The Treaty of Waitangi (known as ‘Te Tiriti o Waitangi’ in Te Reo Māori) is New Zealand’s founding document. Signed on February 6, 1860, the Treaty was an agreement between the British Crown and the indigenous Māori people. Its name stems from the place where it was signed – Waitangi is located in the Bay of Islands, along the northernmost parts of the North Island. Governor William Hobson was the main British signatory, acting on behalf of Queen Victoria, and approximately 500 Māori chiefs (rangatira) added their names to the Treaty. However, a number of chiefs challenged the provisions and refused to sign – resulting in the British Colonial Office ruling that all Māori should be treated as Crown subjects.
The document is split into three articles, focusing on nation-building principles of sovereignty, land ownership and rights. Herein lies the biggest source of debate: The English and Māori versions had contradictory interpretations. Māori signatories did not believe they were giving up their sovereignty and authority over land, as their version of the document emphasised the protection of both. However, the English interpretation of the Treaty told a different story, stipulating that all chiefs and tribes were to be under British rule. This conflict of interest is argued to have been an underlying cause of the subsequent Māori Land Wars, and various other protests dating to present times.
The very first Waitangi Day celebrations were held in 1934 – two years after Governor-General Lord Bledisloe purchased the site of the Treaty of Waitangi signing, and donated it back to New Zealand as a national memorial. But it wasn’t until 1947 that Waitangi Day became a yearly commemoration, and it took until 1960 for it to be fully recognised as a national holiday. In 1974, the celebrations had a temporary name change, to ‘New Zealand Day’, which was repealed by Robert Muldoon’s incoming government two years later. Many Māori supported Muldoon’s restoration of the original name, as they felt ‘New Zealand Day’ was a denigration to the Treaty.
Early traditions, like the naval salute, cultural performances, and dignitary speeches, are still an important part of contemporary Waitangi Day celebrations. Proceedings usually start on February 5, at Te Tii Marae – which is located on the mouth of the Waitangi River. This is where speeches are given, and politicians are invited to pay their respects to local tribes (Iwi). The rest of the ceremony takes place on Treaty grounds, across the bridge from the Marae. Commemorations on February 6 commence with the Royal New Zealand Navy raising three flags: the national flag, the Union Jack, and the White Ensign. A church service is held, followed by Māori songs (waiata) and dances, and a reenactment of the signing of the Treaty. The lowering of the flags marks the conclusion of Waitangi Day events.
While the Crown and New Zealand government treated Waitangi Day as a celebration of national unity, Maori used the holiday to make their voices heard. Right from the outset, the commemorations have offered a platform of debate about Māori status in wider society. The 1940 centennial celebration marked the first significant Waitangi Day protest, where distinctive leaders like Apirana Ngata challenged the national stance on race relations. Tensions simmered in the post-war era, but returned in full force after the 1970s. The 1984 Hikoi (a communal march) to Waitangi is seen as the pinnacle of the holiday’s activism. Controversies about the day and its significance continue to this date – not only between Māori and New Zealand politicians, but also among the mass media and between activists themselves.