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  • Sat, 6, Feb, 2016 - 5:00:AM

Ngai Tūhoe: Let’s remember why Waitangi Day is more than just a day off

Image: Kahu Kutia

For most of the first 15 years of my life, I lived on a remote farm on the lush fringes of the Te Urewera National Park. This deep and expansive land stretches over a large portion of the eastern region of the North Island, and is the ancestral homeland of my papa’s people: Ngai Tūhoe.


Aaah Waitangi Day. Blessed with a three-day weekend, most of us make plans to relax and enjoy a last few days of perfect summer weather. If media articles aren’t telling you which 10 trendy cafes to visit on your Monday off, they may be focused on which political figure made what controversial comment, or they may bring up that time Hone Heke chopped down the flag. It is true that the relationship between Māori and Pakeha has often been fraught. Yet today, on Waitangi Day, it becomes even more important for us to reflect upon the history of our young nation.

To travel back in time for a moment, when the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed on February 6th 1840, it was by around 40 Māori Chiefs. By the end of the year, the document was signed by around 500 more influential Māori, including 13 women. Some tribal leaders were not offered the chance to sign. Other tribes, such as my tribe Tūhoe, refused to sign the treaty altogether.

To me, the refusal to sign the Treaty of Waitangi serves as evidence of Tūhoe’s desire for Mana Motuhake (loosely translated as self-governance or independent authority) over their tribal taonga, lands and people. It represents freedom from the pressing influences of colonial powers. The refusal of Tūhoe to sign the Treaty was hardly an end to the Crown’s attempts to control the iwi, however, and the power struggle would continue long after the ink had dried.

In the years that followed the signing of the Treaty, the relationship between Tūhoe and the Crown was tumultuous. It involved the traumatic use of scorched earth warfare to weaken Tūhoe rebellion, and the targeting of Tūhoe leaders such as Rua Kenana. There were failed peace agreements, and repeated invasions on the part of the Crown, and answering attacks on the part of Tūhoe. The attacks were in defence of the land that was being confiscated from Tūhoe in a wide area of what is now the Eastern Bay of Plenty. It is an example of land that the Treaty of Waitangi had – in theory – existed to protect, to hold in Māori interests.

The important thing to understand here, is that Māori identity, particularly the identity of the Tūhoe people, is intensely tied to the land. For Tūhoe, the Te Urewera area in which we are based is not just the place where we live, it is the land that feeds us, that waters us. It is sprinkled with places both spiritual and sacred, and it was here that the Tūhoe ancestors persisted to preserve their rich culture through hardship for centuries. Unfortunately the removal of Te Urewera from Tūhoe control, and its re-establishment as Te Urewera National Park by the Crown in 1954 created even more conflict.

To Tūhoe, the idea of Crown ownership of the lands is as unthinkable as thrusting your child into the hands of a stranger from the other side of the world. But the creation of the park further restricted Tūhoe use of the land, for matters such as hunting, use of horses and dogs, and gathering of foods and medicinal plants, that are to this day established practices and the greatest source of life, culture, and identity for Tūhoe.

The Waitangi Tribunal said in its reports, “The shocking poverty experienced by Te Urewera Māori (in the 20th century) was in a large part caused by the Crown’s many breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi”. It used evidence of children dependent on charity, families living in shacks and caves, and surviving off rotten potatoes.

It acknowledged that actions the Crown did undertake were never enough, or were actually harmful. Whilst I have had the privilege of studying Te Reo Māori in school, my own father as a young child was punished for speaking Māori (his first language) in the schoolyard. The Tribunal said that Tūhoe children were made to feel that their culture was inferior and worthless.

New Zealand is still a very young country, with a still-developing sense of cultural identity. This is why days like Waitangi Day are important to remember and discuss. For many, New Zealand’s colonial past is more than a vague lesson delivered in Year 10 History classes, it is a system that affects us to this day. We need only look to the decline of fluent Te Reo Māori speakers amongst our young people, and the loss of ancient Māori knowledge and ways of being to see the echoes of colonialism.

We can see it in the loss of native flora and fauna species in Te Urewera, in the many Māori who still struggle with poverty. We can see it in the fact that we are still actually debating whether or not it would be a good thing to teach Te Reo Māori, the native tongue of this country, in our classrooms.

Waitangi Day is important because if we brush over the tough past, we risk erasing all the hardship faced by our ancestors. It opens a window of national dialogue in a subject that we should absolutely be discussing more often. I don’t think I’ll be cutting down any flags (at least not yet), but certainly this is a day on which I remember what a privilege it is to be part of this movement of modern Māori.

In 2014, Te Urewera went back into Tūhoe hands, and current plans involve having the land recognized as its own legal entity, a person with all the same rights, powers, duties, and liabilities as you or I. If you want to talk about this more, you’ll have to search me out today, this Waitangi Day. I’ll be the one in Te Urewera, parked up on a comfortable camping chair, under the shade of a Tōtara tree, soaking up a few blissful hours of Aotearoa summer.


  • Waitangi /
  • Waitangi Day /
  • Ngai Tuhoe /
  • Tuhoe /
  • Te Urewera /
  • Maori /
  • Colonisation /
  • 1840 /
  • New Zealand /
  • Aotearoa /
  • Treaty of Waitangi /
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