The case for Parihaka Day

Should we ditch Guy Fawkes and celebrate Te Whiti instead?

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In the United States they let off skyrockets and light Catherine wheels on July 4, Independence Day, celebrating separation from the British Empire. In France, fireworks spangle the Eiffel Tower in praise of liberté, egalité and fraternité on July 14, Bastille Day, another day that celebrates throwing off the shackles of oppressive power.

In New Zealand, our annual pyrotechnic ritual memorialises the exact opposite: a failed attempt to assassinate the King by blowing up the British Parliament. Guy Fawkes night sends a cautionary message to would-be revolutionaries: “Don’t try it.”

Not that I thought much about that political message, growing up. The night itself was mostly a chance to drop Double Happies into empty watering cans, shoot skyrockets out of Fanta bottles and daringly hold Roman candles in your bare hands. But it was clear, even to a child’s mind, that the annual gunpowder gala celebrated the crushing of the plot, not the audacity of the plotters—our allegiance confirmed by the “burning of the guy”. No “Vive la revolution!” for us. In fact, as children we were taught to recite the lines:

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The gunpowder treason and plot.

I know of no reason

Why the gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

There are good reasons for suggesting that, at least in this country, the Guy Fawkes commemoration should indeed be “forgot”, on the grounds that it is both someone else’s history—increasingly remote and irrelevant—and that it entailed an exceedingly violent punishment for the offenders: emasculation and disembowelment while still living, followed by decapitation and quartering. Fawkes avoided this mutilation only by falling from the scaffold and breaking his neck during the hanging that preceded the torture.

Why not rather remember a homegrown event that occurred on the same day: the nonviolent response to the invasion of Parihaka inspired by Te Whiti and Tohu?

We already have more than 30 unofficial observances in this country—from St Patrick’s Day and Chinese New Year to Daffodil Day and Matariki—but not a single one celebrates a New Zealander. In the United States, by contrast, there are many such days, observed at national, state or city level. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered in a federal holiday. Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman—all civil rights activists—are commemorated in various city and state holidays. Although Tohu and Te Whiti are unlikely prospects for a commemorative day of their own (not least because their birth dates are unknown), at least a Parihaka observance would lift them to greater public prominence and respect.

Could we have a Parihaka Day that wasn’t saturated in grief and racial acrimony? Yes—Martin Luther King Jr. Day largely avoids those responses, despite the politics of race that remains deeply polarising in the United States. A Parihaka celebration could focus attention on the many shared values of peace, equality and nonviolence that arise from that history.

Religious studies professor Paul Morris, of Victoria University, has argued persuasively for such a commemoration. In Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance, he wrote: “At Parihaka we discover some of the values that we most cherish as a nation—solidarity, integrity, justice and peace, and, of course, the central importance of land—and from the prophets we can learn the value and necessity of spiritual resistance to defend these cherished values. We should inaugurate Parihaka Day on 5 November to remember the power of spiritual resistance against tyranny. We should recognise that the prophets of Parihaka were not madmen but were instead spiritual leaders—and acknowledge that spiritual dimension, the legacy of Parihaka, as essential for our individual and collective lives.”

It wouldn’t even need to be officially declared. As Matariki has shown, you don’t require a national day to create a national celebration. But at the very least, Taranaki could lead the way by declaring a provincial Parihaka Day, and letting it grow from there.

It could be argued that the government’s recently announced intention to create a national remembrance day for the New Zealand Wars obviates the need for a separate Parihaka commemoration.

But Parihaka is about the rejection of war as a political strategy. It speaks powerfully of a moral alternative to violence. No day dedicated to the memory of military deaths could adequately encompass what Parihaka signifies.

As Morris put it, “Parihaka is a moral, political and spiritual provocation to Māori and Pākehā to turn their anger at the past to the pursuit of peace and the righting of historic injustices in the present and future.”

More than a memorial day for the fallen, Parihaka Day might help produce the more perfect union between races that this country sorely needs.

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