Peoples’ passion – wairua, affect and national days

Tim McCreanor

In a world gripped by a rising tide of populist nationalism, high emotion and desperate passions often seem to drive global movements, tensions between countries and policies. Politicians feed off the outpourings of rage, resentment, fear and sorrow while social media magnify the most extreme voices to fever pitch.  

We don’t talk a lot about emotion and feeling in this country. New Zealanders have even been dubbed “passionless” by critics, yet it is clear that, aside from fascination with sport, there are still plenty of live issues that can polarise the nation. There is a mix of pride, defensiveness and denial arising in discussions, challenges and conflict over questions of national identity. This is very clear on the two main national days that New Zealand observes – Waitangi Day and Anzac Day – which are powerful moments in the life of the nation.

Curiosity around these tensions inspired our research team to study the role of affect (emotions and feelings) and wairua at play among those that attend (and some who don’t) events such as dawn services at key memorials. We are interested in how wairua and affect arise in acts of commemoration and celebration and how this influences identity, community relations and national life. National days, even in small communities, bring together many threads of histories, tensions and futures, allowing us to see some of the ways New Zealanders feel, talk about and experience our national identities.

WW1 memorial, Mesopotamia Station, Rangitata Valley, Canterbury.

All around the country people gather, often at monuments, pou, buildings, carvings and statuary to participate in events that include speeches, religious elements, songs, flags, military presence, cultural displays and public activities. Many feelings may be evoked - affect and wairua - that can be seen in how people think about themselves and others. This includes how we see the nation, our place in it and our sense of community. We may talk about difference and disagree as to how we should think about ourselves and how we should mark these days. Events might be organised to manage these differences, to bring them out or to bury them. National days remind us of our coming together and coming apart as a nation.


Memorial at Kohukohu, Hokianga, Northland

Over the last few years our project has collected multiple forms of data; individual and group interviews as well as video recordings as people experience events. We have looked at the ways in which what we experience is created at these events and how these activities influence the ways we are ‘moved’ at national commemorative events. Participants share with us their fear, rage, hope, joy, despair, frustration and excitement as they reflect on or participate on Waitangi Day or Anzac Day. What emerges are rich, diverse, challenging and passionate accounts of what the events mean to ordinary citizens and how affect and wairua play out in their relationships, identities and community life.


Waitangi Day at Waitangi

We see bodies, brains, spirit and meaning as entirely entangled. We are interested in complex mixes and patterns of affect and wairua across people and groups over time; it is clear to us that this has social implications.

We approach these patterns through the application of Margie Wetherell’s notion of social practice and Helen Moewaka Barnes' wairua approach – this means we look not only at what people say but at what they feel.


Anzac Day, Ataturk Memorial, Wellington Heads.

How New Zealanders position ourselves and others in national life, both reflects and drives everyday nationalism, outlining what belonging to the nation means to people and what the nation can mean to its citizens. Feelings are not often talked about in research or, when they are, we might see them as something we experience for a moment and then they are gone. Wairua may be seen as important but too difficult to include as a focus of research. Our team is interested in how these experiences play out, how they work as drivers of everyday nationalism. Our research is enabling us to look at the implications of the many ways we experience and feel about these days; the nature of social relations between Māori and Tauiwi, our attitudes towards war, ideas of our country that we feel comfortable with and those we want silenced.


Waitangi Day with whanau at Milford Domain, Takapuna

Waitangi Day 2017 has come and gone with the usual deep uncertainty about social justice in the nation.  For Māori the anguish of the history of loss and current disparities seem clear. Expressions of this distress are often seen as that of a few ‘angry activitists’; however our research shows many layers of feelings and experiences as individual Māori, whānau and hapū mark the day. For Pākehā we see a broad mix, from irritation and anger at being reminded of our injustice, and defensiveness over differences in Māori and non-Māori positions in this country, to a determination to work for social justice.


Anzac dawn service, Fielding

Anzac Day lies ahead with its utopian vision of national unity. While our research sees a common understanding of Anzac Day as a solemn time of respectful remembrance it also points to much diversity.  While we might see the day as a series of commemorations where we are bound together with a shared sense of grief and loss, this is not felt in the same way across citizens, families and communities. Our differences of culture, class, gender, age and life experience contribute to varied meanings and responses from proud adherence to ‘birth of the nation’ and the necessity of war in order to obtain peace to troubled thoughts over the futility and waste of war. The current focus on Gallipoli acknowledges the extreme losses and suffering of families but, it has given rise to the comparative silence on other key times in our history, notably the New Zealand Wars that only finally ended in 1916 with the attack on the Tūhoe community of Rua Kenana. We pick and choose what we remember and too often ignore the memories and moments that might challenge us to think and act differently, the memories we might learn from and build a better future on.

