February the Sixth is Waitangi Day, a national holiday for the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.  I never know what to do with this day off work.  Fortunately this year Lachy Paterson from the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture was doing a presentation at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.  I was glad to support him and go along and listen.  What looked like to be a small audience soon filled up with perhaps a couple of hundred people in attendance.

The Treaty of Waitangi is a dangerous topic for a lecture.  It is always in the news.  There are usually politicians involved, and protests.  It’s the document that marks the birth of the New Zealand nation.  Everyone has an opinion on it.  And, the lecturer forgot his reading glasses!

The Treaty claims are a result of the existence of the Treaty.  The Waitangi Tribunal hears the claims on the grounds Has a breach of Treaty principles occured or not.  It exists now as a legal document, the interpretation of experts on law.

Originally it was a political tool to gain sovereignty, a gray document rather than a black and white document.  The first settlers were bicultural out of necessity.  There were more of the Maori than there were of the settlers.  The settler government wanted the Maori to surrender their sovereignty at the expense of rangatiratanga (chieftainship).  They wanted to acculturate Maori into Pakeha society.

Maori may not have understood what they were signing on to.  Some opted in, part of a new world order, the coalition of the willing.  Others accepted the gift of a blanket when they signed on.

After the signing of the Treaty Pakeha settlers flooded into the country in great numbers.  The Crown enforced Common Sense laws.  (It made common sense to them!)  The Crown understood that Maori had signed away their systems of government to British sovereignty.  The settler parliament was less involved with Treaty issues than the Governor’s office.  As the numbers game changed Maori became economically marginalised.  The Treaty became superfluous in assimilating Maori into the new state.  Famously Judge Prendergast declares it non-constitutional in 1877.  The colonial imperative was overwhelming.

Then Lord and Lady Bledisloe came to Waitangi.  In 1934 the first commemoration of Waitangi day was held.  They gifted the site to the nation.  With the government uninterested in the Treaty Maori picked it up.  The Maori Seat MPs, from the Ratana movement, lobbied the Labour Government to establish the Waitangi Day Act in 1960.  Matiu Rata under the fourth Labour Government pushed through the Treaty of Waitangi Act in 1985 to establish the Waitangi Tribunal and look at land claims going back to the 1840s.  When Maori youth took up the cause they moved quickly from the slogan The Treaty is a Fraud to Honour the Treaty.  The Treaty is a polical document.

A document for the future? If it continues to be relevant.  There are more Maori in Parliament under MMP, and more tribal organisations.  The Treaty is less a focus for Maori protest.  It has become part of our political and social understanding.  Sometimes when I hear a government making policy I wonder if the policy is unpopular enough that it can be challenged under the Treaty of Waitangi.  More often are the times when Maori partners with the Crown raise their voices in protest.  The Treaty does not disappoint me.  Long live kaitiakitanga!

The future?  Waitangi Day is entrenched in our calendar.  The Treaty will remain the founding document of the nation into the republic era when it comes.  Wishful thinking says that historic claims will be settled in the next five years (yeah, right!)  We are not yet in the post-Treaty age.  It continues to have meaning.

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