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ĀteaFebruary 2, 2024

Ten of the most memorable Waitangi Days


With February 6 this year expected to be one of the biggest and most intense Waitangi Days in over a decade, Jamie Tahana looks back on 10 times our national day made a particularly big impact.

Waitangi Day has a long history as a site of protest, celebration, commemoration, reflection and grievance. It’s one of the few places where the Crown has been held accountable to Māori for its broken promises. With this year’s Waitangi Day expected to be one we won’t forget in a hurry, here are 10 of the most memorable Waitangi Days of the past 184 years.

10) Political mudslinging (2004)

Both sides of parliament copped it at Te Tii Marae in 2004. “Shame on you Helen Clark,” was the cry from protesters as they pounded the top of her car as it inched along the bay-front promenade. 

Clark’s Labour government was in the midst of passing legislation to seize the foreshore and seabed in the name of the Crown, prompting the largest Māori protest in a generation. Labour ministers were jostled as they tried to enter Te Tii. 

The hostility wasn’t reserved for Labour. The National Party leader Don Brash arrived at Waitangi fresh from his now infamous Ōrewa speech, where he attacked so-called “Māori privilege” and a Treaty “grievance industry”. 

As he spoke to reporters near the entrance to Te Tii, Brash became the latest entry in the great tradition of politicians having things thrown at them, when a glob of mud landed on his cheek with a thick thud. 

“Not a bad shot,” Brash conceded as he wiped mud from his face, neck and blazer. 

“A harsh lesson in political mudslinging,” Mark Sainsbury said on the television news that night.

‘Not a bad shot’: Don Brash has mud thrown at him at Waitangi in 2004  (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

9) The ‘dildo’ incident (2016)

It was a grey afternoon when an unsuspecting Steven Joyce stepped into the Copthorne carpark for a run-of-the-mill media standup. But that all changed when a flash of pink flew in, seemingly from out of nowhere. It careened into the minister’s face, bounced off his chin, and made an almighty “thwack” when it touched the sacred ground at Waitangi. 

Joyce rocked back on impact, startled but impressively composed. “Good-oh,” the minister of economic development said. One of the most senior and prominent members of the Key government now defined by a dildo’s impact.

The assailant, Josie Butler, was led away by the police, later to be released without charge. She said the toy was thrown as a protest against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement. 

The country cracked up, the scene was replayed over and over, news scripts were contorted with innuendo and puns, the minister himself even got in on the fun. It provided the dopamine hit our small, insecure nation craves: attention on late-night American television. 

But, as Hayden Donnell found in his remarkable piece of investigative journalism, what entered the historical record as the Waitangi dildo incidentwas not a dildo at all. It was a “nine inch squeaky pecker” with a face on it. 

However, while this incident was funny, it ranks quite lowly in the hallowed tradition of protest at Waitangi. It’s a scene seared into the nation’s memory, but its impact was surface-level, much like the pecker’s “thwack”.

‘Good-oh’: Steven Joyce has a run-in with a squeaky pecker

8) Dancing moa (1974) 

The sickly moa shakes about in fits on the grass, its human feet dangling as it lays a giant egg in front of a bewildered prime minister and visiting royals. As the moa struggles through its labour, metres away Howard Morrison dances and sings Oma Rāpeti surrounded by bored-looking kids. 

The slender moa turns and looks directly down the barrel of the camera. Its eyes are dead, it’s wishing extinction upon itself. It then abandons its egg and starts hopping about, doing scissor kicks and sprinting around the Treaty grounds. Queen Elizabeth looks on, even more bewildered. 

A moa in labour (Source: Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, TVNZ Collection)

This remarkable scene was part of an hours-long television extravaganza to mark the launch of a new public holiday. But not Waitangi Day, no, this was “New Zealand Day”. Prime minister Norman Kirk was responding to increasing pressure for a national day, and for the Treaty to be acknowledged. 

New Zealand Day was the sort of half-assed kick-the-can-down-the-road in-between measure our country excels at. A public holiday with a dancing moa, yes; acknowledging the past and the significance of Te Tiriti in a meaningful way, no. 

The first public holiday was marked with the Aotearoa pageant, featuring the giant moa. New Zealand Day didn’t stick, though, with the Muldoon government reverting to Waitangi Day two years later. 

As the late historian Ranginui Walker wrote: “pumped up ceremony was no consolation for unresolved grievances underlying the Treaty.”

