• Kathryn Cammell

Ruth Ross and Te Tiriti o Waitangi

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

Ruth Ross: https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/3371/ruth-ross-1940s

The general principles that form the foundation of contemporary academic understandings of the Treaty were developed through the revisionist interpretations of the Treaty undertaken during the early 1970s, spurred by the upsurge of Māori protest movements. The passionate, well-articulated, and thoroughly researched work of Ruth Ross was central to these reworkings.

Ruth Miriam Ross (1920-1982) was a highly respected historian situated at the forefront of public history research in New Zealand. She was well known for her work involving Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, and the Melanesian Mission. After studying at Victoria University from 1939 to 1941 under J.C. Beaglehole and F.L.W. Wood, Ross worked at the Department of Internal Affairs Centennial Branch where she refined her research skills and developed close working relationships that continued into her later life [1]. A significant span of Ross’s life was devoted to her work with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the Buildings Classification Committee, and her associated work on Pompallier House and the Melanesian Mission Museum. Later in her life, she held a three-year fellowship in the History Department at the University of Auckland.

Ross was dedicated to dispelling myths about the meaning of the Treaty and its place in Pākehā public awareness. In particular, Ross was interested in explaining the differences between the English version and the Māori version of the Treaty. The critical differences in meaning between the English and Māori versions of the Treaty, later explored in Claudia Orange’s An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi, were not widely known amongst Pākehā before the 1970s [2]. Before Ross’s writing in the 1970s, public understanding of these differences was limited, and the Treaty was celebrated on a superficial level as a symbol of what Keith Sinclair described as race relations that were ‘much happier than in Australia, South Africa or North America’ [3]. This myth of superior race relations through the Treaty is what Ross was responding to through her work.

Ross expressed her interpretations of Te Tiriti o Waitangi through three different forms of history. Her Primary School Bulletin Te Tiriti o Waitangi was published in 1958, and it was written as a script with dialogue between different characters [4]. This structure helped to convey the idea that there are many different and conflicting meanings of the Treaty. Her academic article ‘Te Tiriti o Waitangi: Texts and Translations’, published in the New Zealand Journal of History in 1972, argued that Pākehā society routinely ignores the fact that the official Treaty of Waitangi is the Te Reo Māori version that was initially signed at Waitangi on February 6 1840, and in other locations across the country at later dates [5]. Following the publication of her ground-breaking article, Ross remained actively involved in refuting popular myths and misconceptions about the Treaty. Furthermore, Ross continued her work to educate the public about the Treaty through her involvement with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, in particular, their book Historic Buildings of New Zealand – North Island which was published in 1983 [6]. Her contributing chapters to this book demonstrate how Ross turned her research and the knowledge gathered from her academic work into a public history with the intention of educating the New Zealand public on the Treaty – its context, its meanings, its controversies, and Māori resistance to persistent abuses of the Treaty.

The changing social, political, and historiographical contexts in New Zealand shaped Ross’s interpretations and the opportunities available to her to express her ideas. Across all three of her Treaty of Waitangi publications, Ross demonstrated a consistent interest in educating New Zealanders about the contested nature of the Treaty. Moreover, through her work in the educational, academic and public spheres, Ross helped to bring the Treaty into the forefront of academic and public discussions of the place of the Treaty in New Zealand history and contemporary politics.

Ross and her family: https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/3402/ruth-ross-and-her-family

While Ross was part of a minority of Pākehā who were engaged in issues related to the Treaty in the mid-twentieth century, Māori had been consistently involved in Treaty issues since it was signed in 1840. Māori knowledge of the Treaty was understood to be ratified through the Kohimarama Conference of 1860, where the representatives of the Government provided a detailed explanation of the Treaty and confirmed what it guaranteed Māori [7]. At the final session of the Kohimarama Conference, the gathered chiefs made a promise to uphold the Treaty, a pledge that became known as the Kohimarama Covenant. The Covenant, together with the Kohimarama Conference more generally, represented ‘a new or renewed commitment to the Treaty as a sacred deed’. Across the past 178 years, Māori have exhibited an ‘untiring insistence that the obligations of the Treaty of Waitangi be upheld’, a fact of which Ross was well aware. As Ross stated in Historic Buildings of New Zealand – North Island, the issues raised by the modern protest movements have ‘been an ideal supported by Māoridom for generations’ [8]. Therefore, Ross’s contributions to reasserting the importance of the Treaty in academic and public discourse must be understood within the context of a longer Māori Treaty consciousness [9].

However, it is significant that Ross used her place of privilege as a Pākehā historian to challenge narratives of ‘one people-ism’ that brushed over the grievances of Māori and to educate the wider New Zealand public about the Treaty. Ross’s commitment to dispelling myths about the Treaty, evidenced by the three different forms of history that she published over the span of three decades, demonstrates that Ross is an important New Zealand historian who has made significant contributions to not only the historiography but the place of the Treaty in contemporary Pākehā public consciousness.

--- 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.

This blog post is adapted from Kathryn’s BA(Hons) dissertation, ‘Ruth Ross and Te Tiriti o Waitangi’. To find out more about postgraduate study in History, including available scholarships, check out the UoA website.


[1] Mary Boyd, ‘Obituary, Ruth Ross, 1920-1982’, New Zealand Journal of History, 16, 2, 1982, p.188; Rachael Bell, ‘Texts and Translations: Ruth Ross and the Treaty of Waitangi’, New Zealand Journal of History, 43, 1, 2009, p.40.

[2] Claudia Orange, An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi, Wellington, 2003, p.39.

[3] Keith Sinclair, ‘Why are Race Relations in New Zealand Better Than in South Africa, South Australia or South Dakota?’, New Zealand Journal of History, 5, 2, 1971, p.121.

[4] Ruth M. Ross, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Post Primary School Bulletin, Wellington, 1957.

[5] Ruth M. Ross, ‘Te Tiriti o Waitangi: Texts and Translations’, New Zealand Journal of History, 06, 02, 1972, p.129 & p.133.

[6] Ruth M. Ross, ‘Waitangi Treaty Houses’, in Frances Porter, ed., Historic Buildings of New Zealand – North Island, Auckland, 1979, pp.46-53.

[7] Orange, An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi, pp.64-67.

[8] Ross, ‘Waitangi Treaty Houses’, p.51.

[9] Aroha Harris & Melissa Matutina Williams, ‘Rights and revitalisation: 1970–1990’, in Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney & Aroha Harris, eds., Tangata Whenua: A History, 2015, p.359.

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