A brief commentary on how media tend to ‘do’ emotion around Waitangi Day

Alex McConville

Waitangi Day.

‘A day of hostility’.

‘A day of conflict’.

…And a day where a ‘few grumpy Māori ruin it for the rest of us’.

For the New Zealand media, these ways of emoting around the day are business as usual. You know how it goes: How will the day be ruined this year? Will the prime minister be allowed to attend and speak? Why can’t it just be a day of celebration? When will they get over it and move on?

New Zealand Herald, 2017

New Zealand Herald, 2017

With plenty of palpable anti-Māori sentiment available in the public (read: Pākehā) domain, these familiar feelings are effortlessly reproduced in numerous ways, year in year out. In 2017, newly appointed PM Bill English is positioned as actively following suit.

New Zealand Herald, 2017                                              Newshub, 2017

New Zealand Herald, 2017                                              Newshub, 2017

Certainly, the media standard story holds that Waitangi Day is obviously a bad occasion, and we (read: Pākehā) are justifiably sick and tired of it. Indeed, for many it may seem as though these feelings are natural expressions of how most people are affected by Waitangi Day. Our research, however, contends that particular ways of feeling and being are matters of practice.

If we accept that the mainstream media play a key role informing the public in matters of cultural and national significance, then we may also accept that they play a central role in the ongoing formation and maintenance of relations among Māori, Pākehā and others. If so, this is problematic. The mainstream media has long been criticised as a site where Pākehā ways of knowing, seeing and feeling are privileged, whilst Māori perspectives are marginalised. As a result, the ways particular events are framed becomes very one sided – as if the media were viewing the world through a settler/colonial lens.

New Zealand Herald, 2012

New Zealand Herald, 2012

From this standpoint, the ways some people feel about Waitangi Day are not the result of natural and obvious worldly truths, but are picked up over time from canonical affective patterns modelled through media and other colonial practices. Moreover, when such institutions repeatedly reproduce these very routine ways of feeling about Waitangi Day, then possible alternative ways of feeling are more likely to recede into the background and potentially fade away altogether.

New Zealand Herald, 2013

New Zealand Herald, 2013

Make no mistake, these mediated emotional practices are highly beneficial for Pākehā. In a colonial context where power and privilege remain with the coloniser, it is advantageous that the range of feelings available for readers to engage with primarily involve simplified decontexualised narratives interwoven with strong emotional stances circulating around Māori as ‘the problem’. This allows for Pākehā to avoid having to go through the process of troubling introspection.

Stuff, 2011

Stuff, 2011

In order to foster a more equitable and inclusive bi-culturalism, popular journalism needs to actively deploy a wider range of emotional experiences for readers to grapple with. For example, how might situating protest action within the context of Treaty breaches look like? Would then deeming them ‘irrational’ remain a viable approach? Perhaps, in this instance, Pākehā anger and frustration might then go on to be constructed as ‘absurd’. What about modelling grief as a justified and understandable response to historical trauma?  Or how about exploring the emotional processes involved around of Māori and Pākehā working together on related issues?

Certainly, there are many emotional possibilities. Currently, however, the very narrow ways in which feelings are deployed around the day ensures debate is limited, and readers are left uninformed. Productive engagement with bi-culturalism requires a broader and deeper approach to reporting issues Waitangi Day raises. Here, the stage will be set such that we may then be able to begin coming to terms with our conflicting histories, emotions, discourses and identities.


For further reading see Alex's article ‘Hostility Won’t Deter Me, Says PM’: The Print Media, the Production of Affect and Waitangi Day.

Māori Association of Social Science Conference: Reflections


Māori Association of Social Science Conference: Reflections
Emerald Muriwai McPhee

Last month we were privileged with the opportunity to take our Māori researchers from the Wairua, Affect and National Days project down to the Māori Association of Social Science Conference. The conference theme was Nui te kōrero: Rewriting national narratives which was fitting to both our project and the current thinking space we are in as the project draws closer to our official end date. We ran a workshop on A wairua approach to research and I presented a short piece on Privilege and Denial of the Nation’s Foundation.

Appropriately, the conference started in the wharenui (Te Herenga Waka Marae) with reframing the narrative of Aotearoa’s beginnings with keynote speaker Dr Aroha Harris who introduced us to Tuki’s map:

Tuki's Map by Tuki Te Terenui Whare Pira (1793)

Tukitahua of Ōruru and his cousin Ngahuruhuru were kidnapped from their home in Northland  and taken to Norfolk Island in hopes that they would teach criminals about flax weaving. Unbeknownst to their captors, Tuki had minimal knowledge of flax preparation and instead he attempted to explain where he and his cousin would like to return to. Tuki drew a map of Aotearoa in chalk on the ground which was later replicated into the map above. Tuki's map is the first written Māori map on record as prior to colonisation knowledge in Te Ao Māori was transmitted through oral histories. Tuki's map illustrates the knowledge and values he personally held as tangata whenua of Aotearoa. One example of this knowledge is the spiritual inclusion of  Te Rerenga Wairua (noted as 'Terry-inga', i.e. Cape Rēinga) where Māori believe the spirits of those who have passed ascend to Hawaiki. 

