• Kathryn Cammell

Contested Histories: Waitangi Day

Updated: Mar 29, 2019

Waitangi Day, observed annually in Aotearoa New Zealand on 6 February, marks the first signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840. Te Tiriti, or the Treaty, has often been compared to the Magna Carta, and many people understand it as the founding document of New Zealand. At the same time, however, many people also see Waitangi Day as a controversial public holiday in New Zealand, and every year heated debates about its meaning and significance resurface in the media. Why has this happened? And what is so controversial about it?

Widespread Pākehā celebration of the signing of the Treaty first began in 1934 when many gathered at Waitangi to celebrate the day with Governor-General Lord Bledisloe, who had recently restored the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and gifted them to the nation in the hopes of making the neglected site a national memorial [1]. The celebrations were attended by up to 10,000 Māori, of which for many the day had special significance as the centennial anniversary of the northern iwi (tribes) choosing a national flag at Waitangi, and in the following year signing He Whakaputanga: the Declaration of Independence. Even at the first Waitangi Day, there were tensions between Pākehā and Māori and their different perceptions of the Treaty and its meaning. For many Pākehā, the anniversary was an opportunity to celebrate the unity of the two races as one nation. On the other hand, some Māori saw it as a time to reflect on their independence.

The centennial anniversary of the signing of the Treaty in 1940 was a massive event. The New Zealand Government strongly emphasised themes of national pride and unity during the Waitangi Day celebrations, and the media referred to Waitangi as the ‘cradle of the nation’ and the Treaty as the ‘foundation of nationhood’ [2]. These themes became common in the way that the Treaty was written and spoken about by Pākehā in the media, in the Government, and in the general history books. By the 1960s and 1970s, the Treaty had become widely established as a symbol of nationhood and unity amongst Pākehā. The New Zealand Day Act 1973 which made the 6th of February a public holiday in New Zealand was supported by the New Zealand Founders’ Society, a group established in 1940 to encourage pride in the early European settlements in New Zealand [3]. Three years later, the name “New Zealand Day” was reversed by the Waitangi Day Act 1976, which also included the Māori text of the Treaty alongside the English text in the schedule to the 1973 Act. The broadcasting of the annual Waitangi Day celebrations attracted national attention, and national sentiment began to drift towards an interest in Waitangi and the Treaty. Koro Dewes, a Māori academic and elder, commented that ‘there is no doubt that many New Zealanders are beginning to search for something to believe in which will credibly express their nationalism, and so the Treaty of Waitangi is becoming recognised as a symbol of our nationhood’ [4].

The Treaty has always been at the forefront of Māori struggles for tino rangatiratanga (absolute sovereignty), which was guaranteed to them under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Māori protest is not a new phenomenon - since the late nineteenth century they have protested Government violations of the Treaty, including land confiscation, encroachment of Māori independence, and rejection of Māori cultural rights in favour of assimilation policies. However, these earlier protests tended to be low-key and conservative, using peaceful strategies such as organising petitions, sending delegations to Government officials, letter writing, and making public statements. In the early 1970s, there were increasing public protests from Māori, where many members of the younger generation, including the young Māori activist collective Ngā Tamatoa, spurred a general shift from patient and polite petitions to more active resistance [5]. Māori often centred their protests around the official Waitangi Day proceedings, which they disrupted to draw attention to Māori grievances regarding the Treaty. There were often tensions between this newer, more radical group of young Māori protestors and the older, more conservative leaders [6].

Māori protest and resistance on Waitangi Day was partially sparked by the nature of the Pākehā celebrations at Waitangi. As Dame Claudia Orange remarked, the speeches made by top government officials talked about the legendary good race relations in New Zealand and ignored the issues affecting Māori communities, thus provoking a new wave of Māori indignation and dissatisfaction [7]. The nature and style of Māori activism during this time was partly shaped by concurrent rights-based movements including second-wave feminism, gay liberation and the civil rights movement in the United States. However, the more immediate catalyst for the modern Māori protest movement can be found in the policies of the New Zealand Government, and their increasing efforts to assimilate Māori [8]. For instance, the 1967 Māori Affairs Amendment Act which compulsorily amalgamated or terminated interests in Māori land was viewed as a violation of the Treaty and an attack on traditional Māori values. As such, Māori activists focused on bringing New Zealand’s history of colonisation to the forefront of public discussions and challenging the place of the Treaty within myths of nationhood and ‘one-peopleism’ [9].

During the 1960s and 1970s, a minority of Pākehā in New Zealand sympathised with and supported Māori protest. Miranda Johnson termed this group the ‘new Pākehā’: a group who were anti-colonial, anti-racist, and promoted biculturalism as opposed to ‘one-New Zealandness’ [10]. The ‘new Pākehā’ stood in contrast to ‘old Pākehā’, who advocated for cultural homogenization and common citizenship. Although the Treaty was beginning to figure more prominently in public consciousness by the 1970s, for the ‘old Pākehā’ the information about the grievances and injustices experienced by Māori in New Zealand was new and difficult to accept. While the ‘new Pākehā’ challenged the colonial, paternalistic, and racist culture of the majority ‘old Pākehā’, their critiques could be based on various stereotypes of Māori, such as that of the noble savage who ‘were associated with rusticity and with an aboriginal connection to the land’. These tensions in anti-racist discourse amongst ‘new Pākehā’ are reflective of the changing definitions of ‘New Zealandness’ and confusion over who defined its terms that occurred during the 1970s.

Waitangi Day has become a controversial public holiday because it is associated with contested histories of New Zealand and uncomfortable conversations about how to define ‘New Zealand’ and ‘New Zealandness’. As a result, however, Waitangi Day has become a good opportunity for New Zealanders to learn more about our history. As the New Zealand historian Ruth Ross commented in 1978, ‘I think we all, Māori and Pākehā, politician and man-in-the-street, need to know a great deal more about Waitangi, the background, the meaning, the effect of the treaty, and the changing background, the changing meanings, the changing effects over the last 138 years’ [11].

--- Kathryn Cammell is the co-founder of Tahuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying Māori history in New Zealand. 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.


[1] New Zealand History, ‘Waitangi Day: The first Waitangi Day’, retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/treaty/waitangi-day/the-first-waitangi-day

[2] New Zealand History, ‘Waitangi Day: Waitangi Day 1940s-1950s’, retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/treaty/waitangi-day/waitangi-day-1940s-50s

[3] Claudia Orange, An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi, Wellington, 2003, p.138.

[4] ibid.

[5] Aroha Harris & Melissa Matutina Williams, ‘Rights and revitalisation: 1970–1990’, in Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney & Aroha Harris, eds., Tangata Whenua: A History, 2015, p.361.

[6] Te Ara: The Encylopedia of New Zealand, ‘Ngā rōpū tautohetohe – Māori protest movements’, retrieved from


[7] Claudia Orange, The Story of a Treaty, Wellington, 2013, p.99.

[8] Aroha Harris, Hikoi: Forty Years of Māori Protest, Wellington, 2004, p.15.

[9] Harris & Williams, ‘Rights and revitalisation: 1970–1990’, pp.358-359.

[10] Miranda Johnson, ‘The Land of the Wrong White Crowd: Anti-Racist Organizations and Pākehā Identity Politics in the 1970s’, New Zealand Journal of History, 39, 2, 2005, p.138.

[11] Ruth Ross to Mr. Cherrington, 8 February 1978, 38:1, Ruth Ross Papers, 1931 – 1982, MS-1442, Auckland War Memorial Museum Library.

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