February 6th: Alice Day, Waitangi Day, Bob Marley Day

Today is my 55th birthday. It’s also Waitangi Day, the New Zealand holiday that commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Waitangi Day is the closest thing we have to a national holiday. But for a whole bunch of reasons, it’s a day when many New Zealanders – Maori and Pakeha – feel uneasy, irritated or downright pissed off.

Bob Marley in New Zealand

Bob Marley on his only visit to New Zealand, in 1979. I don’t know who the other people in the photo are, or I would credit them.

I arrived back in New Zealand in 1974, after living overseas for six years, to find that my thirteenth birthday had suddenly become a national public holiday. It was initially called New Zealand Day. The recently elected Labour Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, thought it was high time to mark New Zealand’s national identity. It was a radical move at the time. The opposition National Party took great exception to it. February 6th was renamed Waitangi Day in 1976 after the National Party became the government, but they weren’t mean enough to take away the public holiday.

A very annoying holiday

Expecting Waitangi Day to be a peaceful day of joyful national celebration is missing the point. In a recent article on e-tangata.co.nz, law lecturer Mamari Stephens writes about what she calls the ongoing “positive uncertainty” generated by the Treaty of Waitangi, which is the closest thing New Zealand has to a founding document. She thinks it’s a healthy kind of stress, that helps us with the ongoing process of creating New Zealand as a nation. She writes: “….I’ve never had any problems with dissent about Waitangi Day, from any quarter. These protests, complaints and flagellation are absolutely necessary. New Zealand must never succumb again to a comfortable view of itself. This uncertainty about our national identity and our connections between our communities is absolutely essential if we are to function well as a nation in the future.”

What’s a Pakeha, anyway

In 1974 I didn’t feel like much of a New Zealander. I‘d spent most of my childhood living in Papua New Guinea, where my parents were doing research and my dad was teaching at the national university. To make things just a bit more confusing, I’d also spent two separate years at schools in England, in 1966 and 1973.

By circumstances of birth I’m half American, half British and 100% New Zealander. My parents were first generation migrants, who met and married in Auckland in the 1950s.

My mother, Sue, didn’t know what a pavlova was, and certainly never made one. Here’s a post I wrote about Sue and her colourful life, Farewell Sue.

My father, Ralph, was a middle-class intellectual Englishman who had a complete disdain for mowing lawns, sport and do-it-yourself stuff. Here’s a post I wrote about Ralph, My Father the Giant.

I looked superficially like a Pakeha New Zealander (apart from the lack of tan), but I didn’t feel like one. (For non-New Zealand readers: Pakeha is a term commonly used to mean New Zealanders of European heritage.)

But, I’ve since found that I’m not alone. Quite a lot of people feel like this, but it isn’t talked about much. And nobody really knows what Pakeha culture is anyway, other than a mish-mash of commercial products and long-distance sort-of Englishness. Quite a few cultural commentators (e.g. Bill Pearson, Gordon McLauchlan) have gone so far as to say Pakeha New Zealanders don’t have a culture.

All this means that when Pakeha New Zealanders are faced with a national holiday that is based around respecting Maori culture, we feel grumpy and uncomfortable. If we don’t feel secure in our own culture, it’s pretty much impossible that we will be comfortable about respecting other cultures.

Learning our whakapapa

The solution seems pretty clear to me: we have to get reconnected with our own cultural heritage. But this isn’t straightforward, given that many people emigrated to leave their past behind. Many of us barely know who our grandparents were, let alone our family further back.

My family is like that. My mother’s mother was born in the United States, to parents from the far north of Sweden. I barely know the names of my Swedish great-grandparents. They changed their surname as soon as they arrived in the United States. My mother has travelled all over the world, but never visited the land of her ancestors.

But whakapapa, being able to name your ancestors and where they came from, back through many generations, is a cornerstone of Maori culture.

My dad could cope with the idea of whakapapa. His parents were both born in Wales, though they were rather more middle-class English than Welsh in culture. However, dad knew his Welsh whakapapa well, and he passed it on to me. (Although I don’t actually know what the Welsh word for whakapapa is.)

And he knew who he was culturally: he was an Englishman in exile in the Southern Hemisphere. Further back than that, his mother’s grandmother was born in Bombay. (The family story was that her mother had been a Spanish princess, but she looks Indian in the Victorian photos.)

My mum grew up in Southern California in the mid-20th century, where money was the culture. She escaped to New Zealand, where in the 1950s things appeared to be different.

No respect for culture

I’d describe the family culture I was raised in as rational science and secular humanism. My father was an anthropologist, my mother an archaeologist. My parents didn’t seem to respect the cultures they were raised in.

We didn’t go to church (although my dad came from a long heritage of Anglican ministers); my parents weren’t married in a church; my brothers and I weren’t baptized. We spent a lot of time quietly sitting through the rituals of other cultures while my father took notes, but didn’t have any sacred rituals of our own.

My parents barely celebrated Christmas, although we had some memorable Christmases when visiting family in England and the United States. My mother’s attitude was that Christmas was nothing but consumerism. Which, to be fair, was her experience in her Southern Californian childhood.

I found this lack of culture profoundly dissatisfying. Rational science can’t give you community, a feeling of connection to family and friends, a feeling of belonging to place, a sense of spiritual and cultural belonging. And it also doesn’t give us delicious food and celebrations.

My life as an adult has been a quest to feel at home in my own culture, with all its complications and uncomfortable memories.

I know other New Zealanders, fourth generation Pakeha, who say they hate Pakeha culture and would much rather identify with Maori. But I don’t think that can work, until we also accept our Pakeha heritage, warts and all.

An English environmental activist who was visiting New Zealand this summer told me he was surprised to find that we still regard ourselves as part of the “western” world. But putting pressure on ourselves to “grow up” isn’t helpful. The process will take as long as it takes.

More celebrations, please

A place to start, I reckon, is to find things to celebrate, and then do that as often as possible.

It would be great if we could have, as well as Waitangi Day, one national holiday that most of us can agree on. How about Jonah Lomu Day? All Blacks Winning the World Cup Day? Richie McCaw Day? I’ll be in the grumpy minority, but if I get a holiday I won’t mind too much. (We’ll never get 100 percent agreement on this.)

Between Queen’s Birthday on June 6th and Labour Day, on October 24th, there is not a single national public holiday. A day of celebration sometime in the middle of that long 20-week stretch would be very welcome.

And, returning to February 6th, people are already finding more things to celebrate, on this day. It also happens to be Bob Marley’s birthday, and there are Bob Marley events proliferating around the country. The reggae musician only visited New Zealand once, in 1979, shortly before his death, but he seems to have been embraced as an honorary New Zealander. (I’ve met kids who think he actually is a New Zealander.)

In my region, February 6th is marked by the world-famous Kawhia Kai Festival. People flock to the tiny Waikato settlement of Kawhia to sample traditional Maori foods and listen to local musicians.

I think all this is definitely going in the right direction. The more celebrations on my birthday, the better. As Bob Marley sings: “Let’s get together and feel all right.”