Wairua, affect and
our national days

PROFESSOR HELEN MOEWAKA BARNES - SHORE & Whariki Research Centre, College of Health

Each of our national days carries a set of fairly straightforward ways that we are expected to feel — celebratory but expecting tension on Waitangi Day, for example, or a sense of grateful remembrance on Anzac Day. However, new research has shown that these positions can be at odds with our lived experience, as well as the deeper meanings of the days themselves.

The project was funded by a Marsden grant, and involved Professor Helen Moewaka Barnes (Te Kapatai, Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu), co-director of Massey University’s SHORE & Whariki Research Centre, along with Margie Wetherell, Tim McCreanor, Angela Moewaka Barnes, Emerald McPhee, Jade LeGrice, Belinda Borell and PhD students Alex McConville and Te Raina Gunn. The team looked at affect — how feelings and emotions play out — around national days such as Waitangi and Anzac days, as well as the role of wairua, which loosely translates as spirituality. ‘We chose people to follow on Waitangi and Anzac days, talking with them and filming what they felt and experienced during the day,’ Professor Moewaka Barnes explains. ‘We also carried out focus groups and interviews with people who organised events.’

From this, the team developed a series of imagined scenarios of ‘people’ with particular attitudes towards the days, giving an idea of what a Māori woman or a Pākehā farmer might experience and feel on Waitangi Day. ‘Even if those aren’t the experiences or emotions that we would personally have, we are trying to get inside and understand what it is that they are thinking and feeling. It’s very much about their position in relation to New Zealand, to the Treaty, to ideas of nationhood, belonging and inclusion.’

An important concept that the research takes into account is wairua, an area Professor Moewaka Barnes believes should be included in academic thought. ‘We looked at how we could include wairua more specifically within our research and within analysis — to give it some of the mana it deserves,’ she says. The research enabled many decades of work to be brought together in the development of ‘A Wairua Approach’, a way to conduct and analyse research, which was tested and debated at hui and workshops. ‘The approach argues that, while wairua has many levels, we are all experts in our everyday understandings and experiences of it; we can bring this to our research rather than remain silent.’

We looked at how we could include wairua more specifically within our research and within analysis — to give it some of the mana it deserves.


With regard to national days, the research shows that behind the simplistic portrayals in the media, there exists a rich variety of feeling and meaning. ‘I think people are aware of the discourse of tension around Waitangi Day, and we certainly see that in the media,’ Professor Moewaka Barnes says. ‘There’s this idea that it should be a happy family fun day, we should celebrate who we are, but that Māori protest, and we shouldn’t be dragging up the past. I think the media buys into this discourse, because they’re looking for that essential tension. We find quite a broad range of feelings, and some are really trying to grapple with what it means, questioning some of the media’s ideas.’

In comparison, she explains, on Anzac Day it is considered sacrilegious not to honour the memory of those involved in war. Again, though, this is simplistic. ‘Although Waitangi Day might be seen as more fraught, the tensions are spoken about, albeit at a fairly shallow level. But there is a lot of silence around Anzac Day; it seems a day where you shouldn’t protest. This means we don’t talk much about the tensions of war inherent in days like Anzac Day. People think that that’s somehow dishonouring the soldiers, and yet a lot of them, from their diaries for example, had severe doubts as well.

‘A common thread around Anzac Day is “they died for us so that we would have peace”. These simplistic notions of war stop us from looking at the tensions that we are constantly living with, including the New Zealand Wars and the wars that are still occurring. We need to examine war and violence and the way that we live together as nations a lot more closely and to be very careful about glorifying war and talking about having peace now. Why did people go to war? What were the world wars about? It’s actually very little understood.’

The research has implications for how national days are organised and perceived. The choreography and reporting on these days contributes to what we pay attention to, the kinds of relationships we promote, the voices we silence, the memories we allow or stifle and the complexity of what we try to deny or debate. ‘History is a part of our story, it’s what’s created our present and a part of how we will create our future,’ Professor Moewaka Barnes says. ‘There’s nothing wrong with living with tensions, we’re human beings and we are complex. It’s about the ability to accept those tensions and to talk about them that actually creates peace, not getting everybody to think the same.’