Waitangi Commemorations Youth Forum :: Michelle Blakeney

January, 2003 :: Aotearoa, New Zealand

My main reason for receiving the funding was to attend the Waitangi Commemorations Youth Forum in Aotearoa. This forum was a part of the Waitangi Treaty Festival, where Jenny Fraser and myself were invited to speak on the topic Aboriginal Art and Activism.

Waitangi Day, in the Bay of Islands, has come to be celebrated as New Zealand’s National day. It is more often a day of controversy as the Maori people engage the government in debate (generally by organised protest) about successive governments having never honoured the Treaty of Waitangi, and continuing to dismiss it and even declare it a nullity. It’s very similar to the Survival Day celebrations on Australia Day, here in Australia. There is music, food and stalls – and of course the location has a great meaning to the Maori, as it was where the Maori representatives and the British agreed upon the Treaty of Waitangi.

One of the many young women I got to know was Te Whenua Harawira; she is part of a young Maori women’s research group called Hokioi – dedicated to supporting the development of Indigenous people. They are considered to be youth activists; even the act of just walking around with them became quite an experience. I saw and experienced first hand the police harassment of the Maori youth. Being in a group of three, we were under surveillance by the police, because as the law states a group of people numbering more than two were considered to be a ‘gang’ – a fact told to us by a big, burly, enthusiastically loud policeman shouting at us as we sat on a bench in a park. There’s nothing like being with the locals to get a truer perspective on issues!

Later in the day about 200 people walked up to the Treaty grounds from the Waitangi Marae at Te Ti. This is part of the yearly Maori protest against the government and their continual non-committal and unjust attitude towards the Treaty of Waitangi. This was where the clash with the police happened.

On the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the New Zealand government flies a large flag in the middle of a clearing. Every year the Maori protesters march towards this site and attempt to change the flag for a Maori flag – this action reflects and represents the position of some Maori, but not necessarily all Maori. All this of course does not sit well with the New Zealand government who duly swell police numbers to cope with the influx of marchers and protesters; and this year it all got pretty ‘argey bargey’.

As I was a new face, the undercover police had a field day photographing me during the eventual march. I felt like a celebrity while they got my different profiles. It was funny because they were trying to hide in trees and bushes and after a while I just ended up smiling for them. Police were everywhere. We documented six people getting arrested for breaches of the peace at the flagpole on the Treaty House grounds.

Being a part of such a volatile political march was not exactly the great artistic developmental journey. It became more about the media representation of indigenous peoples and their struggles. The following day the local paper had made no real mention of the clashes between the Police and the Maori people. It was all put aside in self-congratulatory headlines saying things about the great strides made in Maori / Pakeha (non-Indigenous) relations.

Front pages show lovely colour photos of children playing and swimming, brass bands, food stalls etc – the only mention of what I had seen was a small paragraph on the front page of the local paper The Northern Advocate, it read – “…only one incident soured an otherwise peaceful two days, with six people arrested for breaches of the peace at the flagpole on the Treaty House grounds yesterday afternoon.”

I’m not trying to push a political barrow here; I just felt there should have more representation on the part of the Maori. The mainstream media coverage seemed very one sided and above all what it did for me was to realise how much more pro-active I need to be in my own country. Pro-active in the sense of my own contribution to a more balanced argument from both sides about issues that will affect us all. Indigenous issues are just too complex not to get right.

Social and political issues aside – what I found to be most interesting and involving was experiencing the passion and intensity these young people have towards the challenges they face. It was an amazing event to be a part of; and being around those young men and women was very inspiring.

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