Irrelevant Celebrations

What’s to celebrate about Parihaka? Well, consider what we are already celebrating as a nation every year, on 31st October and 5th November: Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day. Since Halloween is still relatively new to NZ, many elderly folk look uncomprehendingly at the little figures “trick or treating” at their front doors, wondering why they are begging.[i] The children, however, have learned about it at school, from American TV programs, or from businesses trying to sell them stuff . Guy Fawkes Day most adults do comprehend, as a night for fireworks and bonfires. It was to celebrate the capture and execution of Catholic activist Guy Fawkes for his attempt in 1605 to blow up England’s Parliament building. Many NZers would rather cheer his attempt than his capture, but this would probably change if they knew he was actually trying to assassinate the Protestant king, James V, his queen, his son and his cabinet ministers. This was 17th Century terrorism.

Both festivals are fun, colourful, and we need times of celebration, but what are we actually celebrating? Most people I’ve asked don’t know so here are a few head-lines.

Halloween

What exactly is Halloween? The name comes from ‘All-Hallows Eve’, being the evening before All Saints Day on 1st November in the traditional church calendar, just as Christmas Eve is the evening before Christmas Day. It is also to celebrate Samhain, or summer’s end, in the Northern Hemisphere. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “trick or treating” originated in the ancient practice of placating demons to protect the following year’s crops:

In the north of England, Oct 31 is (still) observed as “mischief night” marked by tiresome tricks with no serious underlying purpose, meaning or history… Mischief-making on this occasion by boys and young men took such forms as overturning sheds and outhouses and breaking windows, and damage to property was sometimes severe. In later years the occasion has come to be observed by young children, who go from house to house demanding ‘trick or treat’

Irish emigrants took Halloween to the New World where it became thoroughly Americanised. In the States, most of October is now spent marketing it. The children’s part in the festivities used to be to dress up as witches, ghosts, devils, or vampires, but today’s costumes can be anything, including pirates, super-heroes, or robots. In the evening, the children are to go from door to door in their neighbourhoods, asking for ‘treats’ such as lollies or biscuits and ‘tricking’ those who won’t oblige. In recent times, these tricks have included throwing eggs at the house or putting fireworks in the letterboxes. Police are concerned that the masks are disguising vandals.

My question is, what motives are being encouraged and what values are communicated in this fun-time for the children? It seems to me, much as I like Americans, that this festival’s arrival here is, at best, American culture overwhelming us. At worst, it is a tacit acceptance of a protection racket and occult spirituality. After all, what are the goals of spells and potions in witchcraft? A calling on spirits and chemicals to unashamedly manipulate people.

Guy Fawkes Day

When I was a kid, we used to celebrate the 5th November by stuffing old clothes to make a ‘guy’, an effigy of Mr Fawkes, which we carted from door to door in the morning before school, asking for money by chanting:

Guy Fawkes Guy!  Stick him up high,
Stick him on a lamppost, and then let him die.

We finished up with:

A loaf of bread to stuff his head,
And a jolly good fire to roast him.
Christmas is coming, and the geese are getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat,
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you!

The money was to buy the fireworks we set off at night around the bonfire where the effigy was burned.

Why did we do this? Because 400 years ago, in 1606, this festival was established by the Protestant Parliament to keep rubbing the noses of English Catholics in their failure. In the USA, they used to also burn effigies of the Pope. In 1993, when I first raised the issue at my children’s school, one Catholic couple initially objected, saying they wanted to keep Guy Fawkes Day because he was a folk-hero to them. However, when they learned it was actually to vilify Mr Fawkes, they did a prompt about-face.

Of course, in recent years, we have civilised the rituals by excluding the burning of the ‘guys’, but again I have to ask, what ideals are being passed on to the children? Do they learn from Mr Fawkes that we should change the political system by gun-powder, tempting though that may be, or from 17th Century religious politicians that we should burn our opponents in effigy, ad infinitum?

 Relevance In New Zealand?

There’s no doubt that both celebrations fill a hole in our national need for festivals, fun and a bit of exotic colour. But why do we celebrate the death of a villain 400 years ago on the other side of the planet, and the end of the Northern Hemisphere’s summer when ours is actually beginning?

