What’s in a Word?
by Reina Whaitiri

I am going to talk briefly about New Zealand’s founding document – The Treaty of Waitangi, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which was signed on 6 February 1840 at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, Aotearoa. The Treaty makes Aotearoa/ New Zealand unique in the Pacific because, unlike many other nations in the Region, including Australia, we have a binding legal document signed by two clearly identified parties, the Crown and Maori. The overarching principle of Te Tiriti is that it is a solemn compact through which the colonization of Aotearoa was made possible.

Maori chiefs looked to the Crown for protection from other foreign powers, for peace and for law and order. They put their trust for these things in the Crown believing that they retained their own rangatiratanga, sovereignty, and taonga, resources and things of value. The Crown assured them of the utmost good faith in the matter in which their existing rights would be guaranteed and in particular guaranteed down to each individual Maori the full and exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands which is the basic and most important principle of the Treaty.

In translating the English version of the Treaty of Waitangi into Maori, some very important changes were made. In this first official document in Aotearoa/New Zealand English words were being Maorified and incorporated in the language. The first English word which crept into Maori was the transliteration of ‘governance’, translated as kawanatanga. There was no such concept in Maori prior to the Treaty being drawn up. Chiefs had full and total sovereignty over their people and land and that would have been understood as ‘mana’. They understood ‘mana’, but not governance a word which was deliberately left out of the Treaty. (see Walker)

The second word, Maori this time, which was misused and misunderstood is ‘rangatiratanga’ which translates into ‘chieftainship’. The official English version of the Treaty guaranteed the chiefs ‘the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates, forests and fisheries’. However, the Maori version of the Treaty does not say that. It says the Queen guarantees the chiefs, the tribes and all the people of New Zealand the rangatiratanga (chieftainship) of their lands, homes and possessions. (Walker)

Although the Treaty was quietly and deliberately forgotten not long after it was signed. The nine copies used for signature gathering in different parts of New Zealand, two on parchment and the rest on paper, have since been threatened by fire and eaten by rates. But the Treaty of Waitangi has now gained enormous significance and importance in the way Maori and Pakeha live and relate in New Zealand. In 1975 the Treaty was dusted off and brought out into the full light of day due mainly to the hikoi, a land march which began in the far north of the country and ended in the capital Wellington and which attracted many, many thousands of Maori. We, the Maori people, finally decided that enough was enough. Of the millions of acres once in our possession, very little remained and even that small amount was rapidly dwindling. It became clear to us that Pakeha collectively would not be happy until every last acre was wrested out of our hands. We also realized that the only way to stop the hemorrhaging of land was to resurrect the Treaty of Waitangi and hold Pakeha to it, considering it was their idea, their system used to design it, they wrote it, and they translated it into Maori.

Since that historical hikoi in 1975, Maori and Pakeha have been seriously engaged with the Treaty. The Waitangi Tribunal was set up specifically to look into and determine the validity of Maori land claims against the Crown. For the last thirty years the country as a whole has been interpreting, debating, arguing over, testing, challenging, and, in some cases, trying to ignore, the Treaty. Both the English and the Maori versions have become the focus for governments, for individual politicians, and for New Zealanders as a whole. Some Pakeha have suggested that the Treaty is now out of date and should be ignored but there is no way Maori will allow that to happen even though many of us denounce it as a fraud. The Treaty has been called a fraud because now that we understand exactly what the true intent of those who drew it up was, we know full well what was lost, and we know what it promised to protect but failed to do so.

There were originally four versions of the Treaty of Waitangi, three in English and one in Maori. According to international law, if a treaty is written in two languages that of the indigenous people must take precedence. So, already at the outset, even though there were many more English versions than Maori, it is the Maori version which must be acknowledged as the most legally binding. As far as Maori were, and are, concerned, there is only one version, that written in Maori. This is the one which was explained to those Maori who signed it. I think the fact that there were many more English versions than Maori shows the unequal privilege given to the English version. Considering that not all Maori spoke the same dialect of te reo, for example, those Maori in Te Waipounamu spoke a different dialect from those of Ngapuhi in the far North which is where the Treaty was first signed. Many Maori did not have a good command of English, especially the formal, upper register English used, clearly therefore, Maori were disadvantaged.

