• Mon, 9, Jan, 2017 - 5:00:AM

TOP 30 OF 2016 - 14. The questions you might be too nervous to ask about the Treaty of Waitangi

Image: Protest on Waitangi Day / Charlie Brewer / Wikimedia Commons

First published on Monday the 8th of February, 2016, this piece comes in at number 14 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2016.

Thank God it’s Monday. Officially, as this is the first-ever Monday-ised Waitangi weekend, today we are commemorating the 176th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi. Unofficially, you wouldn’t be alone in needing a bit of a break from all of the misinformation and conflict that has surrounded our national day.

On Saturday, and in the lead up to Waitangi Day, opinions flew left, right and centre. One of them was my own, nestled among the pages of the Weekend Herald. Most of these opinions assumed that we all know about the thing we’re supposed to be celebrating today, when, if we’re honest with ourselves, we may not be so hot on the ins and outs of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

And that’s understandable. It is still not compulsory for schools to teach their students about the history of the Treaty of Waitangi. While the Treaty of Waitangi is identified as a ‘principle’ of the New Zealand curriculum, there is no specification for how, or indeed whether, the Treaty signing is to be taught.

How can we formulate an opinion when we have only a hazy understanding of what went down? You may reasonably ask – not that ignorance has stopped some of our most outspoken commentators from voicing their racist views with as much venom as they could muster over these past weeks.

But for the rest of us, who prefer to actually know what we’re talking about, here are basic answers to some of the questions that rise to the fore at this time of year. And a few that often go unasked for fear of causing offence and/or looking stupid.

What actually is the Treaty of Waitangi/te Tiriti o Waitangi?

It is an agreement consisting of a preamble, three articles and a postscript that was signed in 1840 to create a partnership between Maori and the British Crown (Queen Victoria at the time). There were two different versions; one written in English and one [loosely] translated into Maori, and many copies of the text that were signed at different places around the country.

Why was it signed?

You could argue that there were two main reasons. One being that the British had recognised the Declaration of Independence five years earlier, which established Maori sovereignty over New Zealand. This agreement was meant to result in the founding of a representative assembly of tribes who would meet at Waitangi to run the country. As the venerable Dr Mason Durie explains, “having recognised Maori sovereignty and independence [in 1835], Britain needed a mechanism to justify imposing its own will on Maori.” The Declaration of Independence meant that Maori were sovereign in New Zealand. The British needed to overpower the Declaration in order to legally establish British rule.

The other reason was that early British settlers were engaging in a good amount of lawlessness. The British settlement at Russell was even known as the “hell hole of the Pacific”, rife with boozing, prostitution and other insalubrious behaviour. Maori, fed up with dealing with the lawless Brits, asked the British government to intervene to control their citizens.

What is the problem with the Treaty of Waitangi/te Tiriti o Waitangi?

There are a few. The first is that the English and the Maori translations meant different things. The Maori chiefs who signed the Maori translation (hereafter referred to as ‘te Tiriti’) had no idea that the English version (hereafter known as the Treaty) was different, although there is evidence to suggest that both the translators, Missionary Henry Williams and his 21-year-old son Edward, and the Crown knew that the translation was not exact.

Of particular note is the use of the word ‘kawanatanga’, which translates to ‘governance’, and originated from the Maori word for Governor: Kawana. In the earlier Declaration of Independence, ‘te tino rangatiratanga’ had been used, which instead conveyed chieftainship. Te tino rangatiratanga was far closer to sovereignty in meaning. Had ‘te tino rangatiratanga’ been used in the te Tiriti instead of ‘kawanatanga’, it is entirely likely that the Treaty may not have been signed.

Basically, the Maori and the English versions don’t marry. Maori signing te Tiriti o Waitangi had no idea that the English Treaty of Waitangi declared that they had ceded their sovereignty to the Crown, though some chiefs intuitively guessed the true spirit of the Treaty, and refused to sign it.

Which brings us to the second problem: that not all iwi signed. Significantly, Tainui and Tuwharetoa left Waitangi without signing te Tiriti. Many other chiefs were not invited to sign. It was not representative of all Maori hapu.

The third, as Paul Moon explains, is that “no chief, however high his [or her] rank, could dispose of a single acre without the concurrence of his [hapu].” The chiefs that signed the Treaty were not in a position to sign away sovereignty without first consulting and reaching an agreement within their hapu.

The fourth is that in the years after the signing of the Treaty/te Tiriti, it was largely forgotten and ignored. Its terms were repeatedly broken, Maori were exploited, suffering cultural damage that endures today. And make no mistake, the Crown’s actions towards Maori were pretty revolting. One only needs to read through Waitangi Tribunal judgments and Crown apologies to understand the magnitude of the ill-treatment Maori suffered.

