Message of Waitangi Day often lost

RICH STORIES: Aspects of New Zealand's history can be seen in the flags hung by Michael Parata-Peiffer at Rapaki Marae for Waitangi Day yesterday.
RICH STORIES: Aspects of New Zealand's history can be seen in the flags hung by Michael Parata-Peiffer at Rapaki Marae for Waitangi Day yesterday.

I can't help wondering what Waitangi Day might mean to our kids. At the moment, not that it has really registered, it means a day off school spent at the marae running around with their cousins.

The fact that it commemorates a significant occasion is utterly lost on them, although I don't expect that to be the case for too much longer, particularly when it comes to my eldest boy.

He loves stories and he especially likes them if they are real.

His poua (grandfather) likes to tell him about his side of the family and war and fishing stories, and I talk to the kids about my father and regale them with tales of the ancestors.

The boy listens, processes and asks surprisingly insightful questions and then regurgitates most of it back at us some time in the future.

Perhaps he is too young to do otherwise but he has absolutely no comprehension of linear time. In his mind he generally rolls a number of the stories into one event claiming that the ancestors, regardless how far back in time, are all his grandfathers.

But our kids are lucky because Waitangi Day does have direct relevance to them.

Their great, great, great grandfather did sign the Treaty of Waitangi when the Herald called in to Otago Harbour in June 1840.

Their European ancestor, Edward Weller, operated the first nationwide trading network during the 1830s and participated in early, strategic marriages with Maori leadership.

Their great grandparents on both sides were involved in seeking justice for breaches of the Treaty and establishing commemorative monuments to those Ngai Tahu ancestors who signed the Treaty.

To be fair, this is a good indication of what Waitangi Day should mean to all New Zealanders - conciliation, trade, government and progress.

Those early years of struggle as Maori and European negotiated their relationship gave rise to the Treaty and laid some foundation rules of engagement.

Despite these rules being largely ignored for well over a century, our genuinely progressive approach to race relations can be put down to the fact that the Treaty is a legitimate part of the New Zealand historical record.

But, unfortunately, our understanding of what the Treaty means is poor, although this is something that could be improved enormously if we told our story in a more compelling manner.

The most engaging Treaty stories are not told enough, they are not told well and most are still largely unknown.

As a kid I knew more detail about the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence than I did about the Treaty of Waitangi.

I knew about King John and Runnymede, I knew about the American Revolution, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

What I knew about the Treaty of Waitangi was some jumbled up facts about Hone Heke, Bastion Point and stories from home that my tupuna had signed it. Interestingly, this last fact was never, ever mentioned at school or in other historical information that I had listened to, leading me to doubt that it was even true.

Instead, our Treaty stories tend to focus on the downstream effects of all the modern points of disagreement.

Treaty equals protest and discord. The key protagonists are generally the Harawiras, Kingi Taurua, the prime minister and the news.

An alien landing in New Zealand on any given Waitangi Day over the past couple of decades would be forgiven for thinking the whole thing was a combination of a stoush about who gets into the house and those who don't, point-scoring for shouting speakers down and some competition for throwing bizarre objects like eggs, mud and fish at people in suits.

Meanwhile, the tales of intrepid seamen and explorers, indigenous leaders embracing new ideas alongside those who resisted anything new and unknown, the Western institution of government essentially established out of nothing, and the systemic colonisation of a new land all seem to be lost.

As are the stories of the key protagonists, the actual signatories who, in general, led a transition from a state of tribal warfare to a people who were citizens of the globe in less than 30 short years.

These are the rich stories that those of us that relish such tales take pleasure in hearing, and hopefully this is what my children will see in Waitangi Day in years to come.

But today, I suspect if I was to question the boy on what Waitangi Day actually meant to him he might spin a yarn along these lines:

"Well my grandfather come back from fighting the war and then he played a game of golf and then he and my other grandfathers signed a Treaty on paper and then the enemies held him down and cut his guts out with a stone and they left some rubbish on Papatuanuku and she cried."

Or something like that.

The Press