Today is February 5th in North America, but across the international date line it is February 6th. I landed in Auckland 30 years ago today and found the banks and many businesses were closed. I couldn’t change my U.S. dollars into New Zealand dollars. Public transport was largely unavailable. Why was everything closed on Feb. 6th? A local answered me. “Why mate, it’s WAITANGI DAY!” New Zealand is celebrating Waitangi Day, an important national holiday.
Since then, I have been flying a New Zealand flag outside of my house on every Feb. 5th in the USA. However, this year Waitangi Day will take on a new meaning, a more mournful one.
As a geographer and a vexillologist, I fly foreign flags whenever there is an occasion to do so. I’m not anti-American, as I fly old glory when we celebrate our national holidays. But my neighbors now know to ask what is the occasion and where is it celebrated, when they see a foreign flag flying outside of our house.
Waitangi Day commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi of 6 February 1840. The treaty was drafted with the intention of establishing a British governor of New Zealand, while recognizing the native Maori people’s ownership of their lands. It was intended to give the Maoris the same rights as any other British subjects. The treaty appeared in both languages, but the English translation gave more power to the crown, with the Maori text inaccurately translated in English. There were several instances during the next century where the New Zealand government did not abide by the original treaty. The Maori ended up losing much of their original lands.
Today, Waitangi Day is a celebration of Maori culture, as well as a day to highlight issues important to the Maori people. It was made a national holiday in 1974. The main activities occur at the Treaty Grounds at the municipality of Waitangi, on the North Island of New Zealand, near the Bay of Islands. The treaty is widely regarded as the founding document of New Zealand.
In the Maori language, they call their land Aotearoa, meaning “Land of the Long White Cloud”. It is called this because the Southern Alps, which trend North to South, are perpendicular to the Westerly Winds, and the mountains force the air upslope until the moist winds coming off of the Tasman Sea cool and reach their dew point, forming a blanket of clouds against the mountains. They are a deeply spiritual people, trying to live in harmony with their ecosystem.
But what happened on the night of January 22nd, 2021 would change the way I celebrate Waitangi Day from now on. It started out as a nice night. The previous night had dropped a fresh blanket of snow on the ground, only enough on the patio table to cover up 1/2 of a beer can as I sat in the hot tub. I planned to take another dip the night of the 22nd. It was by any account a beautiful night. The low stratus clouds covered most of the sky. The albedo of the snow combined with the cloud cover reflected any light and turned midnight into twilight. I wondered, “How do my friends in warmer climates do without this experience?”
Before I put my swimming trunks on, I turned on the TV to catch up on some sporting news on ESPN. It was then that I heard that Henry Aaron had passed away earlier in the day. I idolized him as a young boy. He is one of the biggest reasons I love baseball so much. As I grew into adulthood, I came to respect him not just as a baseball player, but as a man. It is hard to describe how much of a gut punch it was to hear the news of his passing.
Henry Louis Aaron was born on February 5 (Waitangi Day in NZ), 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. Many of you may know him as the former home run leader in baseball. He broke Babe Ruth’s long held record of 714 home runs on April 8th, 1974. That record stood for more than 30 years, but was broken by someone who used steroids. But he should be remembered as so much more than just a player who could hit the long ball. There are many Hall of Fame players, and then there is Henry Aaron.
Aaron grew up in the racist South. He joined the Negro leagues in the early 1950s and played for the Indianapolis Clowns. He played so well that he got two offers from major league teams and ended up signing with the Milwaukee Braves just because they offered him $50/month more than the Giants did. The year that I was born he led his team to the National League pennant and a World Series Championship. He batted .322, hit 44 home runs and had 132 runs batted in. He played in the major leagues for 23 years and still holds the record for RBI at 2,297 and total bases at 6,856. For non-baseball folks, total bases is the number of bases a player has gained with hits. A single is one base and a home run is four bases. Aaron hit for a high average and had lots of doubles and home runs, hence the leader in total bases.
By the age of eight, I was already a big fan. I had a large poster of him in my bedroom, along with another one of Roberto Clemente, my other favorite player. During the racial tensions of the 1960s, a young white boy’s room was plastered with posters of two men of color. Even when I grew older and some of my friends had pictures of blonde sex-kittens adorning their walls, I still had posters of two men of color in my room.
But Henry Aaron was just as well regarded as an exceptional human being as he was as a baseball phenom. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how much hatred and racism he overcame. Aaron finished the 1973 season just one homer shy of Babe Ruth’s record. He had to endure the entire off season dealing with death threats and feared that he wouldn’t live to see 1974. All through this, he remained a class act. Although there were rumors of such things, much of this wasn’t revealed until after he retired. After he stopped playing, he remained passionate about empowering others and was known for his dignity, generosity, and humility. Former president G.W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. He was truly a national treasure. The New York times posted an article titled “A Quiet Life of Loud Home Runs: Hank Aaron in Photographs”. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/23/sports/baseball/hank-aaron-death-baseball-photos.html
I turned off the TV and went out to sit in the hot tub. Suddenly, what was a beautiful night a few moments ago seemed to be diminished. Yes, the water was still hot, and the light still glistened off of the snow somewhat, but the night seemed darker than it was just a few minutes before. All races and nationalities will mourn this night. I think about the future and the young people who will grow up in a world without a Henry Aaron in it. Today would have been his 87th birthday. It is also Waitangi Day in New Zealand. I will still fly my New Zealand flag and celebrate Maori culture every February 5th, while remembering the legacy of an influential man on his birthday. And I will continue to hope for a brighter future for both the Maori people and for African-Americans in their struggle for racial and cultural equality.
Houhanga a rongo…..rokihau!