Waitangi Day has always had extra significance for Ngapuhi as it was the first iwi to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

When my ancestor Hone Heke wrote his name on the agreement, he famously stated "I sign this with my hand, but with the mana of my ancestors, Kaharau and Kauteawha".

A covenant was created that day between Maori and the Crown that has survived, against the odds, into the 21st century.

In more recent times, Ngapuhi has also been at the centre of protests about the Treaty with whichever government is in office, usually bearing the brunt of dissatisfaction within the iwi over various issues.


However, over the past few years, there has been another grievance brewing in Ngapuhi which threatens to dwarf all these protests combined.

As we look south, to Ngati Whatua, Tainui, Tuwharetoa, Ngai Tahu, and others, we see their economic base expanding, their young people getting financial support to study around the world, and employment being created by iwi for iwi.

In contrast, Ngapuhi does next to nothing for its own people because it has next to nothing in the way of assets and capital. As Maori in other parts of the country prosper and develop, we have been reduced to the state of onlookers. We can see the successes of other iwi, but we can't share in it.

The problem is simple to identify but difficult to resolve. Ngapuhi's impoverished state is due entirely to the fact that it has been unable to reach a Treaty settlement with the Crown.

Unlike just about every other iwi, we have failed ourselves and future generations because we have become too inward-looking.

At Ngapuhi meetings about Treaty settlements, you will not hear people talking about economic or social development. No one will mention tertiary education, scholarship, venture capital, job creation, commercial expansion, or social and cultural advancement Instead, the subject sooner or later always turns to who has a mandate to represent whom.

This unwinnable argument over internal power structures has dragged on for years, and is dragging down our people.

To provide some context for how significant the problem is, while Ngapuhi fights with itself over how to proceed with deciding who should represent it on Treaty negotiations, smaller iwi which have previously settled now calculate their monetary worth in the billions of dollars.

Ngapuhi's combined worth might just reach $50 million in comparison. To make this comparison even more stark, on paper, every member of Ngai Tahu is worth around $25,000, while every member of Ngapuhi is worth just $385.

So what has prevented Ngapuhi settling its Treaty claim when most other iwi did so years ago?

Some members of the iwi will boast that it's because we all think of ourselves as chiefs and so cannot agree on anything.

This is just stupidity. We share most of the same cultural traits as all other iwi around the country, and are no more or less proud of our heritage than any other group of Maori.

No, the real problem is not that we have too many self-appointed chiefs, but that the current crop of leaders we have are not up to the task. Look at our runanga and look at those of other iwi.

The first thing you will notice is how few of our leaders have a tertiary qualification. That need not be a problem in itself, but it can make it more difficult for them to tackle some of the technical issues in Treaty settlements that require considerable expertise.

Added to this is the issue of priorities. Political survival in Ngapuhi these days relies to a large extent in claiming your faction has the one true mandate to negotiate with the Crown, and the other faction doesn't.

As a result, the current priority of most Ngapuhi leaders consists of trying to ensure that the other faction is belittled while one's own faction is triumphant.

Far from the Crown being responsible for what looks like a divide-and-rule approach to Ngapuhi, successive Treaty Negotiations ministers have been desperate to overcome its internal bickering.

To date, however, the internal struggles for political survival have trumped any outside efforts at reaching the long overdue settlement for the iwi.

Where to from here, then? This Waitangi Day, the usual ceremonies, protests, and picnics will be on display at the Treaty grounds, but as each month passes without a settlement, Ngapuhi is distancing itself more than ever from its chance of a Treaty settlement.

For our iwi, the Treaty is increasingly being seen as something belonging to a nostalgic past. Our present and immediate future show no signs of a Treaty settlement, and we only have ourselves to blame.

• David Rankin is a Ngapuhi kaumatua and social and political commentator.