Dr Harris reminded us that our stories needn’t start with Captain Cook’s map. She also reminded us to be aware that much of New Zealand’s taught and written history is taught from Cook's map - rather than from our pre-colonial indigenous history. Cook’s map is highly regarded and yet it represents a commerical and colonial interest in the resources Aotearoa had to offer. In Cook's map there is no apparent presence of the people living in Aotearoa, whereas Tuki’s map details the relationships between peoples of the Hokianga Harbour. Despite having never circumnavigated the islands, Tuki’s map shows knowledge of the significance of Te Wai Pounamu (The South Island).

Chart of New Zealand, engraved by I Bayly (1773)

Like many Māori, this talk reminded me that many of us (albeit unintentionally) start our histories at colonisation; in Harris’s words “history is one of the tools of the coloniser”. It is important to acknowledge that reclaiming, retelling and connecting with our pre-colonial narratives is a difficult journey we invest in and for many perhaps, a lifelong process.  Dr Harris illuminated that we, as Māori, possess complexity and sophistication, which equips us to understand the multiplicity that informs our diverse ways of being Māori today.

Many of us are aware of the histories of problematic misrepresentation rising from the stories we’ve been told about ourselves. To many, our existence is resistance. This opening kōrero was refreshing and drew us out from the mainstream national narratives we find ourselves entangled with.

Presentations from tauira, early career academics and experienced academics continued throughout the three days of the conference. The real value of such a space was the interdisciplinary collaboration that brought us together from what can often feel like lonely siloes of Māori knowledge and development. We heard about the intersection of what it means to be Māori and to be an athlete, or to be an urban Māori, what it means to engage in politics, iwi and hapū level engagement, the history of certain waiata, (re)education and many challenges encompassed in modern indigenous struggles. Uniting these presentations was the idea of voice and a critical awareness of indigenous identity against a context of competing deficits which we have been framed against for centuries.

The second keynote speaker, Professor John Maynard, highlighted the necessity of populating literature with missing narratives of indigenous histories. He spoke about his pride in cultural identity and history, which he sourced from his whānau history through his grandfather’s involvement in the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association. Professor Maynard also reminded us of the importance of young indigenous people being able to see heroes and positive, relatable representations of their own people.    

A collection of some of the 12 books Professor Maynard has published in the past 14 years

The depth and breadth of Professor Maynard’s outputs was impressive but it was what he found most rewarding about publishing that struck a chord. He described his books being passed around families and communities, well-loved and read by those who could see themselves in his stories. It makes a difference when your story is being told from within.

The final keynote was Dr Jo Smith who spoke about narratives of nationhood emerging from Māori television from 2004 to 2014. Dr Smith talked about settling the ‘otherwise beige’ nation state and how Māori television plays a role in framing/agenda setting – not telling us what to think but telling us what to think about. Coming back to Tuki’s map Dr Smith reminded us that many Māori organisations still operate within a ‘Cook oriented’ framework due to Government legislation. For Māori Television this takes the form of answering to competing demands – to authentically represent and support Māori and also to be relatable and understandable to non-Māori through 'benevolent biculturalism'. 

Māori Television Logo

Dr Smith's talk reminded us of the value of critically assessing who is setting the agenda, who is occupying the mainstream and how Māori can 'write back to the absence' of representation across so many areas of society. Opening the final day of this multidisciplinary conference with this talk was important, it drew attention to the presence of established and emerging Māori  academics who, at this point of time, may be one of the few (or only) indigenous people holding their ground in our respective fields and disciplines.


Just as the conference was drawing to an end I had the opportunity to present a brief analysis of some Waitangi Day content from the Wairua, Affect and National Days project. It was a privilege to hear the reflections of other indigenous scholars in the room who presented some useful suggestions and additions for our forthcoming analyses of this data. Most valuable of the feedback was the sense of indigenous solidarity and understanding - we were on the same page and coming from a critical standpoint which centres our worldviews as the default, the given and the perspectives that are most relevant to our peoples.  

Overall the conference experience was engaging and decolonising. Working across disciplines and interacting with indigenous academics of various levels of experience was a privilege as well as a reminder of the sophistication of our peoples and the critical work that we do. Whether we are resisting oppressive misrepresentations or writing back to the absence, MASS provided a safe and cohesive space to discuss, present and indeed, rewrite the diverse narratives we share as Māori in Aotearoa.