Waitangi Day and traditional values

By Amokura Panoho

Each year, on 6 February, Aotearoa/New Zealand celebrates Waitangi Day. A growing number of new migrants are actively participating in how our country celebrates, commemorates and congregates on this national day; a day that’s also an opportunity to learn more about what makes us such a unique bi-cultural and multicultural nation.

Many migrants are now making the yearly pilgrimage to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to see the spectacle of ceremonies that take place at ‘the birthplace’ of this country. From the dawn ceremony to the traditional waka regatta, New Zealand Naval parade, kapa haka performances, musical concerts, or even the public debates between different political parties, there is much to engage with.

Travelling to Paihia in the Bay of Islands to participate in these ceremonies has at times in the past been a risky proposition. The grounds in front of the lower Te Tii Marae

By Amokura Panoho

Each year, on 6 February, Aotearoa/New Zealand celebrates Waitangi Day. A growing number of new migrants are actively participating in how our country celebrates, commemorates and congregates on this national day; a day that’s also an opportunity to learn more about what makes us such a unique bi-cultural and multicultural nation.

Many migrants are now making the yearly pilgrimage to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to see the spectacle of ceremonies that take place at ‘the birthplace’ of this country. From the dawn ceremony to the traditional waka regatta, New Zealand Naval parade, kapa haka performances, musical concerts, or even the public debates between different political parties, there is much to engage with.

Travelling to Paihia in the Bay of Islands to participate in these ceremonies has at times in the past been a risky proposition. The grounds in front of the lower Te Tii Marae where the formal pōwhiri (welcome) is held, were often the scene of protests by activists intent on making the sitting government accountable for its poor performance in honouring the Treaty of Waitangi – the covenant between the indigenous tribes of Aotearoa and the British Crown. A large police presence tended to discourage visitors, and subsequent news media coverage often exacerbated the conflict rather than create better understanding.

However, over the last few years during the week of Waitangi Day celebrations, the whole area turns into a large marketplace of over 150 stalls full of Māori arts and crafts, fashion, food, and educational workshops – a much more welcoming environment for anyone who wants to celebrate nationhood. It is also an indication of how the growing and diverse public presence is creating business and networking opportunities.

In 2017, this increasing presence of ‘new’ New Zealanders at Waitangi was noticed, with the chief executive of the Waitangi Trust, Greg McManus, identifying a significant increase of new migrant visitors to the Treaty Grounds from previous years.

In an interview with Laine Moger in Stuff 2017, Mr McManus said there was a lot of interest, particularly from Chinese, Indian and other immigrants living in Auckland: “I think that most immigrants want to feel part of our society, that the treaty was for them as well. They have a lot of respect for the treaty and for Māori and they want to get involved and experience that.”

However, just as new migrants are coming to grips with the importance of this national day, and where Māori culture fits into their new world, they might now get unsettled about the egalitarian society they hoped they were living in. Because this year’s national day highlighted the rights of women to speak on the marae.

This year’s Waitangi Day saw the issue brought into the public domain by Dr Shane Reti, Deputy Leader for the National Party. During his whaikōrero (speech) in te reo Māori, Reti expressed his disappointment that his party leader was not allowed to speak on the ‘paepae’ (orator’s bench) and questioned: “Is it because she is a woman? Do not forget the mana of our women, the house of humanity.”

Is it fair or correct for the Leader of the Opposition to suggest that Māori culture is ‘sexist’ because she was denied the opportunity to speak?

Well, no.

The right for women to speak on the paepae has been a controversial topic of conversation for decades, even generations. This is because for a majority of iwi (tribes) around Aotearoa, women speaking on the ātea (speaking ground) is restricted which means that a universal speaking policy is often unclear.

When manuhiri or visitors come to a marae, or to a gathering that’s going to entail a pōwhiri (formal welcome) or whakatau (informal welcome), they will notice that a woman or women will step out to do a karanga (call) – which on most occasions is responded to by another woman who has accompanied the visiting group.

To understand the significance of this practice is to have a little insight into how Māori culture looks at gender roles differently from western practices. In fact, the karanga can be deemed as the delivering and responding to these kai karanga (callers), the first whaikōrero (speech) on both the tangata whenua (hosts) and manuhiri (visitors) sides.

Karanga are like whaikōrero but shorter, and the caller can often provide genealogical links, acknowledgements of those that have passed away, and a reference to the occasion that has brought people together for that day. This is crucial for ensuring that the identity and sanctity of those present is understood and that the tapū (sacredness) of the place and occasion is recognised, so that there is no offence given from either side during the whaikōrero.

There is a well-known whakatauki (proverb): ‘He wahine, he whenua, I ngaro ai te tangata.  It is because of women and land that men perish.’

 In other words, the sanctity of women and their ability to give life as well as take it away meant that they were to be protected at all times. That is why when visitors move onto the marae ātea (sacred ground) they will notice that there is a row of speakers of men (how many normally depends on the significance of the occasion, and if any distinguished manuhiri are involved). Women are seated behind.

There is another whakatauki that reads: ‘He rākau e taea te karo, he tao kī e kore e taea’ meaning that ‘physical attacks can be parried whereas verbalised curses are not easily deflected.’

 So, the practice of men sitting at the front, to the side, and at the back of the marae during these formal cultural proceedings was not just to protect women from the potential of physical harm but also from any verbal or spiritual abuse which could not only affect the woman but their offspring.

The marae, as a gathering place for tangata whenua and those that whakapapa (have lineage) to the region, is also a symbol and repository of traditional Māori belief systems.

Those belief systems remain as relevant today as they did when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. However, the principles of the treaty have evolved from being a contract signed between Māori and the British Crown, to being a symbol of growing mutual respect and trust between Māori and non-Māori. Participating in this country’s national day is a great way to understand New Zealand’s unique social and cultural environment.

 

Sources: 1. New immigrants keen to participate in Waitangi celebrations 2. Shane Reti issues a wero to Ngāpuhi, Te Ao Māori News