Guilt, sadness but still a celebration

17:47, Feb 07 2014
van beynen
Martin van Beynen

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Waitangi Day is always a painful reminder of this line from William Faulkner.

Any celebration of our foundation treaty, now 174 years old, is going to be tinged with guilt, grievance and sadness.

The feelings can put a damper on any celebration.

Newcomers made citizens this week in Waitangi Day ceremonies must wonder what to make of it all.

These prospective New Zealanders dress up in their best, receive their native tree and are happy to part of the new New Zealand.


Some come from countries torn by racial or religious strife, or riven by corruption and poor government, and where there is no respect for the law. They must understand how hard it is to stop mourning what should have been, what you were entitled to, what would have happened if the world was less imperfect.

But I've gone away from the idea we should celebrate New Zealandhood on another anniversary.

To do so now would be only a gesture of defeat and be a constant reminder of our discomfort with the past.

Most nation states have a difficult birth. There are always winners and losers. Bloodshed and injustice seem to figure all too frequently and is almost guaranteed when an indigenous people is confronted by a more numerous and more technologically advanced one.

Even though Maori appear to have coped better than many other aboriginals facing similar challenges, the impact on those generations of Maori who faced the first wave of European settlement was immense and in many ways tragic.

Some of it was inevitable. With the best will in the world, the contact between Maori society and the settler culture was always going to have severe costs for Maori and some of the newcomers.

The treaty, a vague document drafted over a few days and negotiated between people who did not necessarily have the same idea of what was being agreed, was set up to fail. But at least Maori, unlike many other indigenous people, had one.

That subsequent settler governments would oversee the wide scale theft and dissipation of Maori land and power was also predictable.

Even if the promises of the treaty had been kept, the lives and certainties Maori had known for centuries were about to come crashing down.

I don't buy the argument that contact with the Europeans was a total disaster for Maori, although any benefit brought by government, new crops and farm animals, steel tools, domestic animals, and other technologies was certainly going to be outweighed by guns, alcohol and pathogens.

Not all Maori fared poorly and some were freed from lamentable predicaments.

I have no time for people who blame all their ills on the impact of colonialism on ancestors many generations removed. At some stage everyone has to look at themselves rather than the depredations caused by whitey or whatever. I am suspicious of people making a meal of tenuous connections to Maori backgrounds or forebears.

I scoff at people who act as though Maori always had a monopoly on honour, harmony, uplifting spirituality and care for the environment.

Pre-European Maori society had many noble features but it also had slavery, torture, cannibalism, decimation of resources and brutal tribal conflicts.

The first contact between Maori and European was between Ngati Tumatakokiri and Abel Tasman - yes, another bloody Dutchman - in what is now Golden Bay.

Ngati Tumatakokiri were themselves invaders from the north and in the 1700s and early 1800s were attacked by waves of descending North Island tribes and wiped out as an iwi.

Historian Michael King describes the Maori musket wars as close to a holocaust.

For all that, Waitangi Day still makes me feel guilty, mainly because it's a reminder of human nature, its savagery, greed, cruelty and selfishness. That the fate of Maori was so predictable and unsurprising is perhaps the saddest part of the day.

I can understand how it takes generations to overcome the sort of deprivation, dysfunction and poverty that became the daily existence of the vast majority of Maori in New Zealand and that current generations of Maori are still feeling the effects.

That must not be forgotten and can be recognised on Waitangi Day.

But guilt and sadness do not mean there is nothing to celebrate.

They are only part of the story. We can also look back on good intentions, kindness, co-operation, new opportunities and resilience.

And we can look forward to grievances being settled and people moving on. And we can all celebrate being New Zealanders, whatever our background.

PS: What we did on Waitangi Day - Mrs VB went to a Waitangi Day celebration at Rapaki and then to lunch with friends. My two sons and a friend, whose parents are from Korea, went fishing in the dinghy. My daughter went to work. I mowed the lawns, did some housework, thought about something new I could say about Waitangi Day, ate some fruit from our nectarine and peach trees, sat in the shade in the garden drinking coffee, bundled up cabbage trees for the fire, stood at the gate, shot the breeze with neighbours Rob and Mary Jane, had an afternoon snooze and cooked a barbecue tea, including courgettes and lettuce from the garden.

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