Waitangi Day commemorates the signing of a treaty at Waitangi in the north of the North Island of New Zealand on 6 February 1840 by a group of Maori chiefs and the Lieutenant-Governor Hobson, as representative of the British Government.
In brief, the treaty guarantees preservation of the sovereignty of the chiefs over their lands, people and resources, cedes governance to the British Crown , and grants the Chiefs and their tribes all the rights and privileges of British subjects. However, certain small differences exist between the English articles and the Maori translation of them, which cast doubts on the obligations of each party under the treaty. No final, firm agreement has even been reached, and this confusion has led to a history of difficulties with the national celebrations.
In 1932, the Governor-general, Lord Bledisloe, gifted the treaty house and grounds at Waitangi to honour the unique relationship between the indigenous people and the colonists initiated by the treaty. At the same time, a trust board was set up to develop the property.
1934 saw the first celebrations at Waitangi. At this event, Bledisloe offered two prayers for the country: the first, that 'the sacred compact made in these waters may be faithfully and honourably kept for all time to come' ; and the second, that the two races might unite as one nation through Christianity -- in the manner he envisioned was meant by Hobson when he said, 'He iwi tahi tatou' ('Now we are one people') at the 1840 signing.
The "sacred compact" and "one people" themes continued to be emphasised in later celebrations at Waitangi. In the centennial celebrations in 1940, national unity was strongly emphasised, and Waitangi was called "the cradle of the nation". However, Waikato tribal chiefs refused to attend as a challenge to the country's race relations record -- although they had assisted in building the 30-metre canoe, Nga-toki-mata-whao-rua which was launched to mark the event,.
Throughout the 1950s the annual ceremonies at Waitangi grew, with a regular speech by the Governor-General and it continued to provided a platform for Maori to protest at the difference between the promises they had received and the practice of the government.
The Labour Party promised to make Waitangi Day a national holiday in its 1957 election manifesto, and in 1960 the Waitangi Day Act was passed, specifying that February 6th would be known as Waitangi Day, and would be observed throughout the country 'as a national day of thanksgiving in commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.' It was not until 1974, however that the day actually became a public holiday -- and at that point, the holiday became known as "New Zealand Day".
In 1976, the name Waitangi Day was reinstituted by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, to reemphasise the importance of the Treaty in New Zealand's history. The name change repositioned the public holiday firmly as a Maori/Pakeha event, an ongoing duality searching for unity, and guaranteed that Waitangi itself would continue to be the focus point for protests on race issues.
As concerns over land and other issues being investigated by the Waitangi Tribunal (a goverment project) grew through the 1980s, protests at the celebrations grew more vocal, with activists calling for a boycott of the events until the terms of the treaty were 'honoured'. This brought the younger activists into conflict with their own tribal elders with the Waitangi marae becoming a centre of conflict between young and old, as well as between Maori and Pakeha
A hikoi (march) to Waitangi was organised in 1984 in protest against 'celebrating' the day, bearing in mind the view of many -- in both ethnic groups -- that the treaty itself was not being 'honoured'. marchers included many tribes, church leaders and some Pakeha. This hikoi was followed by two hui (meetings) calling for a suspension of celebrations until treaty compacts were honoured, and for Maori consensus on the treaty.
The 1990 event, celebrated 150 years of nationhood, and was a major gala. The government felt that the Maori-pakeha partnership concept needed to be broadened to embrace the growing number of cultures in the country, but at the same time bi-cultural celebrations for this historic event needed to be effective, and well handled. The Queen visited Waitangi and there was a huge festival, with thousands of spectators, the Aotearoa Maori Arts Festival, 20 newly built waka (canoes) and a re-enactment of the treaty signing. There were few problems and though protestors did attend the event, they were not vocal or disruptive.
Over recent years, however, protests have again grown, and in 1999, this culminated in verbal attack on Labour Party leader, Helen Clarke (now Prime Minister) when she rose to speak at the marae -- this has led to a de-emphasising of Waitangi itself in the celebrations. Suggestions have also been made to change the date of celebrations, and to rename the holiday, to recognise the greater cultural diversity in the country, and to move away from the negatives of Waitangi Day -- though there seems to be no change imminent.
Of course, to most New Zealanders, February 6th is simply a welcome national holiday in summer, despite its many political implications. This goes double for me, since the day is also my birthday.