COMMENT

Has New Zealand finally grown up? Waitangi Day is upon us, and so far we have seemingly managed to resist our usual annual spat.

January came and went and I didn't see one media story about how Waitangi Day should be rebranded to New Zealand Day. No media commentator tantrums. No opinion pieces about Ngāpuhi. No "satire" from Bob Jones. No polls about whether Waitangi Day should be more like Australia Day.

There's still time, of course.

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On the whole, however, the lack of controversy and blood sport around Waitangi Day has left me feeling cautiously hopeful. And anxious. Are the usual suspects saving their racially charged vitriol for the last moment?

Or, are we finally ready to acknowledge our national day; to make peace with its quirks, to remember its knotty history, to face the stark light of that momentous dawning day without shielding our eyes from the harsh realities it forces us to consider?

Of course, for many Waitangi Day is simply a day off work. A day to go to the beach and have a barbecue with friends and family, rather than a day to contemplate the history and politics surrounding our national identity. In some ways, I envy such blissful apathy. What a privilege it must be to be able to check out of the conversation.

But, being Māori, Waitangi Day is always inevitably charged for me. It looms in my mind. Early in January, I subconsciously wait for controversy to erupt. Whatever happens, inevitably Māori bear the brunt of the negative publicity.

We're often cast as bloody Mowries with our hands out. We can't even stop the grievance machine for one day of national significance. We're an embarrassment. A joke. As the late Sir Paul Holmes wrote in this newspaper seven years ago, "if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it. Let them go and raid a bit more kai moana than they need for the big, and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions."

Maybe I'm just a bit sensitive, but when you've grown up with that kind of rhetoric constantly lobbed at your culture, frayed nerves in some areas are somewhat inescapable. As is frustration and indignation at the repeated, wilful obfuscation of the true meaning of Waitangi Day.

On Waitangi Day, we commemorate a promise that was made to Māori. A promise that was repeatedly broken. It is that simple. In the Treaty of Waitangi, Māori entered into an agreement that granted the Crown governorship (kawanatanga) of New Zealand in exchange for "unqualified exercise of their chieftainship over their lands, villages and all their treasures" and the same rights and protections as British citizens.

In a shifty plot twist that did little to inspire Māori confidence in their Treaty partners, the English text of the document (which was signed by only 39 Māori chiefs out of nearly 500 (the rest of whom signed the Māori language version) upgraded "governorship" to "sovereignty" – a right that Māori would never have signed away, given our views on mana and kaitiakitanga over the land. Still, even the English version of the Treaty guaranteed Māori "full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess".

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Fast forward through the land wars, Parihaka, annexation, exploitative transfers of land titles, the Native Land Court (agents of which would literally get Māori land owners drunk in order to take their land, among other reprehensible tactics), the calculated destruction of te reo, Māori not being welcome in some bars, swimming pools, cinemas and hotels, unequal pensions, the devastating effects of urbanisation, Bastion Point, the foreshore and seabed, columns about "irrational Maori ghastliness" and the need for a "Māori Gratitude Day" and so on and so forth, and, for me at least, Waitangi Day has become something of a symbol of trauma.

Even for those of us who didn't sign the Treaty (and my iwi didn't), we weren't immune to its unexpected consequences. Almost every Māori whānau has a story. If you're Māori, you know the kind. I heard a new one about my kuia just last weekend. As a little girl, her first language was te reo. She was beaten by her teachers at school because she couldn't speak English, my aunty told me recently. The implications of the Treaty touched most tāngata whenua, and seldom in a good way.

So I find it hard to just switch off and mindlessly enjoy the day off in the sun. I love a holiday as much as the next person but, in the lead-up to our national day, I find myself turning our history, our race relations and our national identity over in my mind.

Waitangi Day inevitably gets me thinking about what it means to be a New Zealander. One of the first things that springs to mind when I contemplate Kiwi values is the desire for everyone to have a fair go. We're passionate about fairness, or so we like to think. So why are we wilfully blind to the unfairness that still permeates our society today?

I don't need to regurgitate the same old tragic statistics to make the point that Māori are still doing it tough.

So while I am cautiously filled with hope that we may be ready to start to have mature conversations about Waitangi Day, I believe that we'll only truly move forward when we acknowledge the truth of our history. Beyond that, we must recognise the impact it still has, and declare as a nation that where we are today is not good enough.