A Waitangi Day ‘Celebration’

When I told people I was going to Brazil for an exchange, I heard a lot of the following:

“Please be careful” “Try don’t get shot!” “Make sure you hold on to all of your valuables as close as you can!” “Are you sure you want to go? It’s very dangerous there.”

Despite all the warnings, I couldn’t have imagined that my most confronting experience in Brazil would be from a fellow Kiwi.

February 4th was another day in our action-packed schedule. It began with a visit to the Indigenous Cultures Museum – a recent addition to the Sao Paulo metropolis. We were shown around a beautiful and contemporary display of Indigenous art. The standout detail was that all of the PMSLA group were dressed to the nines in the best clothes we had stowed away in our suitcases. The occasion we were preparing for was a formal lunch straight after the museum hosted by Education New Zealand. 

We were kindly invited to the lunch under the formality that it was intended for a Waitangi Day celebration. The PMSLA group were there not only to represent our home country but also as a means to network and coordinate with both Brazilian and Kiwi nationals working in Brazil. The structure of the day was simple and decided upon: Education New Zealand would mihi and sing waiata, PMSLA would mihi and sing waiata, and then the lunch would proceed.

Waitangi Day is a tricky day to celebrate, even in New Zealand. Yes, it is a national holiday and a welcomed day off in the middle of summer. Yet, the word celebrateraises much discussion and contemplation. On February 6th, 1840, a document was signed between the British Crown and Māori rangatira nationwide to formalise an agreement between the two parties. I don’t believe this is the space for me to delve into the, quite frankly, long history since the initial signing, but the bottom line is simple – Te Tititi o Waitangi has not been upheld. For many, Māori in particular, Waitangi Day can be a reminder of that fact, and the consequences that have arisen post-signing are still very much a harmful reality to this day.

This is why the word celebratecauses a lot of contemplation. I pose no authority on the matter, but for me – and the others in the PSMLA group – we prefer the national holiday to be a day of reflection, discussion, and kōrero.

This was essentially what I said in my mihi to the Education New Zealand Event. I stood as representative for my group and conducted a traditional mihi, first in Te Reo Māori and then a brief synopsis in English. The mihi wasn’t very long, and the theme was to shape the event’s ‘celebration’ to be more around kōrero and discussion, as I believe it was fitting considering we are a group on an Indigenous Rights and Histories scholarship. However, I didn’t get far into my English explanation when I heard a loud voice from the corner of the room and saw a man approach me. He had his finger raised and pointed at me, jabbing in my direction. He was angry. “That is nottrue.” There were stirs in the audience as the attention was drawn off me to the man. Someone had to step in and place a hand on his chest, ushering him to sit down. “That is nottrue. Don’t make this political.” 

I cannot remember what else he said; if I’m perfectly honest, I kind of froze. It felt like five minutes, but it was only a few seconds, and with the encouragement of my team, I locked eyes with the man and said (in Te Reo Māori), “I understand what you’re saying, my friend, but I am speaking the truth.” I shortly wrapped up my mihi as he continued to shout, and my PMSLA whānau stood up and did a fierce rendition of Te Pou. And then we had lunch.

I am very proud of how I held my cool. I spoke my truth, held up my and my peers’ values, and continued the lunch without further confrontation on my behalf. The situation was summarised by the organisers as an ‘interesting discourse.’ A few days out from the event, and I can safely say it was not as such. It was an aggressive man interrupting a formal procedure that was set by Education New Zealand. He used threatening body language and words to shut me down. He was attempting to use his power over me to intimidate me into silent submission.

I don’t know this man’s name or what he does, but I do know he is a Kiwi. I have never felt unsafe in Brazil until that moment…and it was from a Kiwi.

As the lunch proceeded, I knew that all eyes were on me and that I was a topic of conversation across many tables. I had quite a few people coming up to talk to me about my “little speech” and how “courageous” I was. I even had a Turkish ambassador come and speak to me (he was very nice – I got his business card). Someone commented that it was “interesting” that I introduced myself as Māori when I was from New Zealand and attending a New Zealand event. Someone else pulled me aside and told me that the reason my comments were so disruptive was that Brazilian Indigenous people don’t have a Treaty, and Māori do – the underlying tone being “just be grateful for what you already have.” There seemed to be no value held in my words. I was judged on my appearance – a young, Indigenous, white-passing female student who was saying things that she didn’t know anything about. 

I could have rattled on to them about my several years of education and work experience in Māori and Indigenous spaces to validate myself, but that is beside the point. I am Indigenous. I have lived an Indigenous experience. And with all my experiences with the Indigenous people here in Brazil – leaders, students, communities, activists – that is the unifying element. We are all Indigenous fighting the same battle at different stages, and there is no competition. The PMSLA students have bonded with, talked with, cried with, debated with, and laughed with all of these people here in Brazil and formalised these relationships by a means of connection – creating a wider whānau.

Indigenous people being silenced is nothing new. Come to think of it, that’s probably why I remained so calm after the event because it happens all the time. I have left some bits out of this story because some other interactions occurred that I wasn’t present for, and I believe it would be in better taste that I only speak the truth that I was there for.

But to that man at the event who interrupted me and the others who joined in, this is all I have to say:

As Indigenous people, we do not seek to create unnecessary competition amidst the greater fight for having our voices heard. We stand stronger together. We let each other be heard.

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