Are we in N.Z. today so lacking as a people that we have to continue someone else’s history and culture? Well, we are if we have to lean on our TVs instead of our imaginations, and, if we don’t know our own national history well enough to recognise an event here in N.Z. truly worth celebrating!

On November 5th, 1881, the pa at Parihaka was invaded. This day saw the arrest of their two leaders, Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti O Rongomai, two of the most determinedly peace-loving leaders of all time. Beginning in 1869, under the guidance of Tohu and Te Whiti, the people of Parihaka began to practise peaceful protest and resistance to an unjust government’s confiscation and occupation of their land. In other words, they began their campaign when India’s greatest hero of this cause, Mahatma Gandhi, was still a teenager – he was born in 1869. Mahatma means ‘great soul’ and today he is recognised not just by Indians but internationally for his contribution to peaceful resolution of conflicts. Our men predated him.

In the 1970s, the Americans created a new national holiday to celebrate the birth, life, and works of Martin Luther King Jr., and his “I have a dream…” still echoes around the world, but what of New Zealand’s ‘great souls’ of a hundred years earlier? Many N.Zers, let alone other nations, have not yet learned of the extraordinary courage, ideals and even humour of these two and I believe the time has come to change that. What follows is necessarily a very brief synopsis but easily available today are Dick Scott’s illustrated book Ask That Mountain (incidentally the first NZ book to be translated into Russian so the Russians could learn of our world leaders), Hazel Riseborough’s Days of Darkness and the Montana Book Award-winning, Parihaka: The Art Of Passive Resistance (ed. Te Miringa Hohaia et al).

Why Did the Government Invade?

Tohu and Te Whiti had seen that armed opposition to the encroaching new settlers was only effective in the short term, since the settlers could call on the troops to restore order and the land could then be “legally” confiscated  – the New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863 authorised the confiscation without compensation of the land of any in rebellion. The Parihaka answer was peaceful protest, to draw attention to the injustice by pulling up survey pegs.

In May 1879, young unarmed warriors under Tohu’s direction had begun to plough the disputed land, ignoring the European boundaries and crossing from farm to farm. The settlers had called for the constabulary to remove the peaceful ploughmen who were under strict instructions to not resist at all, not even to use bad language or insults. However, since any charge of trespassing would have meant the courts examining the real issue of land ownership, no charges were laid against the supposed trespassers!

The constabulary proceeded to arrest the ploughmen without charges, defying the very law they were supposed to be upholding since no one is to be held in custody for more than 24 hours without charge. As fast as they did this, however, new ploughmen volunteered to the work until over two hundred men had been so detained. Seven months later, the N.Z. Parliament passed the Maori Prisoners’ Trials Act 1879 which was back-dated to suspend the legal rights of these prisoners and to declare that whatever measures the settlers had had to adopt to deal with this threat to their well-being were deemed to be legal! When asked what he was trying to do with the ploughing, Te Whiti replied that he was “ploughing Governor Grey’s conscience” but the Governor did not appear to have had one in this instance.

Tohu and Te Whiti then developed another strategy, putting up fences around their land, fences which went across the new roads the settlers were building to give themselves better access. As often as the settlers would tear down the fences and start again with the road, the people of Parihaka would wait until they had gone home, restore the fences and replant the land cleared for the road. Hundreds more were arrested and also held without trial for several years.

It was this quiet endurance and peaceful response that eventually drove the Government and the constabulary to arrest these terrible ‘trouble-makers’ on November 5th, 1881.

5th November, 1881

The invasion of Parihaka on that Guy Fawkes Day was accomplished by Native Minister ‘Honest John’ Bryce and 1,589 members of the Armed Constabulary, with artillery to demolish any fortifications. There were no fortifications, nor were there any armed Maori warriors. What the advancing troops encountered were children, playing stick games on the road! Behind the children stood their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers, carrying five hundred loaves of baked bread to feed the soldiers, singing and dancing with pois. Behind the women stood all the men, including Tohu and Te Whiti, insisting that they would not fight, no matter what the provocation. The troops were plainly unnerved by this unprecedented event.

