New Zealand’s Waitangi Day: Celebration or Controversy?

New Zealand’s Waitangi Day: Celebration or Controversy?

The relationship between New Zealand’s Māori people and the British Crown has historically been filled with broken promises. Waitangi Day Celebration is an event to remember signing the 1840 treaty between these two groups: a moment of compromise and reconciliation. My experience celebrating this day was divided between two views of this treaty: one as a sacred contract, and the other as a marker of British colonization and exploitation.

a long Maori canoe along a river with the dry, yellowing grass in front and behind the river

After briefly chatting with two WWOOFers at my hostel in Akaroa, they invited me to join them at a Waitangi Day Celebration. Without knowing what it was I agreed to leave the next day at 7am for an all-day event in Okains Bay.

What was the Treaty of Waitangi?

In the mid 1800s, about 125,000 Māori and 2000 European settlers were living in New Zealand. This was the beginnings of a period of colonization in which resources were exploited and overseas products were often unfairly exchanged for local flax and timber. 

As more and more Europeans settled, Māori feared being taken over by the newcomers. To create rules around the use of land and resources, the foreign government negotiate a formal agreement to make New Zealand a colony (i.e. the Treaty of Waitangi).

Experiencing the Waitangi Day Celebration in Okains Bay

On the morning of February 6th, Brigitte, Anaka and I left for Okains Bay just after sunrise. We drove an hour through misty, winding roads (a bit too fast for the rental car) before arriving at a massive, grassy valley. The air was frigid at 7:30am but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from arriving even earlier than we did.

After paying the 10$ entrance fee we strolled around the grounds. It was filled with market stalls with arts and crafts, clothing and food for sale, and areas for children to play. The main attraction was a historic museum arranged with Māori artifacts, weaponry, and cooking utensils. 

We took a break from the crowded halls to grab a hot coffee – much needed on this chilly summer morning. As we waited for the re-enactment of the treaty signing to begin, we snacked on warm bread baked in an outdoor oven. It was smoky from the fire and completely delicious slathered with butter, jam, and fresh cream. 

man in black shorts and t-shirt cooking bread rolls in an outdoor oven

The re-enactment began with a Maori ritual and chanting performed by local tribe members. Next, a spokesperson from each group gave a short speach. A man of European descent spoke about the importance of this historical moment of compromise and cooperation. The Maori chief spoke about learning from historical errors, and moving forward with awareness and respect for indigenous rights.

It was all very politically correct. As someone who grew up in the USA and now living in Canada, I know that colonization is not the pretty picture they were portraying for the families and children present that day. It didn’t feel sugar-coated – it just felt like they weren’t providing the whole story.

Agreement or Manipulation?

Today’s celebration of Waitangi Day means different things to different people. The document was drafted in only a few days and there were clear differences (intentional or otherwise) between the original English version and the Māori translation. The English version agreed that the Queen had sovereignty while the Māori version stated that the Queen had the right to govern.

Māori were promise exclusive and undisturbed possession of their land. Today’s reality tells a different story – Māori have become second-class citizens in their own country.

Despite this truth, many people view the Treaty of Waitangi Day as New Zealand’s founding document. Others see this as a day for grieving and reflecting on inequity and effective reconciliation.

To me, a ‘Waitangi Day Celebration’ feels inappropriate.The event I attended didn’t tell the whole story of the injustices faced. 

Māori leaders that signed the document understood that it would not compromise their freedoms. The British Crown breached this agreement, causing Māori to be impoverished and marginalized on their own lands. Māori inability to have autonomy speaks to the violation of promises made. 

Today the New Zealand government, Māori people, and the Waitangi Tribunal are trying to repair promises that were broken since the treaty was signed. Land and resources were wrongly taken from Māori and they are working to build a future with greater respect and justice. 

Today, Māori are demanding to have a seat at the table where New Zealand’s fate is discussed. In an ideal world, the table itself rightly belongs to the Maori people. 

While disagreements over the terms of the treaty continue to this day, it is considered by many to be New Zealand’s founding document.

New Zealand certainly has a greater integration and respect for indigenous peoples than many other colonized countries. Australia, Canada, and the United States can learn from New Zealand’s experience of indigenous reconciliation to discuss how to best resolve complex historical injustices. But there is still a lot of work to do. Indigenous peoples should be given complete rights and access on their own land.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Great post. I visited the Whatangi treaty grounds and it was very interesting, but there’s a lot of unresolved issues and grief surrounding the treaty. I guess it’s important to be remembered and to try and solve the issue, but doubt so in a way to please everyone is likely to prove an impossible task.

    1. That’s so true – you can never please everyone! But you’re right and it’s important to discuss, instead of treating holidays like just another day off work.

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