history, teaching

Everything* you ever wanted to know about the Treaty of Waitangi but were too scared/angry/oh-god-make-it-go-away to ask.

* Ok, maybe not Everything but it’s a start.

This is a post in response to some of the recent misinformation and ignorance that I’ve seen online and in the papers. If you’ve come through the New Zealand education system in the last 10 years you would definitely have learned something about the Treaty, but what and how you learned is sadly dependent on where you learned it and who taught it. If you came through the education system last century or are new to New Zealand, you might not have ever encountered the Treaty of Waitangi in an academic setting, and what you know (or think you know) is therefore shaped by the media and politicians.

I would like for that to change.

I believe everyone in New Zealand should know about, and engage in discussion around, the Treaty.

It’s interesting, it’s necessary, it’s ours.

The author at Waitangi in the 1980s. Like the sweatshirt? I made it myself in sewing class.

Before we start I should share a little of my background, so you know where I’m coming from.  I am Pākehā of Scottish and English heritage. My family came to NZ from Paisley in 1845, and from the Scottish Highlands via Nova Scotia in 1857. I grew up in Central Auckland and went to high school in West Auckland. My high school was one of the very few at that time that taught 19th Century New Zealand History for Bursary in 7th Form. After I attained my Masters degree in History (my thesis was on Women Criminals in Auckland in the late 19th Century which was Super Interesting), I worked for the Waitangi Tribunal as a historian and a claims facilitator. I then worked in finance administration in London (in case you think I’ve got some Ivory Tower Blindness going on). I have been a Social Studies and History teacher for 12 years and am currently Head of Department for History at a large and diverse Auckland school. I have therefore taught the Treaty of Waitangi to approximately 1000 teenagers over the course of a decade – sometimes easy, sometimes hard.   So while I certainly wouldn’t call myself an expert on the Treaty, I know more than many non-Māori.

I tried to come up with the questions that I’ve been asked over the years by students/friends/random strangers, or that I’ve seen raged about in media, and to answer them as best as possible in a succinct and easy to understand way. I think it’s important that we start from a place of knowledge, and if I can help in any way I feel it’s almost a moral duty to try.

This is going to be long, so grab yourself a cup of coffee and settle in, or spread the reading over a few sessions.

What is the Treaty?

I know, seems obvious right? You’d be surprised how little people know even after they cry ‘we learn this every year in school! I already know it!”. The Treaty of Waitangi is an agreement between Māori and the British Crown, signed on 6 February 1840. It is a short Treaty, as treaties go, with Three Articles. The Treaty is seen as the founding document of New Zealand, providing legitimacy for British colonisation. Despite this, it took a long time for it to be recognised in the new colony’s laws. It’s the only treaty I know of that deals with a presumed transfer of power rather than just land. You can read more about the Treaty, and read the text for yourself, here.

Why did Māori sign it if they didn’t want to give up their power?

Because in the Māori version, the one nearly everyone signed, they didn’t give up their power. They kept it. In the Māori version of the Treaty, in Article 2, Māori are guaranteed Tino Rangatiratanga – full chieftainship – ie, Sovereignty. This was what they had intended and, indeed, what much of the discussion prior to the Treaty centred on. French missionaries present at the signing were recorded by the British missionary printer Colenso as saying: ‘the chiefs have no intention of ceding their sovereignty”. They wished the British to have kāwanatanga (governorship) over the settlers only. Incidentally, this limited and nominal sovereignty is what Hobson had recommended to the Colonial Office. So yeah, Māori signed the Treaty to allow the British to govern their settlers in New Zealand, to reaffirm their own power over their people and lands, and to guarantee that they would be treated fairly by the British. Not to give up their power.

Why did the British offer it instead of just taking over?

There are a lot of reasons for this, and some debate over whether their intentions were fully honourable. But at a basic level, taking over via military means would have been lengthy and costly. Remember that at this point, 1840, there were an estimated 100,000 Māori in New Zealand compared to about 2000 non Maori. Taking over by conquest was highly unlikely. Also, the 19th Century had seen a rise in humanitarian ideals, and more than one Colonial Office official had specifically mentioned a desire to avoid the situation that had occurred with Native Americans and with the Aborigines in Australia. The Declaration of Independence of 1835 (did you know we had one? Most people don’t) had been recognised several times by Britain, meaning that they had already recognised Māori mana o te whenua (sovereignty).

I recommend you read the primary documents leading up to the signing of the Treaty. You can find them in one of my favourite books: “The Treaty of Waitangi Companion: Māori and Pākehā from Tasman to Today”, edited by V. O’Malley, W. Penetito, and B. Stirling, published by Auckland University Press.

How many different versions of the Treaty are there?

There are two different language versions, the Māori and the English. Added to that, there were 8 copies made and taken around the country, meaning there are 9 separate sheets making up the Treaty of Waitangi. Not every iwi signed either; Tūhoe, Tūwharetoa, Waikato, and Te Arawa among them.

New Zealand History is important, and it’s interesting!

