take pride. The one mention of Native Americans in the American Declaration of Independence is a criticism of King George III for inciting "the merciless Indian Savages" to warfare. This ugly stereotype justified conquest and genocide of indigenous Americans. In contrast, the Treaty of Waitangi conveys a commitment to co-existence and mutual respect. The British Crown established the treaty with Maori "to protect their just rights and property and to secure to them the enjoyment of peace and good order."

Although it took a century and a half of Maori protest and eventual Pakeha action to begin to fulfil the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, this historical accomplishment should be celebrated. I don't bake cupcakes for my family on Waitangi Day as I do on the 4th of July. Perhaps I should start.

Jennifer Frost teaches US history at The University of Auckland.

16 Aug, 2012 10:31am
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