Tfw you’ve just laid an egg in front of the colonisers

7) A raucous crescendo (1995)

Protest at Waitangi reached its most fiery crescendo in 1995, when official events were cancelled altogether. 

The Bolger government had proposed capping all Treaty settlements at no more than a billion dollars over 10 years in what became known as the fiscal envelope, which many Māori saw as the Crown putting forward an ultimatum. The reaction was swift and unified, the Kiingitanga rallied a hui aa motu, and in January 1995, representatives from across the country gathered in Turangi to reject the proposal outright. 

Tensions erupted at Waitangi when flags were set alight, dignitaries spat upon, and events disrupted. The outrage was so intense that official events were cancelled altogether. 

“What happened at Waitangi means there can be no going back to commemorate and celebrate Waitangi as it was,” Jim Bolger said in the aftermath. 

In the end, the fiscal envelope and many associated policies were ditched. The total sum of Treaty settlements today is $2.6 billion, less than 2% of the value of what was taken.

PM Jim Bolger and speaker of the house Peter Tapsell during protests at Waitangi in 1995 (Photo: Ross Land/Getty Images)

6) A site restored (1934) 

Nothing symbolised colonial attitudes to Te Tiriti more than the state the grounds fell into. James Busby left Waitangi not long after the Treaty was signed, and his house fell into disrepair, the grounds turned to grazing land as the Crown set about forming a colony, turning to war and confiscation. 

That didn’t mean Te Tiriti was forgotten. Iwi and hapū filed thousands of petitions through the 19th century calling for it to be honoured, and challenged it in the courts. Movements including the Kiingitanga and Kotahitanga parliaments had Te Tiriti as a focal point. Across the river at Te Tii Marae, Ngāti Rahiri and Ngāti Kawa named their new wharenui Te Tiriti o Waitangi. 

In 1932, the then governor general Lord Bledisloe bought the 1,000-acre Treaty grounds, and had Busby’s house rebuilt as the “Treaty House”. The site was then gifted to the nation in 1934 as part of a huge ceremony that saw about 10,000 people attend, including iwi that didn’t sign the treaty, like Te Arawa.

In 1934 there was a huge celebration at Waitangi as the Treaty grounds were ‘gifted to the nation’ (Photo: Robert Percy Moore, Ref: Pan-0083-F, Alexander Turnbull Library, /records/30635104)

5) Hīkoi to Waitangi (1984) 

By the 80s, the Treaty was established as the focal point for Māori activism, reaching a pinnacle in 1984 when the Hīkoi ki Waitangi left Ngāruawāhia, bound for Waitangi. It was a partnership between the Kiingitanga and Kotahitanga, led by Titewhai Harawira and Eva Rickard. 

Some 4,000 people gathered at Waitangi expecting to meet with the governor general, David Beattie, who alongside Sir James Henare had agreed to meet with the hīkoi. But they were kept waiting outside Te Whare Rūnanga for more than two hours because the police didn’t allow the hīkoi to cross the bridge into the grounds. 

Still, the march was a powerful demonstration of the breadth and depth of Māori concerns about the Treaty and the expansion of support that had been garnered by the past decade of activism, particularly by a group called Ngā Tamatoa. 

(There’s a great radio doco by legendary broadcaster Whai Ngata from the hīkoi.)

Arnold Reedy and George Stirling lead the hīkoi towards Waitangi (Photo: Evening Post, Ref: EP/1984/0541/20-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, records/22428631)

4) The Ngā Tamatoa years (1970s) 

Ngā Tamatoa, the young warriors, were a group of activists from Auckland, part of the urban drift, and they were on the scene to rattle cages. “The Treaty is a fraud” was the cry as they made their first trip to Waitangi in 1971, something that was to become a regular event. In 1972, they staged a walkout from ceremonies, prompting the governor general, Arthur Porritt, to say, “I just do not believe that racism or discrimination exists in this country.” In 1973, they wore black armbands, mourning the loss of Māori land. They heckled official ceremonies and picketed along the parade, a constant presence refusing to be ignored. “Honour the Treaty,” became a catch cry known across the land, as hard as people tried to ignore it. 

Initially, they called for Waitangi Day to be abandoned. No point having a celebration if the Treaty was being ignored and dishonoured, they argued. Over their years the call also became a galvanising of the demand for tino rangatiratanga. 

