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Mark P Williams: Waitangi – What Makes A National Day?

Waitangi – What Makes A National Day?

By Mark P. Williams

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Should Waitangi Day be seen as a national day when it provokes such diverse and divisive responses? That depends on whether you think unity should overrule differences of perspective and opinion.

Viewing Waitangi Day, its celebrators and discontents offered a different perspective on the central difficulties of defining identity. Wellington officially marked the day with a celebration at the wharewaka with dancing and traditional songs. Although the speeches seemed a little stilted at times, the general tone of the event was inclusive and welcoming. It had the air of a family day out with organised activities for kids and information stalls from the City Council and library among others to help tourists and other non-Kiwis. This all contrasted with the scenes which greeted the governmental visit to the treaty grounds where the traditional politician’s riddle of ‘all protests are valid except this one’ was uttered.

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At the Wellington wharewaka things were relaxed. It was particularly impressive to see the waka swinging into view in the lagoon and hear the ceremonial greeting from the water to the dignitaries standing on the shore.

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A rather strange note was struck by the two costumed players introducing acts and occasionally circulating in the crowd but they were entertaining in their own right. In the programme they were described as ‘Captain James Cook’ and a man playing a ‘Roaming Maori Warrior’, but the warrior was actually named as the Polynesian discoverer of Aotearoa, Kupe. Their dialogue brought one or two laughs and more than a few cringes (mainly caused by Captain Cook’s posh English accent—it put me in mind of a sketch from Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson’s The Fast Show).

Elsewhere, there were people who brought the tino rangatiratanga flag to the event and two guys could be seen walking around who had a flag combining all the historical flags of New Zealand. The whole day was largely used as an excuse to party or relax with family while politicians and diplomats wandered around free range.

What I was most interested in was the general contrast in responses to the event outside of these festivities; this was either fierce or very quiet and reminded me of the debates over whether England should celebrate its national days more. National days have an odd relationship with notions of national identity. I tend to feel that any discussion of national identity must be understood primarily in terms of differences and their relationship to shared experience rather than to a unity of meaning.

UK national days are a largely muted affair and there are a number of reasons why. The UK, as well as being religiously and ethnically highly diverse, is also a highly secular culture, even where it is officially religious, so patron saint’s days are for many not particularly significant. (There is a joke that runs: “Are you religious?”, “No, I’m Church of England.”) St George’s Day, April 23rd, is a particular case of uncertainty. Most of us barely notice St George’s Day passing.

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Some people commemorate Shakespeare on St George’s day because it was the day of his death and, since the 18th century, has been used to mark his birthday. So, to be stereotypically English, I want to use Shakespeare as my example to explore national identity (I know, but bear with me).

In the UK we imbibe Shakespeare throughout our time at school. I went on to study literature at university and so imbibed even more afterwards (I’ve even taught some Shakespeare here in New Zealand). Shakespeare is said by some to have universal appeal, but critics of a more cultural materialist bent would suggest that Shakespeare is considered our national bard and figure of Englishness in the world only because the works we call ‘Shakespeare’ are constantly being adapted and re-made. There is no one universal Shakespeare because everyone who adapts the works finds a different ‘Shakespeare’ in the process of working with the historical text and their own contemporary context—a Shakespeare Day would necessarily have to reflect this or it would only offer a singular perspective.

Similarly, there can be no singular notion of national identity that resolves all the contraries of the many diverse groups, political, ethnic, religious or cultural, which make up the one nation. If Waitangi Day seems to be a slightly estranging experience, even to some Kiwis, then perhaps uncertainty can actually help provide a very healthy response to the paradoxical nature of national identity.

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What seems to be at the heart of the criticisms of both sides in the treatment of Waitangi Day, for official celebration or for protest and activism, is the problem of the extent to which any principle of unity should acknowledge differences within itself. Conversely, uncertainty operates as a form of engagement. If everyone can seem to agree that they are not entirely sure what Waitangi Day should mean to New Zealanders now then that seems to be a perfect point to address: what should all these diverse perspectives make Waitangi Day into in the future?

It is clear that the celebration of Waitangi Day has a high ideal, deeply felt by some and representing the culmination of long social and political struggles for recognition. That others feel it is largely irrelevant to them does not reduce this, rather it raises other questions about the relationship between those groups. Unity arguably requires equality as a precondition in order to be considered of value (and distinct from coercion or appropriation to a single position). Addressing these contrary responses raises a whole other set of difficult issues about exactly whose labour brought about contemporary modernity as we know it.

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Like identity struggles the world over, Waitangi Day is a contest of historical and contemporary interpretations that serves as a constant reminder that identity is something hard won by other generations which new generations must confront, engage with, and negotiate their own terms with. Perhaps, like a philosophical conundrum, there can be no answer to be held up as such but only the experience of trying to resolve it, and the constant negotiation of the present with history. It seems to me that what is really at stake with Waitangi Day is the ability to have that dispute, as much as the ability to find terms through which to resolve it.

I’m glad Waitangi Day was not an immense unified voice shouting out a single approved version of how things were and how they ought to be commemorated, drowning out all dissent. Although the wider social response of New Zealand seems tentative there were people who took specific stands which were thoughtful. That offers hope for future views of national identity based on considered engagement with difference and multiplicity, and that felt like enough for now.



Mark P. Williams is an academic and journalist originally from the UK who currently resides in Wellington. His main research interests are in politics and literature.


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