Story: Te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Treaty of Waitangi

Page 7. Honouring te tiriti – 1940 to 2000s

All images & media in this story

Waitangi Day

After the Second World War, public awareness of te tiriti continued to expand as a result of annual commemorations at Waitangi. These events focused on the positive aspects of the treaty relationship, which were celebrated as evidence of New Zealand’s race relations – claimed to be the world’s finest. Complexities and contradictions in the treaty relationship were rarely mentioned.

Loss of Māori land

Land grievances continued to be a sore point with Māori in the 1950s and 1960s. The Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967 made it easier for the government to compulsorily acquire ‘uneconomic interests’ (small or undeveloped blocks) in Māori land. In 1975, under the leadership of Te Rarawa and Taranaki kuia Whina Cooper, Māori marched from the far north to Parliament in Wellington to protest against the loss of Māori land. The march drew public attention to te tiriti as the cornerstone of the Māori relationship with the Crown.

Name changing

Waitangi Day, 6 February, was first officially recognised as New Zealand’s national day in 1960. In 1963 Waitangi Day became a public holiday in Northland. In 1974 it was renamed New Zealand Day and made a nationwide public holiday. The name reverted to Waitangi Day in 1976.

Increasing protest

In the 1970s and 1980s protests at Waitangi revealed the gap between Māori understanding of te tiriti and that of the government and most of the non-Māori community. These conflicting meanings gained more prominence from 1974, when 6 February, the date of the first treaty signing, became a public holiday. Waitangi Day protests grew larger and more vehement, and were seen throughout the country on television news broadcasts.

Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975

For many years Māori MPs had pressed for te tiriti to have statutory recognition, since it would have no legal authority until it was incorporated into New Zealand law. With the aim of improving relationships between the Crown and Māori, the government passed the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975. This established the Waitangi Tribunal and began a radical shift in the role of the treaty in the nation’s life.

Waitangi Tribunal

The Waitangi Tribunal was created as a permanent commission of inquiry to consider claims by Māori that Crown actions had breached the principles of te tiriti. The tribunal could also make recommendations to the government on its findings following the hearing of claims. However, its jurisdiction was initially restricted to hearing claims arising from events since 1975, and for some years it had very little social or political influence.

In 1985 the tribunal’s jurisdiction was extended to cover Crown acts and omissions since the signing of the treaty in 1840. This opened up the historical record of Crown–Māori relationships to intense scrutiny. Further amendments to the Treaty of Waitangi Act expanded the tribunal’s membership and extended its capacity for research, hearings and report writing.

Since its formation, the Tribunal has reported on many inquiries into alleged treaty breaches in particular regions of the country, and on contemporary issues that affect all Māori, such as te reo Māori, social issues such as health and justice, fresh water and fisheries. These reports have often led to the settlement of treaty claims; other settlements between iwi and the Crown have been reached by direct negotiation without a Tribunal report. 

Principles of te tiriti

From the mid-1980s, several dozen acts of Parliament included references to te tiriti. As with the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, each of these acts referred (with some variation) to the principles of the treaty. These acts allowed the courts to interpret the extent to which treaty principles were raised in any case covered by the legislation. This legal recognition has had far-reaching consequences for central and local government.

The spirit of the treaty

As Justice McKay noted in the Court of Appeal in his 1992 judgment on the Broadcasting case: ‘It is the principles of the Treaty which are to be applied, not the literal words. The English and Māori texts in the first schedule to the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 are not translations the one of the other, and the differences between the texts and shades of meaning are less important than the spirit’.1

Te tiriti in daily life

The legislation giving legal force to te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) catapulted te tiriti into public notice in ways that stunned and surprised many New Zealanders. The sudden prominence of te tiriti in daily life sparked the need for treaty awareness workshops and led historians, lawyers and scholars to challenge accepted views of a benevolent treaty history and good Crown–Māori relations.

Successive governments have continued to address the challenge of securing te tiriti’s original aim – to reconcile the Crown and Māori. This has included many formal treaty settlements, negotiated between the Crown and iwi to resolve historic and contemporary breaches of te tiriti. It has also included projects to give all New Zealanders an understanding of a national vision of two peoples living under te tiriti.

For Māori like Ngāpuhi lawyer Moana Tuwhare, the key goal is true partnership and genuine power-sharing. ‘People in Ngāpuhi are over the situation where they are passive participants in processes that directly affect their futures. A significant result would be one that puts us back on an equal footing with the Crown.2

  1. Justice Ian McKay, 1992, quoted in ‘He Tirohanga ö Kawa ki te Tiriti o Waitangi: A Guide to the Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi as expressed by the Courts and the Waitangi Tribunal’. Wellington: Te Puni Kokiri, 2001. Back
  2. Quoted in Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi: an illustrated history. Rev ed. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2020, p. 273. Back
How to cite this page:

Claudia Orange, 'Te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Treaty of Waitangi - Honouring te tiriti – 1940 to 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 March 2024)

Story by Claudia Orange, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 28 Mar 2023 with assistance from Claudia Orange