A gathering of tribal leaders has decided that commemorations on 28 October will begin next year, 2017.
But why has this date been chosen? It’s the day, we are told, that the earlier Declaration of Independence was signed, in 1835 in the Far North, between the tribes of Ngā Puhi and a British Resident Agent, James Busby. The date has no direct reference to the New Zealand Wars.
Pākehā historians like James Belich have long argued that the wars were ‘wars of sovereignty’. This date, 28 October, clearly buys into that argument, by foregrounding the issue of Māori sovereignty, rather than choosing an actual wars date.
Māori historians, by contrast, have argued that, for Māori, te tino rangatirantanga lay in the land, and was indistinguishable from the land, and the continuing possession of it. Tribes fought, and died, to protect this.
An over-arching ‘sovereignty’ sounds fine, but for Māori it was something always grounded in the land. October 28 denies to Māori the devastating costs of those conflicts, fought for their te tino rangatirantanga, embedded in the tribal estates.
A better date might have been 17 March, when the wars started in Waitara; or 20 November, when Rangiriri was attacked by British forces. This was the defining battle of the wars, where, for Māori, the wars were lost.
If anything, 28 October represents, not a sense of history, but modern Māori political realities, representing the state of Crown-Māori relations today which are centred on still outstanding issues of Māori autonomy, or sovereignty. The date is less about the wars, and more about Māori seeking constitutional or political leverage.
A date more reflective of the Māori experience of those wars, with all of the hurt, dispossession, loss and devastation has been by-passed, and that is a great shame.