Opinion: For much of the past 50 years New Zealand has been on a journey in search of its nationhood.

By the end of the 1960s, it had become clear that the comfortable international order established after the World War II was coming to an end. New Zealand was already facing – albeit with a combination of denial and reluctance – the prospect of Britain joining the European Economic Community, the loss of our guaranteed economic market and prosperity, and the changing nature of the relationship with the country many older people still then called “home”.

While New Zealand was becoming more closely linked to America through the Anzus pact, we never quite embraced the “all the way with LBJ” approach Australia proclaimed when President Lyndon B Johnson had visited. At the same time, most of our former Pacific territories had gained or were about to gain their independence.

Despite these changes, life within New Zealand was carrying on almost unchanged. The relationship with Māori was still traditional and paternalistic; Pacific Islanders were only just starting to come here in greater numbers, and there was no Asian migration to speak of. We were still decidedly monocultural, except for occasional somewhat condescending acknowledgements of the likes of Inia Te Wiata, the Howard Morrison Quartet or Whakarewarewa’s famous Guide Rangi.

But change was beginning to stir. From 1973, Prime Minister Norman Kirk had begun to talk about a distinct sense of New Zealand nationhood emerging – although its form was still developing. The then Auckland and Northland provincial holiday on February 6 to mark the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was made a national holiday to be known as New Zealand Day. At the first New Zealand Day celebration at Waitangi in 1974, Kirk pointedly told Queen Elizabeth II that Britain’s decision to join Europe had left New Zealand alone and free to develop its own values and nationhood.

Although the nationhood being developed was still Eurocentric, steady but still grudging allowances were being made for Māori values and culture. The Treaty of Waitangi was officially recognised in 1975 and the Waitangi Tribunal established. The Māori Land March later that year brought home for the first time to many Pākehā the historical injustices that had occurred since 1840 and the lingering sense of grievance remaining to be resolved.

New Zealand Day did not survive the change of government in 1975 – being renamed Waitangi Day in 1976 – but the journey towards a new sense of nationhood was underway. A renaissance of Māori culture and values began to flourish, with the government taking active steps to revive and promote the Māori language and its use, and te reo Māori became an official language in 1987.

The work of the Waitangi Tribunal – enabled since 1985 to review all treaty grievances back to 1840 – and the Treaty settlement process with major iwi from the early 1990s, started to empower Māori economic and social development to an extent unimaginable two decades earlier.

At the same time, although to a lesser extent, there has been a flourishing of Pasifika values and traditions in New Zealand, as befits the world’s largest Polynesian nation. Together with the surge in Asian migration since the 1990s, all these shifts are changing the face of New Zealand for ever. Our children and grandchildren are becoming increasingly comfortable with Māori language and te ao Māori, and major festivals such as Chinese New Year and Diwali are also becoming part of the national calendar. Over time, a new cohesive set of values and aspirations is emerging, that is a distinct reflection of what it means to be living in New Zealand today.

Within that context, our first national Matariki Day this week is a significant step forward, even though the day itself has been widely marked over recent years in various places across the country. It is unique to New Zealand and an opportunity to mark the start of the traditional Māori New Year by celebrating the past and looking forward to the future. Matariki deserves recognition in its own way, consistent with its distinctive history and traditions. After all, we already do that for Chinese New Year, Diwali, or other New Year celebrations we respect as reflective of other cultures of significance within New Zealand.

While our journey towards nationhood is ongoing, Matariki represents one more significant step along the way. Slowly but surely, we are building an all-embracing and unique New Zealand culture – one that recognises and incorporates the place of Māori as tangata whenua, but also weaves the cultures and values of our Pacific and Asian communities into the national tapestry. In doing so, however, we must ensure that our unique flavour is promoted and enhanced – Matariki Day should not become any form of imitation, as some have suggested, of the way other nations mark days of national significance to them. Matariki Day must remain our day, celebrated our way, the best way we see fit, and not just another commercial marketing opportunity.

Every nation needs symbols of its nationhood. In New Zealand we presently have few of these. We lack a defined national day, opting instead for Waitangi Day because of the significance of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. We commemorate our service personnel on Anzac Day, the advent of the 40-hour working week on Labour Day, and we still retain the forelock-tugging, anachronistic holiday to mark the British Sovereign’s birthday. Of all of them, Matariki Day is the only national day we have that is free from any political or other undertone – and we must ensure it stays that way.

Kirk’s original dream of a day each year when all New Zealanders – Māori, Pasifika, Asian or other – could come together to promote “with pride and confidence the unique gift we all possess by virtue of being New Zealanders” may yet come to fruition through Matariki Day. That would be one more welcome step on the road to our nationhood.

“Ngā mihi o Matariki, te tau hou Māori!”

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