In the 70s, Māori political protest was taking a radical edge across the country. At Bastion Point in Auckland, a camp was set up as Joe Hawke demanded the return of the land to Ngāti Whātua. In 1975, Dame Whina Cooper started her now famous land march, both events supported by Ngā Tamatoa. Fifty years later, the legacy of Ngā Tamatoa – particularly in pushing the Crown and New Zealand society to reckon with its past – is still reverberating. 

3) The centenary (1940) 

By the 1940s, New Zealand was in something of an identity crisis looking to forge its own image of independence, and attention was increasingly turning to Waitangi as the day that marked the founding of a nation. 

Despite the second world war hanging heavily over 1940, the centenary was a massive occasion with events around the country, including the grand centennial exhibition in Wellington. 

On the newly restored Treaty grounds, a large ceremony was held with speeches and performances. A grand wharenui – Te Whare Rūnanga – was opened facing the Treaty house, with carvings representative of all iwi. The governor general and prime minister focused on the “great century” that had been with “benefits to both races”.

Many Māori, however, including leaders like Kiingi Korokī, boycotted the celebrations. Ngāpuhi attended, but displayed red blankets in protest at the taking of their land. 

In his speech, Apirana Ngata said: “I do not know of any year the Māori people have approached with so much misgiving as this centennial year… In retrospect what does the Māori see? Lands gone, the power of chiefs humbled in the dust, Māori culture scattered and broken.”

Apirana Ngata leads a haka at the Waitangi centennial celebrations in 1940 (Photo: Ref: MNZ-2746-1/2-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, /records/23012205)

2) ‘We have not honoured each other’ (1990) 

The 150th anniversary of the signing was a beautiful day. The sun shone on the verdant grounds, the water glistened as the flotilla paddled across the bright blue bay. The cicadas roared in every recording, as did the heckling crowds, their cries and heckles of “honour the Treaty” carrying undimmed throughout the day. 

The national event, which Queen Elizabeth attended, was a grand gala which came off the back of the Commonwealth Games in Auckland. It featured a Māori arts festival and 20 newly built waka, which drew thousands of spectators. The events were painfully planned and vetted – surely it would all go without a hitch? 

“Honour the Treaty,” Henearoahuea Tepou called as the black T-shirt left her hands and hurtled towards Queen Elizabeth, who was waving to crowds from the back of a Land Rover. It failed to land a direct hit, but the monarch was reportedly startled. 

Protest was a key feature of the commemorations marking the 150th anniversary of the signing (Photo: Manuel Ceneta/AFP via Getty Images)

Then, during the main event, bishop of Aotearoa Whakahuihui Vercoe broke from the official plan, leaving government faces red as he went off-script and gave one of the country’s greatest-ever speeches

“Since the signing of that treaty 150 years ago, I want to remind our partner that you have marginalised us. You have not honoured the Treaty. We have not honoured each other in the promises that we made on this sacred ground. 

“Since 1840, the partner that has been marginalised is me. The language of this land is yours. The custom is yours. The media by which we tell the world who we are, are yours. 

“I want to say to the government: don’t produce principles of the Treaty, the Treaty is already there.” 

After that speech he got the cold shoulder from Wellington. There were denunciations in parliament of the troublesome bishop. They were words the government tried to prevent, lest they shatter the mirage, but they were words they needed to hear.

Queen Elizabeth, in typical regal understatement, said, “We are strong enough and honest enough to learn the lessons of the last 150 years, and to admit that the Treaty has been imperfectly observed.”

1) Te Tiriti o Waitangi (1840) 

Of course the number one Waitangi Day is the number one Waitangi Day. To stand on the Treaty grounds and imagine what the tūpuna would have thought as they gathered 184 years ago is humbling. Why did they do it? What were their hopes? Are we there yet? What do we still have to do? 

That parchment forms the blueprint and the fertile ground for our multicultural nation. It is a promise between two peoples to create a home on this land (if it’s honoured). The Treaty has gone from being ignored, to being celebrated in a fictional notion of harmony, to rightfully being restored as something that should be honoured. 

This list may have gone through 10 memorable Waitangi Days but, of course, every Waitangi Day is great. It’s the scene of healthy debate, celebration, commiseration, protest and reflection. 

But it’s also stunning and welcoming. Few people at Waitangi would have witnessed the dildo incident – they would have been away having fun or learning at the marae, on the bay, at the forums, in the festival grounds, or at the Brother Love concert. 

None of this would have been possible if not for the original Waitangi Day, on February 6, 1840.

Keep going!