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Waitangi Day is celebrated in New Zealand on February 6. Widely considered the national day of the country, this event was historically hidden by controversy. You need to look at the history behind Waitangi celebration to understand why.

Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi (called "Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in Te Reo Māori") is the founding document of New Zealand. Signed on February 6, 1860, the Treaty was an agreement between the UK and the native Māori. Its name is derived from the place signed - Waitangi is located in the Bay of Islands, along with the northernmost part of the North Island. Governor William Hobson was Britain's main signing, on behalf of Queen Victoria, and about 500 Maori chiefs (rangatira) added their names to the Treaty. However, some chiefs challenged the terms and refused to sign - leading to the British Colonial Office ruling that all Māori should be treated as Crown subjects.


Treaty at a glance

The document is divided into three articles, focusing on national construction principles of sovereignty, land ownership and rights. This is the biggest source of debate: The English and Māori versions have conflicting interpretations. Māori signers do not believe that they are renouncing sovereignty and power over the land, because their version of the document emphasizes protecting both. The Treaty's English explanation, however, tells another story, stipulating that all chiefs and tribes are under British rule. This conflict of interest is thought to be the fundamental cause of the subsequent Māori land wars and many other protests from the present time.


Waitangi Celebrations: Then and now

New Zealand's National Day: Early beginnings
The first celebration of Waitangi Day was held in 1934 - two years after Governor Bledisloe bought the website of the Treaty of Waitangi and donated it back to New Zealand as a national memorial. But in 1947, Waitangi became an annual memory, and it was not until 1960 that it was fully recognized as a national holiday. In 1974, the celebration had a temporary change of name, to "New Zealand Day," which was abolished two years later by Robert Muldoon's government. Many Māori people support the restoration of Muldoon's original name, as they felt ‘New Zealand Day’ was a denigration to the Treaty.

Waitangi Celebrations

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Waitangi day in present times

Early traditions, such as the naval salute, cultural performances, and dignified speeches, remain an essential part of the celebration of contemporary Waitangi Day. Proceedings usually start on February 5, at Te Tii Marae - located on the mouth of the Waitangi River. This is where speeches are given, and politicians are invited to pay their respects to the local tribes (Iwi). The rest of the ceremony takes place on the grounds of the Treaty, across the bridge from Marae. The celebration on February 6 begins with the Royal New Zealand Navy holding three flags: the national flag, the Union Jack and the White Flag. A church service is organized, followed by Māori (waiata) songs and dances, and the signing of the Treaty. The lowering of the flag marks the end of the events in Waitangi Day.

Waitangi day in present times 

Protests, debates, and controversies

While the Crown and New Zealand governments considered Waitangi Day as a celebration of national unity, Maori used this holiday to make their voices heard. Right from the outset, the commemorations have offered a platform of debate about Māori status in broader society. The 1940 centennial celebration marked an essential demonstration in the first Waitangi Day, where special leaders like Apirana Ngata challenged the national stance on race relations. Tensions boiled during the post-war period but returned to full force after the 1970s. The 1984 Hikoi (a communal march) to Waitangi is seen as the pinnacle of the holiday’s activism. Controversies about the date and its importance continue to this day - not only between Māori and New Zealand politicians but also between the media and among the activists themselves. 


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