Few at Waitangi – will it be the quietest commemoration of our national day?

At Waitangi, it was so quiet there were jokes made about tumbleweed blowing along the empty foreshore road.

Any other year on February 5, the day before Waitangi Day, it would be packed.

Not this year. People were asked to stay away and they did, in droves. For those who did come, and for those who live or work there, it was an unsettling experience.

“This whole road was closed for all the people coming,” says Paul Tane, recalling previous years standing in his driveway down the road from Te Tii Waitangi Marae.

He’s lived here for 18 years.

“Normally on Waitangi Day, it’s bubbling. This year, there’s nothing.It’s quite scary. It’s quite sad. I don’t know if we’re ever going to see it again.”

It’s a concern echoed by others among those few who came after the usual commemorations were cancelled because of Covid-19 – a concern heightened with case numbers spiking in the North.

Normally thousands throng to Waitangi over these days. Waitangi Day is the public holiday but really, in the North, it is Waitangi Week. Whanau catch up, hui are held, plans are hatched and meaning is sought in the year gone by.

Then on February 5 – the day before the anniversary of the signing – there is a spectacle of seriousness to balance the day of celebration that follows. Thousands of people come, some to watch, some to speak their minds, lay down their own challenge. Some simply thrill at being close to history.

And yet this year, barely hundreds turned up. “It feels dead,” said one man.

At Ti Tii Marae, the only people visible were the security volunteers there to keep people out. They wore fluorescent vests with the words: “Kaitiaki Native Peace Keeper”.

This is the place generally described as the “lower marae” to separate it from the Waitangi Treaty Grounds – that stretch of land with the flagpole and meeting house where the Treaty was signed 182 years ago.

Usually, the grounds of the marae are filled with tents where people could speak those challenges. Stalls would fill the large, grassed space beyond selling food or handcrafts or a myriad things. It is electric and jubilant and vibrant.

This year, there’s only one tent. It’s on a foreshore stretch of reserve, outside Ti Tii Marae’s boundaries and across the road. Perhaps 100 people have gathered to hear rangatira from across Tai Tokerau speak, most if not all adherents to the cause of He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence.

It’s an agreement that has struggled to assert its place in accepted history almost since it was signed.

There wasn’t much mask wearing going on. A number of those present identified themselves as not vaccinated and opposed to the Government’s public health approach.

With 187 years of fighting to have the Crown acknowledge He Whakaputanga, it’s not uncommon among champions of its legitimacy to find those struggling to believe anything the Crown might say, even if it could save their lives.

And there’s tension. Ti Tii Marae’s decision to close its grounds came after much debate, the Herald was told, including discussion over conflict between the welcome obliged to manuhiri versus a responsibility to keep people safe from Covid-19.

Tension, too, over access to the grounds for those who have travelled to recognise their obligation to tupuna – to meet Waitangi Day with a gathering at dawn around a flag pole and pou on Ti Tii Marae’s grounds.

Donna Tamaki, whose whakapapa touches a number of Treaty signatories, is among those planning to hop the fence before dawn.

“People are coming and it’s not right to turn them away.”

It was the “final nail in the coffin”, she says, “this marae is locking me out”.

Over the one-way bridge and up the hill, the carpark at the Copthorne Hotel has few vehicles.It’s usually packed with the cars that brought iwi leaders, media, politicians and public servants.

The treaty grounds are likewise near-empty. Few visitors could be seen touring the 506 hectares bought in 1932 by Lord and Lady Bledisloe then gifted to the nation.

Here, there is a strong police presence bolstered by security guards. Preparations for Waitangi Day – heard by the Herald – were centred on keeping the treaty grounds secure.

At one point, discussions turned to contingency plans should anyone jump the fence or otherwise attempt to enter the place where, for the past four years, the Prime Minister (with help) has cooked breakfast for thousands. This year, the treaty grounds commemorations will shift online.

Crown-Maori Relations Minister Kelvin Davis stopped by and spoke of his “disappointment” Waitangi week was cancelled.

“Covid has done what it has done. Tomorrow is an opportunity for people to reflect in their own way on Waitangi Day.”

Back on the foreshore, Kiri Tipene and friends are sitting at driveway’s end enjoying the breeze off the sea and marvelling at the absence of people.

Tipene has plans for the day – she and whanau will hike to the top of a local maunga for sunrise and honour ancestors with karakia, acknowledging the fight fought and their responsibility to carry it forward. And then a hangi, togetherness and thinking to the future.

When dawn comes tomorrow, it promises to bring a Waitangi Day as quiet – as barren – as New Zealand has seen for 88 years.

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