Dick Scott writes that during the ensuing tense stand-off, a dog came out of the pa and, watched in fascination by all, wandered up to the top of hill overlooking the village where the cannon was located, primed and ready to fire. There, to the huge amusement of the locals, he first sniffed and then cocked his leg on the cannon’s wheel, doubtless demonstrating what many of them were feeling! The kaumatua, however, say this happened in a dream the preceding night, Tohu and Te Whiti interpreting it as a confirmation that the troops would not open fire and urging them to hold true to their principles of non-violence.

The troops didn’t open fire but they did make their way through the crowd to arrest Tohu and Te Whiti, charging them with sedition, a serious form of disturbing the peace. They also arrested Titokowaru, another great Taranaki leader who had earlier embarrassed even the professional Imperial troops with his battle strategies and who had recently gone to Parihaka, laying down his weapons.

And what exactly was the crime of these men? Disturbing public order by insisting that the courts of law needed to hear the disputes over the land being illegally occupied by the European settlers.

What’s To Celebrate?

What would our children and our nation gain if we were to celebrate this event?

(i) True heroes to be emulated. Te Whiti’s motto was “Peace on earth and goodwill among men” (familiar words to Christians, spoken by the angels announcing the birth of Jesus). They knew that European settlement was inevitable and actively welcomed the newcomers with these words. Their goodwill extended to renouncing armed violence as a way of resolving conflicts and instead teaching love and peaceful dialogue within the law (compare this with Guy Fawkes terrorism and the states burning in effigy!). Another of their primary values was hard work and innovation (compare this with Halloween’s threatening with a “trick” if you don’t pay a “treat”). The children of Parihaka were also heroes – it was after all the children who faced the armed troops that morning.

(ii) A better sense of who we are as a people in N.Z. today, unafraid to face past injustices and honour those proven to be right. I believe the Parihaka way of resolving disputes points the way ahead for us as a nation, calling for and acknowledging aroha/goodwill and justice amongst Maori and Pakeha.

(iii) Something truly worth celebrating in our own history. Even if we strip away the actual and dreadful meanings of both Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day, we are then left with meaningless celebrations. Why not have celebrations that do actually mean something, and will teach our children excellent values and motives at the same time. We shouldn’t be afraid of directing, rather than mocking, the idealism of our young people.

(iv) This is not in any way to undermine Waitangi Day. February 6th is also unique to our nation and we need to celebrate all of our achievements. When I met with Native Americans in the States in 1998, they were astonished to hear that our government has slowly been honouring the Treaty, given that theirs had dishonoured over 300!

How Should We Celebrate?

1. I propose we develop a children’s festival, in honour of the children of Parihaka who faced the Armed Constabulary. We can retain all the colour and treats of Halloween and the fireworks and bonfires of Guy Fawkes Day, with an emphasis on community displays rather than individuals’ displays which all too often have created scrub fires. Instead of our promoting the witches, pumpkins, and ghosts of American television programs, let our children celebrate our own history with all the drama and excitement of true heroism, honour, love and humour.

2. In the week leading up to 5th November, in every school in our nation, the children could learn from age-appropriate teaching resources the events and values of Parihaka, which included community-building, hard work and innovation, loving enemies, anger management, conflict resolution, and peace-making, peer-mediation, etc. Celebrations can be as varied and imaginative as the communities who host them.

3. Recently, our Government has legislated for 28th October to set aside as an annual commemoration of all who died in our 19th Century Land Wars. The day, known as ‘Raa Maumahara National Day of Commemoration’, is to begin this year:

These battles shaped our country and its people. We lost more than 2,750 lives during the New Zealand Land Wars and it’s time we honour them in a similar way that we honour those who died overseas.1

How poignant and appropriate, then, that this would lead on to a week of learning and celebrating peace-making. Tohu and Te Whiti led Parihaka to “beat their swords into ploughshares”, just as Isaiah prophesied 2 – may we now live out their motto:

Kororia ki te Atua I runga rawa
Maungarongo ki runga I te whenua
Whakaaro pai ki nga tangata katoa  

Glory to God on high
Peace on earth
Goodwill to all mankind 


E-Tangata Parihaka Has Waited a Long Time  


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  1. http://www.mch.govt.nz/date-set-commemorate-land-wars
  2. Isa 2:4