Responses of NZ & US Youth to Mass Shootings – Myths and National Identity


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Dividing Words and Unifying Dances, Part Two

If leaders speak for the mind of a nation, then the young speak for its soul.

Previously, we looked at how Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s messages of unity in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings spurred swift action by the New Zealand Parliament. Meanwhile, in spite of recurrent mass shootings, the US remains bitterly divided over gun laws, with President Donald Trump’s mixed messages both highlighting and aggravating those divisions.

Against those backdrops, the youth of both countries took to the streets. In part, the striking contrast between the haka dances of New Zealand students and the angry protests of US teenagers simply shows how much, or how little, the children trust their elders to act.

Leaning on Ardern’s assurances that national leadership would mend the laws, young Kiwis could devote their passion to mending a nation’s heart. 

Across the Pacific, a leadership vacuum sucked the youth into the most bitter realms of American politics.

It Bubbles Up from the Bottom: The Power of National Myths

As different as these two public demonstrations by the young might be, they have at least one thing in common. Both are rooted in debates over national identity that reach back long before the great grandparents of today’s youth were born.

The complex history behind the hakas of today

The haka tradition is a creation of New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori. It is a treasured centerpiece of Maori identity, the legacy of a struggle for self-determination spanning centuries. For a good part of that time, the possibility of New Zealand students from different backgrounds dancing and chanting hakas together would have been unthinkable.

In the late 1880s, the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team, began performing a haka before matches. Their chant, which was traditionally performed by male Maori warriors, was composed by Chief Te Rauparaha in the early 1800s. The performances created a sensation among spectators, most of whom were being exposed to Maori culture for the first time. Back home in New Zealand, however, reactions to the All Blacks’ pregame routine were mixed.

Many white New Zealanders resisted association with Maori traditions. And with the prevalence of white players on the All Blacks, many Maori objected that the team’s haka performances were a blatant case of cultural appropriation. For these and many other reasons, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the All Blacks officially adopted the haka as a permanent fixture of their appearances.

This small step forward in the sports arena reflected rising winds of change in New Zealand as a whole. A new national coat of arms was approved in 1911, showing a European woman and a Maori chief. The 1956 update of the emblem is still in use today.

Still, national reconciliation did not come easy. Well past the middle of the 20th century, Maori tribal leaders disputed the legitimacy of the nation’s government, with its links to an ugly colonial past. Little by little, national leaders came to understand that a peaceful future for New Zealand depended on a multicultural identity that honors Maori traditions and rights.

Rebirth – Haka dances come to embody New Zealand identity and unity

As New Zealand leadership evolved, a Maori cultural renaissance bloomed. The award-winning 2002 film Whale Rider brought the haka tradition to broader global audiences than ever before. Based on a 1987 novel by Maori author Witi Ihaemara, the film was born of a collaboration between white director Niki Caro (of Mulan fame) and Maori actors and consultants. 

The film is a story of tradition and change, of the young both learning from and inspiring their elders. In spite of being told many times that the role is reserved for Maori men, 12-year-old Paikea Apirana does not abandon her dream of becoming a tribal chief. Her words, spoken over a haka chant in the background, capture a community and a nation pushing into a new age: 

I’m not a prophet, but I know that our people will keep going forward, all together, with all of our strength.

Paikea’s words offered a powerful answer to Western academics who had begun to question the authenticity of Maori traditions. No matter their origins, those traditions have meaning and power today. They continue, they live, and they enrich the shared heritage of all who call the islands home. It has not been without conflict, but New Zealand has indeed gone forward, together, with haka dances continuing to diversify and spread.

Maori composer Derek Lardelli created a new haka for the All Blacks in 2005. Hakas rang out in the town of Hawera that same year, when Maori golfer Michael Campbell won the prestigious US Open. And echoes of the girl who rode a whale can be heard in the haka of the 2017 World-Cup Winning New Zealand National Women’s Rugby Team.

How does this all relate to New Zealand’s response to the 2019 shootings?

