A brief history of Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day has become a part of New Zealand's national consciousness in recent decades, but it hasn't always enjoyed the prominence it has today.

The first official celebrations at Waitangi were held in 1934, to commemorate Lord Bledisloe's gift to the nation of the grounds in 1932. The centennial of the treaty signing was also celebrated in 1940.

In 1947 a new flagpole was erected at Waitangi to replace the old one which marked the spot where the treaty was signed. The navy took on the task, and since then naval celebrations were included in the commemoration of the day.

Waitangi celebrations slowly gained in popularity, with several hundred people attending by 1950, and the visit by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1953 gave the event considerable prestige.

In 1960, the Waitangi Day Act was passed into law, which named February 6th Waitangi Day, and declared it a national day of thanksgiving, but not a public holiday. This was changed in 1974, when it became a public holiday known as New Zealand Day.

The Waitangi Day name was restored in 1976, and from the late 1970s onwards, the day became a focus for protests over Maori land issues such as Bastion Point and Raglan.

These protests led the government to move official Waitangi Day celebrations from the treaty grounds at Waitangi to official buildings in Wellington during the 1980s, and in 1988 there was no official commemoration at all.

The 150th anniversary of the Treaty was successfully commemorated in 1990 at the treaty grounds, but from 1996 to 1998 the official ceremonies moved back to Wellington.

The 1990s was notable for protests over Maori sovereignty issues. In 1998, Prime Minister Jenny Shipley attended the dawn service at the treaty grounds, but then Opposition leader Helen Clark was challenged over her right as a woman to speak on the marae.

Since the year 2000, Waitangi Day celebrations have spread around the country, rather than being focused on the treaty grounds at Waitangi. Helen Clark attended events at several locations around the country during her term as Prime Minister.

Controversy had not left Waitangi Day however, and in 2004 Opposition leader Don Brash had mud thrown at him amid tensions over the foreshore and seabed and his controversial Orewa speech attacking 'special treatment' for Maori.

This year Prime Minister John Key will attend official celebrations at the treaty grounds, as will the Maori King Tuheitia.

- NZ HERALD STAFF

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