Which version is the ‘real’ one?

The Māori version is the one that is signed, so….

There was one English language treaty signed in Waikato-Manukau by 39 people. The rest of the 9 treaty sheets were in te reo Māori.

Also, an internationally recognised doctrine of contractual law called Contra Preferentium states that where there is ambiguity or conflict over the terms of a treaty or contract that the preferred meaning should be the one that works against the draftsman – the one who provided the wording of the contract. This means that the Treaty in the indigenous language is the one that must be given precedence.

Doesn’t it just make us all One New Zealand?

Yes it does. In a way. And also no. The Treaty formed New Zealand and allowed new migrants a place here. It has the potential to foster a real partnership and an integrated society where all are recognised and welcomed. Has it always done that? No. In fact, through most of New Zealand’s history, the ‘One New Zealand’ in fact meant colonial Pākehā New Zealand. Māori, Chinese, and even the European Dalmatian gum diggers and Scandinavian migrants of the 1870s were seen as additions who needed to assimilate or have laws passed restricting their rights. Yes, we are now one country and the Treaty was the reason for that. But this begs the question – what do we think our country ought to be?

Does the Treaty give Māori ‘special rights’?

Article three gives Māori ‘the same rights and privileges as British subjects’ in the English version and ‘promises to protect Māori and give them the same rights as British subjects’ in the Māori version. This is pretty extraordinary in a historical context. This is 50 years after Aborigines in Australia had been declared ‘fauna’ and 40 years before the Scramble for Africa. It was about the same time that Indians were made to bow to Englishmen on the streets of India. The working classes still were, for the large part, unprotected and disenfranchised. So, for me, this has always been a pretty extraordinary article. Unfortunately, it was broken a lot. Māori weren’t able to vote under the 1852 Constitution Act because they owned land communally (incidentally this is the reason for the later creation of the Māori Seats for Parliament). They weren’t included in the Old Age Pensions in the 1890s or the new Social Welfare schemes of the 1930s because of a belief that their tribe would look after them. They were made to attend Native Schools rather than schools with the rest of the population. Their lands were invaded in the 1860s when they protested illegal sales and were later confiscated. Land in the Urewera was illegally surveyed and then lost to survey fees. Māori were denied the right to seek spiritual or medical guidance from Tohunga under the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act.  They weren’t allowed to speak their own language at school, and would get strapped for doing so.  So the Treaty gave them the same rights, but a succession of governments denied them the same rights. And that ‘protection’? Not super evident.

But the ‘special rights’ that people usually mean are rights to land and fisheries. In which case – yes. Māori rights to these things are guaranteed both in the Māori version (Article 2 guarantees tino rangatiratanga remember) and also in the English version (Article 2 guarantees ‘full, exclusive, and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates, forests, fisheries and other properties”.)

What about Hobson’s Pledge?

‘Hobson’s Pledge’ historically was a mere nicety in a ceremony. When the chiefs signed the Treaty at Waitangi, Hobson is recorded as saying ‘he iwi tahi tatou’ to each chief. This means: ‘we are now one people’. It was a nicety. It’s not a part of the Treaty. It wasn’t part of the discussions and promises beforehand. And again – what do we mean by ‘one people’? The people behind the current Hobson’s Pledge movement appear to really mean that Māori shouldn’t have their rights to their land, fisheries, taonga, or chieftainship. That’s a direct contradiction of the actual text of the Treaty so the ‘pledge’ is basically irrelevant. I would argue that it is a smokescreen for a desire for Māori to ‘get back in their place’ and assimilate.

What about the ‘Littlewood Treaty’?

The “Littlewood treaty” refers to a document found in 1989 that may or may not have been a copy or the first draft of the actual Treaty. It leaves out mention of fisheries and forests which is why certain people are keen on it. Apparently there’s a big ‘conspiracy’ by historians (*face palm*) in order to protect the ‘gravy train’ of the ‘grievance industry’.  But the key thing to note – whatever this document is, it is NOT a treaty. It isn’t signed. By anyone. So it is an interesting piece of the historical puzzle, but not significant constitutionally. See this very clear analysis by Donald Loveridge.

Why can’t we just move on?

I get asked this a lot. My answer? If everything in our garden was rosy, if Māori did not face systemic inequality and injustice and if all grievances had been resolved – we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The thing is that we can’t move on because we’re still in the middle of the mess. It isn’t just that historical grievances remain unresolved, but that the impact of colonisation has meant that Māori have lower university entrance rates, higher mortality, higher proportion of prison population, and are over represented in poverty and poor health statistics. This is not a natural state. This is the impact of colonisation. It’s the same in every colonised country where the indigenous people are given second class citizenship.

Why have Māori just started being angry about it? Weren’t they ok before?

