Today we celebrated New Zealand Day. It was a wholly different experience for us than Canada Day. Firstly it isn’t even called New Zealand Day, September 6th is Waitangi Day and it celebrates, or perhaps more accurately commemorates, the signing of the Waitangi Treaty in 1840. This document is generally regarded as the founding document of the nation, the moment when the Maori and the Pakeha (non-maori kiwi, aka the White Man) joined together as partners. The Maori became full British subjects and received the rights and protections that afforded as well as the right to maintain ownership of their land. In return they would cede their sovereignty and only sell land to the English Crown. Of course it hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing since. There were problems with the translation. How do you translate ‘sovereignty’ into Maori anyway. This all resulted in the ‘New Zealand Wars’ which I think is quaint since only about 3,000 people died. Regardless, relations have come a long way. It is a national holiday but not one of fireworks and parades but rather reflection of the past. Some politicians tried changing the name to New Zealand Day in the 1970s but it only lasted a couple years and it was changed back.
Today we experienced a very different sort of national holiday. Maori meeting places known as Marae celebrate by inviting anyone and everyone for a ceremony and some food. We didn’t know much more than what the ad in the local paper told us but we decided to go as a family. Lots of ‘as a family’ this year.
Incidentally the Maori must have some awesome designers on staff as evidenced by some pretty amazing tattoo work but I guess their A-team wasn’t enlisted for the newspaper listing below.
We listened to 3 speeches in Maori (oddly, to my eyes anyway, one of the speakers and many of the listeners nodding in agreement were Pakeha). Then, finally, the keynote, and thankfully it was in English. He gave us a history lesson and I was rapt as he spoke about Maori ideals, concerns and his feelings about how to pave the way forward. He was an inspiring speaker and a true leader complete with strong opinions defended with context and a strong sense of morality. He was bold but not confrontational. As he spoke he guided the attendees along a journey of his way of thinking instead of taking the aggressive ‘with us or against us’ approach. He was learned, gentle, open and spoke without notes. I haven’t seen a Western leader like that, maybe ever. He talked of hospitality as being an important Maori value. He also criticized our governing system which only looks 3 or 4 years into the future when we need to look generations (both forward and back). I reflected on our big city life and our lack of respect for the land that we live on. How our busy lives have truly fragmented our attention in dangerous ways. And with the decline of religion in the West there are very few formalized traditions around respecting the elderly, mentoring youth, building community and encouraging spiritual wellness. These are things which don’t naturally fit into our fairly recent culture and if we are going to survive I’m pretty sure we are going to have to make some adjustments.
Afterwards the guests all lined up in post hockey game formation but instead of shaking hands and grunting ‘good game’ with the local iwi (tribe) we performed the hongi where we pressed noses and foreheads and shared breath with each person. It was a very intimate experience and a powerful symbol of welcoming. Afterwards one is no longer considered Manuhiri, a visitor, but rather Tangata whenua, one of the people of the land. I loved watching my children press noses with widows (who press twice, a second time for the dead) as well as the aforementioned speakers and leaders and even massive football player sized men. I wish I had pictures but I also really like that you aren’t allowed to photograph in the Morae.
Later, our ever generous landlord Sue treated us to four hangi which are a traditional meal that is buried underground with hot rocks. It consisted of pork with a huge cap of fat, chicken, squash, silverbeet, potato, sweet potato, some sort of mystery stuffing and garlic.
It was a fantastic afternoon, for me anyway. I think the kids were a bit shell-shocked by having to sit still for so long but I’m hoping they got some intangible benefit out of it. A dogma-free, traditional ceremony with unique cultural customs, an educational and moral lecture outside of a school environment topped off with good food…it was right up our alley. And yet, I can’t help feel conflicted about the fact that I haven’t experienced Canada’s own aboriginal culture so intimately.