Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Waitangi a Personal Perspective

This is written from the personal perspective of a group of activists for whom Waitangi was a new experience. When we arrived at Waitangi we were felt out of place and had the feeling that we were spectators, unsure of our role in the day’s events and overwhelmed by the strength and power of everything that was going on around us. One of the events during the day that helped us to clarify our place occurred when a small group of flag carrying marchers reached the main flag pole.

A kuia standing in the crowd of tangata whenua and vibrant flags called out to those around to those in the back to join the march. She challenged the police and those hanging around the flag pole saying: all you who consider yourself from Aotearoa “come and join us or go back to where your from and sort out the problems in your own backyards.”

After finishing her piece a visitor approached her and asked her what the symbolism of the many different flags behind her was, she explained saying that the flags represent guests of this country and Maori as tangata whenua are their hosts. That if you come to New Zealand because we are the people of this land you need to ask us for a piece to borrow. If you come here you must be willing to share and if you just want to take our land for corporates go away. All these flags here represent those that are guests here in our country So we look after or take care of them. She then asked the guy what was his country’s name, he replied new Zealand, she said no if you consider this you home learn to say the name ao as in I hurt my foot, tear as in crying roa as in raw meat. Now say it together Aotearoa, roll your rrs roa. She said that if you are of British descent that you are our partners.

Until that point as pakeha and as visitors we had felt out of place and unsure of whether we should stand back or if we should engage in the day’s confrontation. The kuia above helped us clarify our position on this – that as part of the partnership we have a responsibility to join in.

A heavily tattooed protester captured the feeling and intensity of the experience at the flag pole saying “We are the oppressed people and our independence is just around the corner” for this moment and in this setting there was no doubt that what he was saying was not a prepared slogan – this is reality.

When the main delegation arrived they circled the flag pole, their own myriad of flags blowing in the wind. As they approached the marae they were formally welcomed by a kuia. Nearing the marae a spirited haka began, as a protester I was overwhelmed by the feeling in this haka, nothing I have ever seen or heard on a protest has affected me in the same way and the response by the main delegation shook me. These photos and text come nowhere near to capturing the anger and pain in the voices of those present at Waitangi.

The main march was lead by rangatahi – symbolizing the transition of the protest movement that this will be an issue that will be fought for by another generation. The rain was driving and most were soaked water running down their faces and clothes, despite this they lead the march with honour, heads held high chanting in maori, holding a banner “honour the treaty”. To see young people engaged in protest like this was inspiring and their presence reflected the powerful nature of the entire day.

I was surprised by how few people were present for such a significant and powerful event I was expecting to be struggling through vast crowds like a culture fest or gig in a park. The few thousand people present were fully committed but their relatively small numbers perhaps reflect a naïve faith in the parliamentary process. Im not sure why it was so small, perhaps weather played a role perhaps because its not an election year perhaps because we have lost touch with the need to struggle.

The police as representatives of the violent and coercive nature of the state were present in very high numbers, monitoring the activity of the marchers and the splinter groups. Van loads of police were shunted around Waitangi and it was made obvious that if the resistance against the state ever became threatening that the police as agents of the state would resort to violence. Maori police predominated, I would not be surprised if this was a deliberate tactic to force the protesters and police to fight each other driving a wedge through maori.

Throughout the time we were there the Maori at Waitangi were incredibly welcoming, interested to hear where we were from and glad to have us here. This warmth was surprising and really stood out considering the nature of the day. We felt honoured to be allowed to be their, the openness and genuine warmth we were shown cut through any racist bullshit about maori separatism or elitism – it was apparent that these are people are fighting for justice, and the honour and restraint with which they conduct this struggle is amazing.

One of the things we went away with was a feeling of the sheer power of the day, getting chills on several occasions such as the roar of the crowd during a haka. I can only compare the intensity of experience with environmental destruction in areas I have connected with. It is this feeling that has driven me to fight and to be at Waitangi and experience the same feeling reaffirmed for me the link between the willful destruction of indigenous peoples around the world and the land to which they belong.

For me it was probably the most powerful protest event I have ever been involved in, I was left feeling hopeful as well as awed and shaken. For the time I was there it felt like I was part of something far bigger and more significant than the mere reality of every day life. For a few moments I had moved into a different reality, the faces and voices present held meaning far deeper than our words or photos can show.

I plan to go back next year grateful to all those that welcomed us today and hopeful for the future.


George said...

Ok, that actually really inspired me. Sounds like an amazing experience!

Matt said...


Great to read your post. I'm originally from NZ but have lived in London for some time now. I visited Waitangi last time I was in Aotearoa & it shocked me how little I knew regarding Britain's forced conquest of the Maori people. I realised then that the education system had failed completely in this area when I was growing up.
Excellent photos too John.