Another common misconception. No, Māori weren’t happy about the Treaty being broken. They’ve basically been protesting since 1842 and the Wairau Affray, followed by Hōne Heke’s famous chopping down of the Flagpole in 1844. They tried to reclaim their power during the 19th Century through peaceful means (the Kīngitanga, the Kotahitanga, Tūhoe’s Te Whitu Tekau, numerous petitions, letters, visits to the Queen, and Parihaka). They’ve also tried through war (although war was usually forced on them). The twentieth century, well before the 1970s and the Maori Renaissance, had multiple examples of protest and attempts to retain rangatiratanga. A few examples of key people in the early part of the 20th Century: Rua Kenana, the Rātana church, Te Puea Hērangi.

Māori have tried for a long time to make the Treaty partnership work. I’d say they’re long overdue for everyone else to at least meet them in the middle.

We are a multicultural society now, how does that fit with a bicultural Treaty?

Another common question, especially at a diverse school like mine. The answer I give is that the Treaty is between the British Crown (who is still the head of our Government) and Māori. It allows for Māori to be protected and retain rangatiratanga despite the influx of tauiwi (new people). We are all citizens of NZ, but NZ is a country that (according to the Treaty) includes a special partnership between Māori and everyone else.

Does this mean I’m not a real New Zealander?

Too often I’ve seen ‘real New Zealander’ attached to Pākehā new Zealanders or recent European migrants, so I’m not overly fond of the phrase.  Many people of Chinese descent have been in New Zealand since the 1860s while some Europeans are second generation. Why is one seen as a ‘real New Zealander’ over another? *cough* systemic racism *cough*

There’s a Māori concept I came across during my research into Native Land Court cases in the Urewera: ahi kaa roa which means long burning fires – the right to land through continued occupancy. Like I said, I consider myself a New Zealander. My family has been here for generations.  I will also say that when I worked for the Tribunal I attended many hui and visited many marae, and was never made to feel like I didn’t belong or that I don’t have a place in this country. Compare that to Māori being told that te reo Māori has no place on mainstream radio or television….

So am I supposed to feel guilty for what happened in the past?

No, but you are responsible for what you allow to happen in the present. We are not guilty of our forebear’s actions, but if I don’t stand up to fight against the systemic inequalities that exist in my society now, if I don’t fight for the Treaty to be honoured now, then yes. I need to own that responsibility.

What if Māori weren’t the first people in New Zealand?

Firstly – all credible evidence points to the fact that they were. The conspiracy theories over this are too lengthy to discuss here but suffice to say they always remind me of those people who want to try and prove that aliens built the pyramids; it’s an attempt to deny Māori legitimacy and to devalue the Treaty.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if Māori weren’t the first people in New Zealand, that has no bearing on the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty was signed between Māori and the British Crown and is not dependent on Māori being the first people here.

Aren’t land claims just making new grievances?

No. The Tribunal can’t take people’s private land away. It has the power to recommend compensation or the return of certain lands, but the only binding recommendation re the return of land it can make is on former State Owned Enterprise land – land that the government owned.  In contrast to this – you can have your house taken by the government to widen a road…

When will the claims process be over?

The aim is for the historical claims settlement process to be complete by 2020. This doesn’t mean that there will be no more claims – if Māori believe that the Government is breaching the Treaty they are able to lodge a claim with the Tribunal. This is an ongoing process to ensure that Māori rights under the Treaty are upheld.

Ok, but that was all in the past. Why should Māori get special treatment now? Isn’t that just apartheid?

When there are injustices, those injustices need to be remedied. Sometimes ensuring equity is different from ensuring equality. Preferential treatment/affirmative action is not apartheid (I think it’s deeply insulting to suggest it is and shows a lack of understanding of the history of apartheid), but a way to promote equity. This cartoon shows what I mean.

equality vs equity
I could not find a clearly attributed author of this particular image and text. If you know who created it, I’d love to credit them.

Once equity has been restored, or the systemic barrier removed, and Māori have their rights honoured, maybe then we can achieve real equality.

This is a very long post but I find myself unapologetic. It’s not even the tip of the iceberg. This is one of the most important and overdue discussions we as a nation need to have.  I’ve always observed that when you replace ignorance and preconceptions with knowledge, understanding and empathy follow.

Thank you for reading 🙂

12 thoughts on “Everything* you ever wanted to know about the Treaty of Waitangi but were too scared/angry/oh-god-make-it-go-away to ask.”

  1. Really excellent. Thorough, clear, and understandable – and extremely reasonable. Thank you Clem.

    I particularly like this “So am I supposed to feel guilty for what happened in the past?

    No, but you are responsible for what you allow to happen in the present.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for this! It’s beautifully explained, and addresses the most common issues which people bring up around the Treaty. Would you mind if I shared this with my form class next year?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for writing this! It explains it all so clearly, and covers so many of the issues which people persist in bringing up. Would you mind if I shared this with my form class next year?


  4. Wow, great article, Clem. This was all new to me, but I feel that you gave a very balanced, clear explanation. It is obviously not the same as apartheid, but definitely a sad undermining of indigenous peoples characteristic of colonisation in many countries, with long-lasting effects. It’s great that you’re working hard to make this history known so that past and current wrongs are addressed while the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

    Liked by 1 person

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