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Waitangi Day

Honoring New Zealand's Treaty With the Maori

By Tom Adams

On the morning of February 6, 1840 over 500 chiefs from various Maori tribes meet with representatives of Queen Victoria, to sign what would become both the founding document of a new country, and also the catalyst for protest, violence and disenchantment between the two peoples it was designed to unite. February 6 has become known throughout New Zealand as Waitangi Day, in honor of the treaty.

According to oral legend, Maori first arrived in Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) in 6 large waka, or canoes, from their original homeland Hawaiiki around 800 years ago. These original inhabitants, and those from subsequent waka arrivals, set up a tribal based society that lived successfully, although not always peacefully for over 500 years.

The first interaction between Maori and Pakeha, a term loosely translated as "white man," was when the great English explorer Captain James Cook bought landing parties ashore in search of supplies. The welcomes he encountered were not always friendly, and were commemorated by such names as Murderers Bay in particular.

With news of this new abundant land, it was not long before sealing and whaling stations began to appear around the coast; a group of men who lived a hard life. Subsequent years saw an increase in the number of mostly British small traders who set about trading with Maori and servicing the needs of these original settlers.

However, increasing lawlessness, conflict with Maori and with French settlements being established in parts of the South Island, Queen Victoria sent Captain William Hobson to establish an official agreement with Maori. On February 6, 1840 after brief discussions, the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed.

As New Zealand enters the 21st century, the Treaty of Waitangi is arguably one of the most pressing issues facing the government. As the founding document of the country, it has been controversial since the day it was signed. The fact that representatives of some tribes refused to sign, the translations between the English and Maori versions were inaccurate, and the fact that many early settlers choose simply to ignore certain articles, has ensured that relationships between some Maori and the Government have often been strained.

Annual commemorations of the treaty’s signing have often become the theatre for venting these frustrations. There have been protests, scuffles, a leader of the opposition pelted with mud, and a Prime Minister bought to tears. What should be a celebration of the founding of a nation, is all too often a day of shame for an otherwise peaceful happy country. Understandably, many citizens are somewhat ashamed of the annual "celebration," and many choose not to attend any official events, instead treating the day as a pleasant summer holiday to spend with family and friends.

The treaty is the founding document of the country and can not simply be disregarded. Three decades of Governments have spent much time, and considerable amounts of money, attempting to adequately compensate tribes for the undeniable injustices that they may have suffered in the past. However, the longer this process goes on, and the increasing size of payment given, many non Maori are beginning to question when it will end. One of the major political parties campaigned in the 2005 election for all remaining treaty settlements to be lodged within five years, and settled within ten. There is also an increasing campaign for Waitangi Day to be renamed New Zealand day, as in fact it was known briefly in the 1970s. As an increasingly multi cultural society, many feel that this would more accurately reflect the modern New Zealand nation.

Tom Adams is a Geography teacher in Auckland, New Zealand. He enjoys watching all sports, reading, and travel.

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