Saturday, February 8, 2014

Waitangi - A place of tears

Waitangi – ‘water of tears’ – the place has lent its name appropriately to the day.

A month ago I was trudging an ancient Maori pathway – Te Whara track – along the ridge line at Whangarei Heads.

The following day, I sped north with family members on State Highway 1 to the Bay of Islands – visiting places of historic significance at Kerikeri and Waitangi. The phrase ‘coming to know (and be known by) one’s own land’ came to mind.

It was odd being tourists in our own land as we heard guides explain aspects of the ‘Aotearoa New Zealand’ story in terms that overseas visitors could understand. At Kemp House, a guide with a North American accent said Maori welcoming Europeans to their lands primarily wanted guns. The missionaries, in addition to bringing the Bible, wanted to showcase a typical English home and garden, with cows, ducks, and wheat to make bread.

Once again, I was struck by my ignorance of the detail of fundamental aspects of our land’s history.

At the Treaty grounds at Waitangi (which receives no government funding), my Hong Kong-born adopted sister urged us to go for the cultural experience. In a good-humoured, cheeky way – and on their own terms – the local Ngapuhi iwi (tribe), for a small fee, introduced us to key aspects of Maori protocol, song and dance, including a full-on wero (challenge) that left our stoic, co-opted English ‘rangatira’ unfazed. And the presenters stayed around for the obligatory ‘photo with the natives’ at the end.

Later, walking around the grounds and exploring the Treaty house, I learnt how – as the significance of the Treaty to the general population fell away – the grounds nearly ended up in private American hands. It was only Ngapuhi, and Lord Bledisloe's gift to the nation of the Treaty house and grounds in 1932, that saved the day and has given us the legacy of the modern Waitangi Day celebrations: an interesting and lively partnership between Maori, Pakeha and government.

Up until then, all I knew was that Lord Bledisloe was a former Governor-General, who had lent his name to my competition House at Whangarei Boys' High (a House accurately nicknamed ‘bloody slow’).

Ngapuhi built the whare runanga – the meeting house where we were welcomed and entertained on our  tourist visit – with timber from their own lands, on a foundation stone laid by Lord Bledisloe at a Great Hui of 10,000 people on 6 February 1934. The whare was intended as a place for all peoples, to stand alongside the English-built Treaty house. It would symbolise Governor Hobson’s words: ‘He iwi tahi tatou’, and was opened at the 100th anniversary of the Treaty signing in 1940.

At the 1934 dedication, Bledisloe prayed that 'the sacred compact made in these waters may be faithfully and honourably kept for all time to come'. May that time come.

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