Waitangi Day: Justice and heavy injustice

On Waitangi Day this year some JustSpeak volunteers and I decided to travel up and attend the commemorations for the first time. In the ensuing two days, we learned about water rights, met some inspiring rangatahi leading a conversation around constitutional transformation, we attended a beautiful dawn service on the lower marae silhouetted against the pou, we stood by some young activists as they got scolded by Winston Peters and Andrew Little, we ate some amazing kai, discussed Māori access to Community Law, listened to Moana Jackson declare 2040 to be the year his hapū would regain the right to make decisions for themselves, we participated in a hīkoi against oil drilling and the further desecration of our future, and we settled in to watch kapahaka on the Treaty Grounds.

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This Waitangi Day was significant not only because it was the 175th anniversary of the signing of te Tiriti o Waitangi, and we like things to fit into round numbers. It was important because a couple of weeks earlier, the Waitangi Tribunal released their findings stating that Ngāpuhi did not cede sovereignty when they signed te Tiriti. While the mainstream news media passed over this event in confusion, rushing to John Key’s door and wondering how to frame this within their fabricated version of New Zealand’s history, the significance of the statement was well and truly appreciated at Waitangi.

Albeit, couched in terms of, “We waited 175 years for them to tell us something we already knew.”

If Ngāpuhi did not believe they lost their self-governance when they signed, then it follows that other signatories may have believed the same thing. If you follow the link at the bottom of the page to the translation of te Tiriti then it’s quite evident that this is what they would’ve thought. If Ngāpuhi did not agree to the Queen taking over everything, then it follows that this may have been done illegally – and while colonisation has always seemed shocking and appalling, it has always been carried out within a legal context, that’s why the Crown went to the effort of making a Treaty. If Ngāpuhi did not give away their right to have absolute authority over their land then, one may argue, Ngāpuhi still hold that right.


The celebratory air that the Tribunal’s affirmation caused was uplifting. Leaders throughout the event looked forward to a future in which their peoples could make decisions for themselves, regarding social problems, resource consent and environmental sustainability.  Many of the discussions, particularly around water interests, were predicated on an understanding that hapū would be able to take better care of the waterways than the factories and farmers currently granted access. The current poor regulation of water pollution and oil exploration are steadily guiding non-Māori public opinion to support this claim. There was an air of hope in the face of endless setbacks.

In the midst of it all we managed to have a sit down and think of our position in relation to the happenings. As a Pākehā advocate of justice I was there to listen and learn, and when I thought about our work in the criminal justice system the evidence seemed fairly clear. We as a country will not be able to make improvements towards a more just future while the nation’s biggest, original injustice still hangs over everything we all do, every unearned privilege Pākehā have and every barrier and prison statistic stuck to Māori, that stems from the dishonouring of te Tiriti in a violent, colonising context.

But if, little by little, the right of hapū to self-governance is affirmed, then we may slowly inch toward justice.


Non-Māori can help, by learning their history, talking to friends and family, clearing away the institutionalised misinformation about the signing of te Tiriti, wiping off the racist lens with which Pākehā look at Māori disadvantage, illuminating the effects of inherited colonial trauma, and advocating for the acceptance, funding and implementation of te reo me ngā tikanga Māori in all our education systems.

And little by little, the energy of this Waitangi day can be made to enrich the whole nation. There is hope, that one day Aotearoa will know a just future, and maybe our grandkids will grow up a little lighter, and be able to stand a little taller, as the injustice is painstakingly rectified. Ka whawhai tonu mātou. The struggle never ends.


Some brief context:

The colonisation of New Zealand was predicated on the signing of two Treaties, one in te reo Māori, the indigenous language, and one in English. They were purported to be direct translations of each other, but were obviously and quite deliberately different.

The te reo Māori version of the Treaty is the one everyone signed, including the Crown’s representative and around 500 rangatira, chiefs and hapū representatives. This is the one that says Māori keep tino rangatiratanga, or absolute authority, and the Queen’s people are given kawanatanga, kawana being a transliteration of ‘Governor’, so governorship, or the ability to govern themselves. You can see it here: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/document/4216/the-three-articles-of-the-treaty-of-waitangi. Kawanatanga is in the first paragraph, about what the Queen gets, and tino rangatiratanga is in the second paragraph, about what the chiefs and subtribes get. There’s simply no question that Māori keep sovereignty, (though this is a European term implying a sovereign). They keep tino rangatiratanga, or absolute authority. The Queen simply gets the right to govern her people, who, at the time, were an unruly bunch of whalers and gamblers who needed to be reined in.

The English version that the government now refers to, and that the Waitangi Tribunal is forced to consider in its decisionmaking, wasn’t even invented until a few days later. Legally it’s kind of irrelevant, only a handful of people signed it and they didn’t speak English. But it did say that the Queen gains absolute power over everything. So this is the one the government keeps implying has relevance. The Tribunal’s Ngāpuhi statement could be seen to further discredit the English version of the Treaty.

-By Maddy King