Plains Folk

Give Us Our Try!


One of the joys of my job is that I get to call fabulous experiences “work.” The most popular course I teach is the history of Australia and New Zealand, a region where I maintain active research interests. This compels me to fly over frequently to maintain my chops in the field.

So, we arrived by train in Auckland early the evening of November 26. As we rode to our hotel, the traffic began to get heavy, and colorful. One car after another sported a flag, or multiple flags, of the Kingdom of Tonga–a white ensign spanned by a red cross. Later that evening we looked down from our hotel room on a massive street procession, participants shouting, “Give Us Our Try!”

To understand this, you have to know a little bit about rugby. The night before, the Tongan team had played a semifinal match against England in the Rugby League World Cup. Tonga boasts some massive and spectacular athletes, but they were definite underdogs against England.

The Tongans were two points behind in the final minute when a Tongan player appeared to score the winning try (what we might call a touchdown). The referees ruled, however, that the player had dropped the ball ahead of himself and picked it up, committing what is called a knock-on, and so the try was overruled. The refs refused to review video, and so the English team advanced.

Hence the cry, Give Us Our Try! Well, I studied the video, and it is clear to anyone there was no knock-on. An English player punched the ball free, and so the Tongan had every right to pick it up and score.

The Tongan protests occupied and gridlocked the core of New Zealand’s largest city for two nights. As Americans, we might think this would be a sure prescription for violence. Here, however, is what we observed on the street.

The protesters were more like celebrants. They grinned and danced, even as they shouted their protest. A few were dressed as Santa Claus. Many more carried banners proclaiming their evangelical Christian faith. Old grannies were there, little kids dashed about delighted.

Police, unarmed, walked around with their hands behind their backs, stopping now and then to chat with groups of young folks or confer with an elder. Things were a little obstreperous, people riding in open vehicles and so on, and the main concern of police seemed to be that people not hurt themselves. They also arranged that the second night’s protest would begin only after rush hour was over.

The indigenous people of New Zealand are the Maori. The Maori are Polynesians, the Vikings of the Pacific. The Tongans, also Polynesians, are recent immigrants to New Zealand, come seeking jobs. Thus the factors of indigenous peoples, race, and immigration are mixed in a way that is confusing to Americans.

As a historian from the American plains, however, I am familiar with both the checkered history of Indian-white relations in my own region and the global context of Europeans versus natives. Recent events here, too, have shown that the business of colonization on the plains is unfinished, a history still unfolding, with flashpoints of grievance and reaction.

I think about this history, and I recall strolling among those unarmed police and those vociferous Polynesians in Auckland, and I regret to say, we are not on the same page.

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