Should New Zealand have a Holiday to Commemorate the Land Wars?

(I wrote this like 8 months ago, its a bit outdated.)

The Land Wars of New Zealand, despite having little space in public consciousness, were among the most significant events in the production of modern New Zealand. These wars began following the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi as many iwi and hapu came to regret their decision in signing when they learnt of their land being resold by the crowns forces to settlers for many times the original price, as opposed to protecting Maori land rights as had been agreed to under the treaty. As Iwi and Hapu declined to sell more land, wars broke out over Maori land lasting for over 70 years – with these battles now dubbed the Land Wars.

Despite being a founding moment of modern New Zealand, the Land Wars have been largely forgotten. However, debates over their remembrance have been reignited as a group of Otorohanga College students gained over 10,000 signatures for their petition to have a national holiday dedicated to commemorating the wars. Supporters of the petition argue that we should do more to remember and commemorate our history. Just as we commemorate wars fought overseas, through ANZAC day, it is argued we should also commemorate wars fought on our own soil.

One objection which has been raised to this proposal has argued that such a holiday could be divisive. There is some weight to this argument. Within literary studies it has become commonplace to assert that Pakeha culture has a poor relationship with its colonial origins. For example, In 2000 when the Associate Minister of Maori Affairs, Tariana Turia, described the Land Wars as genocide – due to the 80% reduction of Maori population within 50 years of signing the treaty, indeed a genocide – great political turmoil ensued (Mikaere 68). Such controversies over the history of New Zealand are not rare occurrences, leading some to fear that a holiday for the Land Wars will increase racial tensions.

It is difficult to ascertain whether such commemorations would increase tensions. Yet if this were the case it would only increase existing tensions. As Paul Moon has argued issues relating to our past should not be “whitewashed” or forgotten because they are controversial. Instead they should be discussed in resolving such tensions.

Yet Moon further argues that a national holiday may not be the best method of achieving this, as it may trivialize the events as opposed to bringing it adequate recognition. Though this argument may be contended. It may be true that Labour Weekend does not ignite much reflection on the nature of our labour, which it importantly should, thus Paul Moon is concerned may happen in the case of a holiday for the land wars. Yet  the same cannot be said of Waitangi Day.

Waitangi Day has been an important form of cultural performativity, leading to public discussions and events concerning the treaty, its relevance to the present and to New Zealand identity. Cultural performativity relates to the manner in which nations reflect on and define themselves through statutory holidays. Holidays, such as Waitangi Day, allow for a performative recognition of the past particularly as being a public holiday the public are able to attend events and engage with New Zealand history in this manner. For this reason it seems more appropriate to parallel a national holiday for the Land Wars with Waitangi Day as opposed to one such as Labour Weekend.

Yet in relating this to Waitangi Day, it may further be argued that a national holiday may be inadequate in easing ethnic tensions as national holidays are often constructed to reproduce the state through nationalism and images of inter-ethnic harmony as opposed to encouraging genuine reflection. This has been the nature of Waitangi Day as it is largely celebrated as a day of unity and partnership. However, the enactment of this narrative of unity through public holidays, creates to the ground for other voices to contend the state-led narrative of harmony.

It allows for alternative understanding to be performed which shape the nature of the national day and its meaning. The protests which occur at Waitangi celebrations, for example, have impacted our view of Waitangi Day from one of celebration to one which may recognizes Maori struggles for decolonization are still ongoing. In this manner, contrasting cultural performances can foster discussions geared towards the gradual resolution of tensions, as opposed to suppressing and thus allowing the continuation of such tensions.

The colonial origins of New Zealand pertaining to the Land Wars have for long gained little discussion, with the minimal debates themselves proving to be controversial. How, or whether, to engage with this past has recently gained prominence, following a petition presented to parliament requesting for a national holiday to be dedicated to the Land Wars. Despite the controversy this may cause, when viewed as part of a process of cultural performativity, contrasting forms of cultural performance can be effective in resolving these controversies as opposed to suppressing them. A national holiday seems one path for this as it will allow for greater public engagement and thus cultural performance with, and through, the Land Wars.

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Posted in All Posts, Postcolonialism

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