Commemorate, celebrate: Waitangi Day in Aotearoa

Commemorate, celebrate: Waitangi Day in Aotearoa

That protests are ‘cringe-worthy’ sells short what they truly reflect, says Mātauranga Māori curator Matariki Williams ahead of Waitangi Day.

If some media personalities are to be believed, Waitangi Day is a day for New Zealanders to be embarrassed about. In the interest of wanting to end the cycle of that tired narrative, I’ll leave you to find those think pieces.

Presenting February 6 in such a black and white way undermines what is, at so many sites throughout the country, an inclusive and communal experience. The richness that makes up this country is its communities and it is now more than ever that we need to celebrate the diversity that makes Aotearoa so beautiful.

Marae at Okains Bay, Banks Peninsula
Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum Trust Waitangi day commemoration, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

The view that would have us believe that protests are cringe-worthy sells short what protests truly reflect, and I think Dr Hirini Kaa put it best when he stated:

“The Prime Minster should go to Waitangi – to listen if not necessarily to speak – however challenging it may be for him. Because this is a present that should make us think, so that we can have a future that we can truly be proud of.”

The future, and my relationship to it, has gained a peculiar feel of late not least of all due to the political uncertainty that abounds. Last week I wrote about a museum’s place in collecting around protest in relation to the Women’s Marches that took place in solidarity against the sexist, racist, and misogynist rhetoric that is typified by the administration of the current President of the United States.

It is but a few short days later and the conviction with which I used to view my future as a global citizen is yet again eluding me with the recent ‘Muslim ban’. Once more, the duty of being a museum worker, one who has a platform to resist such damaging measures, is felt.

Te Papa’s role in collecting to reflect the turbulent nature of our society is legislated under the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992 with section 4 stating that the museum:

“…shall provide a forum in which the nation may present, explore, and preserve both the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment in order better—

(a)to understand and treasure the past; and
(b)to enrich the present; and
(c)to meet the challenges of the future.”

One easy example of how Te Papa does this is in the Mixing Room exhibition, which focuses on the stories of over 70 young refugees and which my colleague, History Curator Stephanie Gibson, has written about.

Kids play at New Plymouth District Council Waitangi day commemoration
New Plymouth District Council Waitangi day commemoration, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

Drawing the experiences of immigrants back to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, a recent article presented accounts from immigrants who wish to engage in Treaty commemorations at Waitangi thus enacting a central tenet of the Treaty: that it is a pathway that enables Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti (people in Aotearoa by way of the Treaty) to live together in Aotearoa.

As the Chief Executive of Waitangi National Trust Greg McManus states: “I think that most immigrants want to feel part of our society. The treaty was for them as well. They have a lot of respect for the treaty and for Maori and they want to get involved and experience that.”

It then appears that division is not the central Waitangi story and portraying it this way fails to show how inclusive Waitangi Day is by pushing the fallacy that it is either about Māori agitation or the absence thereof.

So, let’s blow that assumption up! (Good little anarchic reference for you there.)

People outside taking part in Waitangi day commemoration
Te Manawa Museum Trust Waitangi day commemoration, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

In the greater Wellington region, Waitangi Day is home to some wonderful festivals including Te Rā o Waitangi in Waitangi Park, the Festival of the Elements in Porirua and a day of celebration at Orongomai Marae in Upper Hutt.

Each of these festivals have broad programmes that feature input from their constituent community groups.

A few years back I had the pleasure of meeting people from the Porirua Community Arts Council to hear more about the Festival of the Elements, and was chuffed to hear the explanation about why ‘elements’ were chosen as the kaupapa of the festival.

From their website: “The elements of earth and air, fire and water embrace shared concepts of significance to all cultures. Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti rejoice together on Waitangi Day by way of the arts.”

By keeping the themes broad it allows interpretation from each community and enables them to represent themselves however they see fit.

Watching an outdoor show
Ashburton Multi Cultural Trust Waitangi day commemoration, 2015. Photo courtesy of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

On a nationwide scale, every year the Ministry for Culture and Heritage administers a contestable fund for events that “commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and promote nation and community building”.

This year the fund, which totalled $288,000, was distributed to 40 events throughout the country from Waitangi to Invercargill to Rēkohu.

Even a cursory glance at these events shows the range of activities available for attendees to enjoy including: kapa haka, waka ama, multi-cultural kai, talks, and Māori puppet shows.

The fund, and all of the events it contributes to, is a great example of how the Treaty of Waitangi empowers Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti to make sense of our history and our future, together.

In this era, where Waitangi ‘cringe’ narratives abound, I implore you to ignore that noise. Get out into your community and enjoy the day with good food, good entertainment and good people.


  1. I miss Waitangi Day, trapped as I am in the increasingly racist and xenophobic world of Brexit and Trump. I have visited Waitangi but 2 or 3 times, and feel that for our country it is far more important than the petty concerns of our politicians,

  2. Great to see the three flags flying outside Te Papa today! Could you tell us a bit more about each flag please? Thank you, Whanake class, Owhiro Bay School.

    1. Author

      Kia ora Sylvia,
      Thanks for your comment.

      The three flagpoles on Te Papa’s forecourt each flew a different flag on Waitangi Day. One was the flag selected in 1834 by northern chiefs at Waitangi. The national flag was needed to protect unregistered New Zealand-built ships and their cargoes from seizure by overseas customs authorities. The flag has a red Saint George’s cross on a white background with a smaller cross and four stars in the top left quarter. The design was approved by the British monarch and recognised by officialdom.

      The second flag was the flag that has been internationally recognised as the New Zealand flag since 1902. It has the Union Jack and the stars of the Southern Cross on a blue background.

      The third flag was the Tino Rangatiratanga flag which was launched in 1990 as the winner of a design competition for a flag that would be flown alongside the New Zealand flag as a symbol of Māori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi. Associated with protest action in its early years, the flag is now flown from public buildings on Waitangi Day. For more information about this flag, you can check out this post on the Ministry for Culture and Heritage website:

      Ngā mihi,

  3. Kia ora for the enlightened stance you invite us to take on Waitangi Day celebrations around the country and in our local communities. I always enjoy the Festival of the Elements in Porirua whenever I go there. Also Waitangi Day a few years ago at Orongomai Marae was the first time I had ever been formally welcomed onto a marae…it was a fabulous experience. 🙂

  4. Enjoyed your kōrero Waitangi – it provides the right focus for Waitangi Day despite the ‘carry-on’ that sometimes occurs…and what a celebration of your name! 🙂

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