Waitangi Day, a time for reflection and participation

Waitangi Day, a time for reflection and participation

Everyone appreciates an extra day off. Throughout the motu, Waitangi Day is often spent at the beach with our whānau, visiting beloved swimming spots and travelling the country to make the most of rāumati. However, it is important to not lose sight of what and how we are commemorating on Waitangi Day, says Public Programming intern Millie Burton (Ngāti Kahungunu).

Te Tiriti o Waitangi | the Treaty of Waitangi is Aotearoa New Zealand’s founding document, and was initially signed on 6 February 1840 by 40 chiefs at Waitangi, and gained roughly 500 signatures from around New Zealand by the end of 1840.

The Treaty has a complicated past and has been inconsistently applied, often within a negative, colonial agenda.

Sir Hugh Kawharu wrote about the Māori interpretation of the text, suggesting that Māori understood that they were ceding to the Crown their ‘kāwanatanga’ (which was translated to ‘government’ in the English version of the Treaty), while retaining their ‘rangatiratanga’, which was understood as the unqualified exercise of chieftainship over their own customs (or sovereignty).

Kawharu argues that Māori would not have interpreted kāwanatanga as government in the sense of sovereignty. Therefore, the Māori text of the Treaty had significant differences to the English version and the effects of the mistranslation reverberate to this day.

Pages of the Treaty of Waitangi on display in cases
The Treaty of Waitangi | te Tiriti o Waitangi on display during the Treaty 2U exhibition, 2006. Te Papa (83287)

It is therefore important that we commemorate Waitangi Day with an understanding of the complexities of the past, and approach the event with a more nuanced understanding of its context, intentions, and outcomes. “Presenting February 6th in such a black and white way undermines what it is…,” states Matariki Williams in her blog ‘Commemorate, celebrate: Waitangi Day in Aotearoa’. History is not simple, and has an ongoing impact on the present and future, as we can see with the place of the Treaty in modern day New Zealand.

I believe we should enter into discussions about Waitangi Day with the same intention and goodwill that Māori had when signing the Treaty itself. For that reason, I’ve grounded my programmes for Waitangi Day in the three-Ps framework of partnership, protection, and participation.

This framework comes from what Waitangi Day means to me, which is to honour the Treaty through connection to one another, engaging with mātauranga Māori, and reflecting on how I can uphold the Treaty in my everyday life. It  ensures that the Waitangi Day programmes have a focus on reflection and the celebration of whānau and community.

A person walks past a desk with craft activities on it. A stencil of the map of New Zealand is visible on the desk
Pop-Up Print Day, 2019. Photo by Jo Moore. Te Papa (132343)

How you can mark Waitangi Day

Our treasure hunt, Whāia te ara taonga i Te Papa, takes visitors on a journey through the museum, where they can engage with New Zealand history, art, and the natural world to learn something new about the country they live in.

New Zealanders are well-known travellers, often overseas but in recent years domestically as well, and are used to making many connections between people and place. Perhaps you and your whānau could engage in a map-making activity of your own, using a map of New Zealand (if you don’t have a physical map, you can create your own on Google Maps) and pinpointing important places to you and your whānau. This allows you to reflect on how and where you spend time with your loved ones.

Unfortunately, our planned poi workshop with Georgia Latu from Pōtiki Poi has been postponed. But you can engage in the kaupapa of the workshop at home, practicing poi and absorbing yourself in the their mātauranga. If you don’t have poi on hand, you might have all the items around your home that you need to make them. Check out Speak Māori’s video How to make authentic Māori Poi and Tī Rākau (featuring Stacey Morrison), for what you need and how to make your own poi. (If you don’t have what you need, Pōtiki Poi sell make-your-own-poi kits.)

Having a clear intention and using a Treaty-based framework to guide the development and delivery of these programmes has ensured that these activities embody the three Ps and stay true to my understanding of Waitangi Day as an opportunity to reflect on and connect to community and family.

General view of the Signs of a Nation exhibition space, with a replica of the Treaty of Waitangi on display on the wall
Signs of a Nation exhibition, 2015. Photo by Norm Heke. Te Papa (75192)

The way we mark Waitangi Day will consistently evolve and adapt to reflect the current state of the nation. While it is a holiday, I encourage you to use your day off to reflect on the Treaty, your place here in Aotearoa, and what it means to be a New Zealander.

We can also ask ourselves how we can honour the principles of the Treaty and the commitment made in 1840. Even though the outcomes of the Treaty and its ongoing legacies have often been to the detriment of Māori, we can engage with the Treaty critically to understand ourselves as a nation.

Millie Burton (Ngāti Kahungunu) is a student at the Victoria University of Wellington studying a Master of Museum and Heritage Practice. She is the recipient of The Cliff Whiting Memorial Scholarship 2022 Award, and is completing her internship at Te Papa in the Public Programmes team.


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