Today, New Zealanders of all backgrounds embrace the haka as a symbol of the nation’s strength and unity. It is perhaps no coincidence that today’s New Zealand teens were born around the time that Whale Rider was first released. By choosing a shared path forward, Maori and non-Maori citizens alike laid the groundwork for a generation to grow up freed from past strife. 

So it is that in 2019, in the country’s darkest hour, we saw fair-skinned New Zealand girls setting down their guitars to join classmates of diverse ancestries in answering an ancient call:

Otautahi! Christchurch!
Maraka! Maraka! … Rise up! Rise up! …
He ao From the darkness
Ka awatea! And into the world of light!

The dancing and chanting in the streets of New Zealand’s post-Whale Rider generation wove together with Ardern’s “They are us” refrain in the wake of the Christchurch catastrophe. The result was a clear message to the nation’s vulnerable immigrant communities: We are one. You are welcome here. We are with you, we will protect you, and you are us.

Tearful protests and the belief that gun laws threaten American identity

US currency bears the Latin phrase, “E pluribus unum” – “Out of many, one”. The ancient saying “United we stand, divided we fall” has been a popular refrain in the country since its founding. Yet unity is one dream that has always eluded the nation that proudly calls itself the United States.

Seventeen students and school staff members died in a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018. A month later, students across the US walked out of classrooms in coordinated protests. Their demand was simple: sensible gun law reforms to reduce the risk of future school attacks and other acts of mass violence.

Chanting “This is what democracy looks like”, the students appealed to centuries-old myths about their nation’s meaning and purpose. They knew that Americans aspire not just to tolerate peaceful protests, but to celebrate them as a precious right and obligation of self-government.

However, the teenagers’ cries also struck at the heart of deep divisions in America. Behind those divisions lies the myth that the US is the world’s shining example of individual freedom. For some Americans, strangely in the eyes of the rest of the world, the right to own guns embodies the freedom they hold so dear. Backlash against the protestors came quickly.

Both elected officials and conservative media personalities claimed (inaccurately) that in Florida, the lead protestors were paid actors, not Stoneman Douglas students. Donald Trump, Jr. helped to spread these accusations by liking conspiracy theorist Tweets.

A North Carolina state legislator even accused protestors of wanting to murder gun owners. Her statement was of course extreme, but pro-gun US lobbyists like the National Rifle Association (NRA) have long claimed that any ban on assault weapons will be a first step toward the US government seizing all citizen-owned guns. (They made these claims with renewed vigor after New Zealand enacted its 2019 ban.)

Thus, while one nation’s youth have become living symbols of oneness and resilience, another’s found themselves ensnared in old divisions that their nation seems unwilling to ever let go.

Enduring false accusations, ridicule, and harassment is a heavy burden for children to bear. To their credit, American youth have continued the fight. To their shame, many adults in US leadership continue to inflame divisions rather than seek common ground. Yet it is worth noting that the efforts of student protestors have not been wholly in vain.

In the absence of federal action, many US states have passed new gun laws since 2018. And after rejecting the assault weapons ban favored by Parkland survivors, Florida itself enacted several restrictions on gun access. However, the Florida laws also sanction the arming of teachers, a measure favored by the NRA and opposed by most student activists.

Most of these state measures fall well short of New Zealand’s comprehensive ban on assault weapons. And unless all 50 states join the cause, the new laws will do little to reduce the number of guns in the US.

Meanwhile, the beat of lives lost to mass violence goes on unabated, with 22 people killed and at least 24 others injured in a mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas Walmart on August 3, 2019. Once again, the alleged shooter was a white male who apparently posted a hate-filled manifesto online.

Less than 24 hours later, a gunman killed at least nine people and injured at least 27 others at a nightclub in Dayton, Ohio.

Where does the US go from here?

To stop the violence, the US will need more than new laws. Ultimately, the nation will need to forge a new American identity that does not see unity as the enemy of liberty. That can only happen if US citizens of all ages let go of the persistent belief that the country’s founding documents are the perfect enshrinement of freedom. Above all other factors, it is that myth that gave birth to the unique phenomenon known as American “gun culture”.

Up Next: An in-depth look at “gun culture”, and the US Constitutional Amendment at the root of the nation’s strife over gun regulations.