Maori Protests and the Treaty of Waitangi

History of the British Empire’s involvement and subsequent negative and detrimental impacts on indigenous people and societies of the lands they colonised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is well-known. Those effects today are highly prevalent even in now developed and Westernised countries  of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with indigenous populations having faced depleting numbers, inequalities in welfare and health care and mistreatment from the government, and ongoing disputes concerning land rights. But focus has slid from the perspective of Maori people, and their history outside of New Zealand is largely ignored, and their movements and protests discussed very little.

In New Zealand, a major problem lies within the context of implementing treaty settlements via indigenous institutions. Issues of marginalisation help to fuel feelings of discontent and protests concerning their own land rights. Marilyn Lashley discusses how treaty settlements as reparative justice ‘provides neither adequate nor sufficient redress to most Maori individuals or households harmed by marginalization and the lingering legacy of dispossession.’  But where do these disputes concerning treaties originate from, and why is it felt that they are not doing enough to decrease the gap in inequality between the Maoris and Pākehā – the Maori term for New Zealanders of European descent? Lashley underlines the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi as a source of dispute. The treaty established New Zealand as a British colony, and was written in English and Maori. Lashley discusses that this inclusion of both languages has been a major cause of disagreement, as the texts differ greatly. Maori people understood that the treaty was one for power sharing between themselves and the British, and Maori people would be equal with the British in the cultural, economic, social and political life of New Zealand. From the English text, however, the Maori ceded ‘all the rights and powers of sovereignty over their respective territories’ to the British Crown. Therefore, instead of creating a united country of the European settlers and the Maori, the legacy was one of continued land disputes, wars over sovereignty, treaty rights and marginalisation.

In the 1974, the renaming of  Waitangi Day as New Zealand Day was seen as inappropriate by many protestors, who saw it as demeaned the Treaty of Waitangi. But issues had started earlier, by using the day as a national day of thanksgiving concerning issues detached from the treaty. Therefore, this caused a growing number of protests in the 1970s. In 1971 activist group Ngā Tamatoa organised the first protests at Waitangi on Waitangi Day. This would be followed by protests in 1973, in which members of Ngā Tamatoa wore black armbands, signifying the loss of Maori land. The Ngā Tamatoa were a group created by young Maoris who wished to draw attention to the loss of Maori land and indigenous rights, created in 1968. Throughout the 1970s, Maori people increasingly took part in protests concerning their marginalisation and land rights.

Government response to the protests has been arguably slow. In 1975, the Treaty of Waitangi Act ‘reasserted the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi as the founding document of New Zealand’ (Lashley, pp. 6). Although it went through readjustment ten years later, it still prevented the Maori tribunal from functioning as a legally binding institution.  Protests have thus continued against acts and instances in which the rights of the indigenous Maori population is negatively affected, although not as intense as protests in the 1970s. Lashley argues the most successful treaty settlements in bringing the Maori and the Pākehā  have been in language, preschools and biculturalism, using institutions like the Tainui Trust Board to provide community-based educational, social, and health services and employment. However, it is evident Britain’s colonial footprint has left its lasting mark on New Zealand’s Maori population and their voices are largely ignored in the main scope of discussion, which underlines the major reason for these protests in the last fifty years. Issues have transcended into the country’s current political situations. The Maori marae is an open space where people can gather for discussion. In 1998 then opposition leader Helen Clark was criticised for speaking on the marae when Maori women could not. Ongoing protests have meant politicians have often avoided attending Waitangi Day at Waitangi, showing the remaining passion amongst Maori people concerning their marginalisation and land rights.

Further Reading

Maori Protest Movements

Waitangi Day Protests

Lashley, M.E., ‘Implementing Treaty Settlements via Indigenous Institutions: Social Justice and Detribalization in New Zealand’, The Contemporary Pacific, 12,1 (2000), 1-55.

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