• Tahuhu Korero

Commemorating Waitangi Day in the Twentieth Century.

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

The Treaty of Waitangi is an integral and founding document in our nation’s history. Signed on the 6th of February 1840 between representatives of the British Crown and Northern Māori chiefs, Te Tiriti brought about the declaration of British sovereignty in New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangi’s meaning and place within the social and political fabric of New Zealand has changed and developed over time. These evolving understandings of the Treaty can be traced throughout Waitangi Day celebrations, from the first-ever Waitangi Day in 1934, to the present day. In early celebrations, the Treaty was linked to concepts of nationhood and was commemorated as a document that symbolised supposed positive race relations between Māori and Pakeha. However, in recent times Waitangi Day has been used to challenge these dominant narratives, and bring to light broken treaty promises and Māori grievances.

Marae on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

The first Waitangi Day celebration occurred in 1934, after Lord Bledisloe donated the Treaty grounds at Waitangi to the New Zealand government in 1932. This sparked a renewed interest in Te Tiriti from the state, after several years of neglect. The donation of Waitangi grounds to the state also brought about greater Pakeha interest in the Treaty. The first Waitangi Day celebrations was hosted by Nga Puhi at Tii Marae, and drew a large crowd of 10 000 people. During this initial celebration, the Treaty was spoken of as a document of great importance to concepts of New Zealand nationhood and unity between Māori and Pakeha. These ideas would be drawn upon again during the hundredth-anniversary celebration of the Treaty in 1940. The Labour government wanted the centennial celebration to highlight harmonious race relations between Māori and Pakeha in New Zealand. However, this viewpoint was challenged by several Māori, who believed that the government was ignoring race relation issues and Māori grievances. Apirana Ngata openly voiced this opinion in a speech at the celebration, by commenting on how Māori only possessed a “shadow” of the land they owned before the Treaty.

From 1947 onwards, Waitangi Days occurred annually. Race relations would increasingly become a part of the Waitangi Day rhetoric, as the government would use Waitangi Day to stress the idea that New Zealanders were racially unified and positively affected by the processes of British colonisation. Māori would begin to use the day to protest the state’s failure to adhere to articles in the Treaty, and pressing issues such as land loss and a decline in the prominence of Māori culture. These celebrations were therefore able to expose a divergence between Māori and the state’s understandings of the Treaty.

Māori civil disobedience became a regular occurrence at Waitangi Day celebrations from the 1970s onwards, as the day provided Māori with the opportunity to directly challenge the state’s refusal to ratify Te Tiriti. Ngā Tamatoa activists undertook one of the first prominent disruptions in 1971, who chanted and performed a haka during Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s speech. The group also attempted to set fire to the Navy flagstaff at Waitangi. In 1973 they wore black to mourn the loss of Māori land and to highlight treaty injustices and the state’s ill-treatment of Māori affairs. These protests challenged the dominant narrative of “one people” that the state attempted to communicate during Waitangi Day celebrations. These protest movements were revitalised and accelerated during the 1980s. The amount of Pakeha protesters also increased, as they joined Māori to challenge “institutionalised racism in Aotearoa” and broken Treaty promises. A significant Waitangi Day protest was Hikoi Ki Waitangi, organised by the Waitangi Action Committee. This protest merged together both the Kingitanga and Te Kotahitanga movements, to protest for the honouring of the Treaty. Māori protest at Waitangi continued consistently throughout the rest of the 20th century, with the Treaty remaining a cornerstone of their activism.

Waitangi Day celebrations unveil both Māori and the state’s understandings of the Treaty of Waitangi throughout our history. At these celebrations, differing and often contrasting understandings of the Treaty directly interact and confront each other. Early Waitangi celebrations highlighted the state’s new found enthusiasm for Te Tiriti, as they began to recognise the Treaty as a foundational document in our history that represents integral ideas of nationhood. However, the state repeatedly ignored calls to ratify and empower Te Tiriti with legal significance. The state used the Treaty and Waitangi Day celebrations to exert the idea that New Zealand has exemplary race relations and had been positively impacted by colonisation, a narrative that would be stressed at Waitangi from the 1940s onwards. Māori opposed this view, as it ignored pressing issues such as Māori land loss and the gradual diminishing of Māori culture. Although the Treaty was neglected by the state, Māori still considered it a living document. Their protests to the state’s treatment of the Treaty grew louder throughout the twentieth century. Māori protests evolved from simply boycotting proceedings in 1940, to more confrontational protests that aimed to disrupt celebrations at Waitangi, from groups such as Ngā Tamatoa and the Waitangi Action Committee. Waitangi Day celebrations expose both Māori and the state’s divided and conflicting understandings of the Treaty and unveil greater issues within New Zealand society.

Further Reading:

Harris, Aroha, Hikoi: Forty Years of Māori Protest, Wellington, 2004.

O’Malley, Vincent, Bruce Stirling, and Wally Penetito, The Treaty of Waitangi Companion: Māori and Pākehā from Tasman to Today, Auckland, 2010.

Orange, Claudia, The Treaty of Waitangi, Wellington, 1987.

Robinson, Helen, ‘Making a New Zealand Day: The Creation and Context of a National Holiday’, New Zealand Journal of History, 46, 3, 2012.

Robinson, Helen Alexandra, ‘Remembering the Past, Thinking of the Present: Historic Commemorations in New Zealand and Northern Ireland, 1940-1990’, PhD Thesis, University of Auckland, 2009.


Lucy Francks is a Bachelor of Arts Honours student in History at the University of Auckland. She is interested in New Zealand and American history, and her Honours dissertation investigates how New Zealand history has been taught in schools, leading up to the recent decision to make the teaching of NZ history compulsory. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

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