What is the Treaty?

The Treaty of Waitangi is considered New Zealand's founding document, an agreement between the Crown and Maori, the country's indigenous people.

It was signed on February 6, 1840, at Waitangi in the Far North, by Governor William Hobson - on behalf of Queen Victoria - and the Maori chiefs who gathered there on that day. Eventually, around 540 chiefs, or rangatira, signed the Treaty.

However, a number of chiefs challenged the Crown's right to rule and refused to add their names.


What does it say?

The document itself has three articles, which lay out the principles on which the two groups would form a nation and build a government. It covers sovereignty, land and rights. The English and Maori versions do not convey the same meaning. Essentially, Maori did not believe they were giving up sovereignty; or their authority over their lands.

The conflicting interpretations have long been the subject of debate, and protest, as Maori argued for the terms of the document to be upheld. The differing views between Maori and the Crown are also believed to be a causal factor of the Maori Wars.

What mechanisms give effect to the Treaty?

The exclusive right to determine the meaning of the Treaty rests with the Waitangi Tribunal, which investigates alleged breaches by the Crown. More than 2000 claims have been lodged and major settlements reached, aimed at righting land grievances of the past.

How is the Treaty viewed?

Since the 1970s, there has been a surge in awareness of what the Treaty means. Protest at Waitangi, but also occupations like Bastion Point and Moutoa Gardens, brought Maori grievances to the fore. Increasingly the wrongs done to Maori are more widely accepted and it is common to talk about the "spirit" or "intention" of the Treaty as viewed through a Maori lens.

Waitangi Day was first commemorated as a holiday in 1934, two years after Governor-General Lord Bledisloe and his wife bought and gifted to the nation the rundown house of James Busby, where the treaty was signed. Bledisloe hoped the day would become a celebration of the nation. The first Waitangi Day saw more than 10,000 Maori in attendance.

What about the day itself

Maori leaders used the occasion to make their voices heard by those in power who visited the site, and, as such, Waitangi has become a stage for debate. The first instance of this was in 1940, on the centenary of the Treaty, when Maori politician Apirana Ngata drew attention to Maori concerns over race relations in New Zealand. In a speech he observed that "not everyone had something to celebrate".

Where is the debate at now?

Since the 1990s, the country's leaders have taken varying stances on attending Waitangi. As Prime Minister, Helen Clark was jostled in 2004 amid the Foreshore and Seabed controversy and did not return to the Lower Marae, although she continued to attend celebrations at the Treaty grounds. The same year, Leader of the Opposition Don Brash was hit with mud as he entered the marae.

Debate continues to rage about the purpose of Waitangi Day, with some high-profile New Zealanders such as Paul Holmes labelling protesters "loonies". Responses to this have included numerous essays from Maori academics, including one in 2015 by historian Hirini Kaa, who explained how protest was "actually upholding a long and immensely patient movement for justice".

Some believe Anzac Day should be the national day, or the holiday should be called New Zealand Day once more.

In 2015, there were calls to also establish a separate Land Wars day, to commemorate those who died in the Maori Wars of the 1880s.