Australia & New Zealand | Inspiration

What is Waitangi Day and how does New Zealand celebrate it?

Every year on February 6th, New Zealand commemorates the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi) in 1840. British representatives and Māori chiefs signed what is considered to be the country’s founding document. As a national holiday, the day is an opportunity for New Zealanders to reflect on the country’s history and cultural heritage. We look at the history of Waitangi Day and how New Zealand celebrates. 

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The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi

On 6 February 1840, representatives of the British Crown and over 40 rangatira (chiefs) gathered in Waitangi to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. The document established British sovereignty over New Zealand while also guaranteeing Māori rights to their land and culture. By September 1840, over 500 chiefs from across the country had signed the document. If you visit Waitangi today, you will see the flagstaff standing on the Upper Treaty Grounds that marks the location of the first Treaty signing. 

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The first Waitangi Day

In 1934, New Zealand marked the first Waitangi Day to celebrate Governor-General Lord Bledisloe’s gifting of Treaty House and grounds at Waitangi to the people of New Zealand. Lord Bledisloe intended for the site to become a memorial and symbol of the relationship between the indigenous Māori and the colonising people. As part of the first Waitangi Day, they also established a trust board to take care of the site. The board included descendants of the people involved in the signing of the first Treaty in 1840. Around 10,000 Māori attended the first commemoration in 1934. However, not all Māori agreed with the drafting and implementation of the Treaty, a debate that continues to this day. 

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Controversies around the day and Treaty

While the day is a celebration for some, it’s also a day of protest and debate. In the years following the signing of the Treaty, Māori continued to experience dispossession of their lands and rights abuse. Many of the agreements in the Treaty were not honoured. The Treaty was also drafted in only a few days in both English and Māori versions, leading to an ongoing debate over the interpretation and implementation of the Treaty. Consequently, there is still a lot of controversy around the honouring of the Treaty.

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Recognition as a national day

As awareness of the Treaty grew throughout the 1960s, there were calls for the day to receive recognition as a public holiday. In 1973, Waitangi Day officially became a national holiday to mark the signing of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi. However, the government renamed the day New Zealand Day to foster a sense of nationhood. Criticism followed that the new name was denigrating to the Treaty and Māori history. Three years later in 1976, the government brought back the original and true name – Waitangi Day.

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How does New Zealand celebrate Waitangi Day?

The main Waitangi Day celebration occurs in Waitangi at the Treaty Grounds. The country’s leaders and communities gather there each year to honour the day. The day begins with a dawn service at 5am in Te Whare Runanga, the carved meeting house. After the dawn service, there are celebrations all day across the Treaty Grounds and the rest of the country. 

You’ll find Waitangi Day traditions like dance and music performances, and lots of local artists and performers. There are flag-raising ceremonies and a 21-gun salute from the Royal NZ Army. Navy ships and waka (Māori canoes) put on a thrilling showcase on the water. You’ll even see Ngātokimatawhaorua, New Zealand’s largest ceremonial war canoe displaying its prowess. There are also market stalls and children’s activities and games, picnics and family gatherings all across the nation. 

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The legacy of the Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty continues to have a major impact on Crown–Māori relations. The New Zealand government is working with the Waitangi Tribunal to address Crown breaches of the Treaty and put Treaty settlements into binding law. The government has also established the Commemorating Waitangi Day Fund to support a range of events, such as hāngi and kapa haka performances and community tree planting. Māori communities also mark the day with discussions around the Treaty. Some marae (meeting houses) hold open days or talks on the role of the Treaty. You’ll even find international celebrations honouring the day, from Australia to the US and London. While many New Zealanders enjoy a long weekend on Waitangi Day, it’s important to honour the historic meaning of the day and recognise the continued struggles of Māori in New Zealand.

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How do you honour Waitangi Day? Let us know in the comments below.

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