When did Waitangi Day become so controversial?

While Maori have focused their protest efforts on Waitangi Day since the early 1970s, a significant moment in the history of Waitangi Day occurred in 1990, when Queen Elizabeth II attended the 150th anniversary celebrations.

In 1990, preceded by some 20 years of staunch Maori activism, protesters gathered at Waitangi with one clear message for the Crown: “Honour the Treaty”. Protesters chanted over the official speeches, signs were raised in the crowd and then, no doubt to the great surprise of the official party, the Right Reverend Whakahuihui Vercoe, one of the official speakers, accused the Crown of mistreating Maori in his speech.

What is the main issue on Waitangi Day?

In a nutshell, the Crown has historically ignored and violated the Treaty more times than one can count. While the Waitangi Tribunal was established to facilitate the resolution of Treaty violations, there is an expectation that the Crown will adhere to and honour the ‘Treaty Principles’ in all of its current and future actions.

When Maori perceive that the Treaty or the Treaty Principles have been violated, they are understandably aggrieved. The infuriating thing for many bystanders who understand the history of the partnership is that such grievances (like the backlash against the TPPA) could largely be averted by observing correct consultation processes with iwi.

There have been numerous examples where Maori have been forced to take the Crown or other public bodies to court to demand that their Treaty-given rights be respected. In many cases, they have won.

Why do Maori get so much money from the Government?

Treaty settlements have been paid to Maori iwi and hapu since the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal as redress for the exploitation and oppression they suffered at the hands of the Crown. Many of the settlements have centred around stolen land (with which Maori have a spiritual connection), as well as fisheries and other natural resources.

What many New Zealanders don’t realise is that much of New Zealand’s wealth was created through land and resources unfairly taken from Maori communities, or was the result of unfair policies. In just one example, Maori soldiers returning from World War I were ineligible to go into the ballot to receive a farm as their Pakeha compatriots were. Both Maori and Pakeha soldiers fought for New Zealand, but only Pakeha soldiers were given land at the end of it.

Treaty settlements should be viewed as reparations for past wrongs. What Maori do with their settlements is also up to them, as the Treaty Principles state that Maori must be allowed to self-manage their resources.

Is the Treaty good? Or bad?

While the Treaty/te Tiriti is problematic in that it doesn’t represent all Maori and the translations meant different things, it is generally held that it is a positive symbol of partnership, and a foundation upon which to work together. That much can be seen in the message of thousands of protesters over the years: “Honour the Treaty”.

With Maori still over-represented in most negative social statistics, it is not hard to see the damage that colonial exploitation and racist discrimination has caused. Honouring the Treaty creates a pathway to repair past wrongs and create a better future for Maori and Pakeha alike.


Offline References

Consedine, R. & Consedine J. (2005). Healing our history: The challenge of the Treaty

                   of Waitangi. Auckland: Penguin.

Orange, C. (2011). The Treaty of Waitangi. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books 


  • Waitangi /
  • Te Tiriti O Waitangi /
  • Treaty of Waitangi /
  • Maori /
  • New Zealand /
  • TPPA /
  • History /
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Comments ( 4 )

  • Ron's picture

    Ron - Tue, 2016-02-09 13:03

    So. Is there really a bonafide agreement here given, 1. Not all chiefs signed, 2. the translations differ, and those who signed the Maori version which was apparently different to the English version didn't apparently know that the English version existed? In addition, it is no wonder this is not taught in schools. Who's version of events would be used, and would they be the correct version. Who would know. People believe what it is that suits them. Schools can't go teaching like that.
  • Villainesse Editor's picture

    Villainesse Editor - Wed, 2016-02-10 07:34

    Yes, there is an agreement that has since been enshrined in the New Zealand constitution, as Dame Sian Elias reiterated recently. The controversy around the varied meanings of the translations and the decision by some rangatira not to sign, among other interesting features of the treaty and its signing, are the very reasons that it must be taught in schools; to help future generations to understand the reasons for Maori protest, for example, and to ensure that the bicultural relationship in New Zealand is honoured in years to come. This isn't a case of 'people believing what they want to believe', this is what happened. You can read more about it in either of the books cited, or have a look at, the online NZ encyclopaedia, for more information.
  • Ron's picture

    Ron - Thu, 2016-02-11 13:11

    So long as fact is taught and not opinion. And it seems the facts are muddled.
  • Ron's picture

    Ron - Thu, 2016-02-11 13:17

    Nz has a constitution? Since when? Is the treaty not merely referenced in some statutes but is not law in and of itself other than the text of the treaty being included in the Treaty of Waitangi Act used to establish the Waitangi Tribunal.
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