Story: Ngā rōpū tautohetohe – Māori protest movements

Page 2. Waitangi Day protests

All images & media in this story

Waitangi Day

Much protest has revolved around Waitangi Day, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. Commemorations began after Governor-General Lord Bledisloe gifted the Treaty House and grounds to the nation in 1932. In 1934 his gift was marked by celebrations at Waitangi which up to 5,000 Māori attended. At the centenary of Waitangi Day in 1940, politician Apirana Ngata (Ngāti Porou) drew attention to Māori concerns over race relations in New Zealand.

New Zealand Day

In 1960 the Waitangi Day Act made 6 February a national day of thanksgiving in commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. However, it was not until 1974 that this day became a national holiday, renamed New Zealand Day. This name was seen as inappropriate by many protesters, who felt it denigrated the Treaty of Waitangi.

First protests

In 1971 activist group Ngā Tamatoa organised the first protest at Waitangi on Waitangi Day – something that was to become a regular occurrence. In 1973 Ngā Tamatoa members wore black armbands, to signify mourning for the loss of Māori land, at Waitangi Day celebrations. Common refrains were ‘Honour the treaty’ and ‘The treaty is a fraud’. In 1979 protests at Waitangi were taken up by the Waitangi Action Committee. In 1981 the investitures of Sir Graham Latimer (Ngāti Kahu) and Dame Whina Cooper (Te Rarawa) were targeted as part of the Waitangi Day protests. This was an overt clash between more conservative Māori leaders and more radical protesters.

1984 hīkoi

For Waitangi Day in 1984 a hīkoi from Ngāruawāhia to Waitangi was organised. This has been described as the pinnacle of Waitangi Day activism. Eva Rickard (Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Toa, Tainui, Taranaki) was appointed president and Titewhai Harawira (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Wai) secretary of the hīkoi. Around 4,000 protesters assembled at Waitangi, hoping to meet with Governor-General David Beattie, but they were prevented from crossing the Waitangi bridge. From 1985 through to the 2000s, activist group Te Kawariki, from the far north, protested at Waitangi on Waitangi Day. 

Political controversies – 1990s onwards

At the 1990 Waitangi celebrations, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the treaty, a young Māori woman threw a T-shirt at Queen Elizabeth II. Almost as controversial was a speech by the Reverend Whakahuihui Vercoe, the Bishop of Aotearoa, who recalled the failure of the Crown to honour the treaty.

Politicians have often had a difficult time at Waitangi. In 1998, opposition leader Helen Clark was brought to tears when Titewhai Harawira challenged a male elder for allowing Clark, a Pākehā, to speak on the marae when Māori women could not. In 2004, as prime minister, Clark was jostled, as was Prime Minister John Key in 2009. The ongoing protests meant that politicians often avoided attending Waitangi Day at Waitangi, with official government observances happening instead at the governor-general’s residence in Wellington.

In 2018, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke on the verandah of Te Whare Rūnanga meeting house on the Upper Treaty Grounds, becoming the first female prime minister to speak during the formal proceedings at Waitangi. She remained at Waitangi for five days, the longest visit by a prime minister. 

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Ngā rōpū tautohetohe – Māori protest movements - Waitangi Day protests', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 11 Jan 2023