It seems incredible to us today that Maori, who were in the majority at the time of the signing, would willingly sign away their mana, their sovereignty. To suggest that Maori chiefs, on behalf of 100,000 fighting-fit people, willingly ceded their sovereignty when there were only 1,000 or so settlers at the time, is wishful thinking to say the least. Maori were a tribal people who understood very well the way society was organized, theirs and that of the Pakeha. They would not, I believe absolutely, have given away their chiefly rights, not of their own people nor that of other Maori. Yet they signed this Treaty of the Pakeha which allowed them to settle in Aotearoa and enabled foreign sovereignty to be established over us. I do not believe for one moment that any Maori, chief or commoner, would have signed that document had they realized how it would eventually be used. A basic trust between Pakeha and Maori was sorely abused in the drawing up and the implementation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

From February 1840 to the present day, Pakeha have managed to use the Treaty to wrest power and authority from the chiefs of Aotearoa. Within a very short space of time the social hierarchy of Maori was destroyed and chiefs found that they were no longer in control of anything. Pakeha took control of the land; its ownership and the sale of it, they controlled all the people, they established courts and a Pakeha legal system, they insisted that the language of the land should be English and determined that the medium of education be totally in English, virtually ensuring that te reo Maori would die out in two or three generations. Maori became second-class citizens in their own land in a dizzyingly short time. So quickly were all these new and foreign institutions and rules established that Maori did not have time to fully understand the dire straights they, as a culture, a people, were in.

Maori debate on the Treaty has continued increasingly since 1840, revolving around two themes. The first is that of tribal sovereignty, rangatiratanga. Maori sovereignty has been described as being nothing less than the right of each iwi, tribe, and hapu, extended family, to exercise absolute authority over their own resources and people in their own way. Governance was ceded, but not over Maori, and certainly not without our active participation.

(The stance of tribal sovereignty had earlier been confirmed in the Declaration of Independence signed in 1835. This Declaration stated that sovereign power and authority would reside in the hereditary chiefs, and that Britain would be the parent of their independent state, protecting it from all threats to its independence.)

The second theme is that our tribal rights can only be extinguished by explicit consent and by our active participation in this extinction.

The Treaty of Waitangi, its translation and interpretation, has generated a whole new culture in Aotearoa. Academics have built their careers on interpreting and writing about it, lawyers, both Maori and Pakeha, have grown rich by both attacking and defending it, linguists have spent many hours on translating the Treaty and then on interpreting the ‘spirit’ of it. Politicians too have tried to win power by supporting or denying it, governments have had to wrestle with the concept of it, the promises it makes, and with the principles and spirit, the intention, of it.

Most recently, the Treaty once again came to the fore when Pakeha claimed that Maori were using it to establish their sovereign rights over the foreshore and seabed. Helen Clark, the Prime Minister, immediately stated that Maori did not have exclusive rights over this, the last piece of Aotearoa not legally in Pakeha hands. Maori were outraged and once again we had to march, to protest, to waste our precious energy and resources to establish our official rights under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

In 2004, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu asked The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to consider New Zealand’s legislation regarding the seabed and foreshore. In 2005, this Committee stated that the foreshore and seabed legislation discriminates against Maori by extinguishing the possibility of establishing Maori customary title over them and by not providing a means of redress.

We lost the battle to the New Zealand Government even though our claim was upheld by that United Nations Committee. But, it seems, as usual, the Government only acknowledges a higher authority when it suits. The seabed and foreshore continue to be under the control of the Crown not-with-standing that tino rangatiratanga, as stated in the Treaty, includes management of resources and other taonga according to Maori cultural preferences. The meaning of tino rangatiratanga in the Treaty was discussed extensively in early Waitangi Tribunal reports which state:

We consider that the Maori text of the Treaty would have conveyed to Maori people that amongst other things they were to be protected not only in the possession of their fishing grounds, but in the mana to control them and then in accordance with their own customs and having regards to their own cultural preferences.

And so, it continues. The arguments about the translations of the two versions, the interpretations of their principles, and what is meant exactly by the ‘spirit’ intended in them. A major industry has grown up around the Treaty of Waitangi which is not a bad thing considering the long years it rotted away in the archives of a Government building in Wellington. Now, every New Zealander knows what it is and can participate in debate, whether for or against. But for Maori, the Treaty is truly a compact between us and Pakeha and we will never allow it to be buried and forgotten again.


Appendix: The Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. Compiled by Dr Janine Hayward.

Awatere, Hinemoa. Toi Wahine – The Worlds of Maori Women/illustrated by Robyn Kahikiwa; edited by Kathie Irwin and Irihapeti Ramsden. Auckland, N.Z.: Penguin Books, 1995.

Orange, Claudia. The Treaty of Waitangi. Wellington, N.Z.: Allen & Unwin, 1987.

Walker, Ranginui. The Treaty of Waitangi/R.J. Walker. Photocopy. [S.1.: s.n.. 1985?] 30cm, UH Manoa Hamilton Pacific Library.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand_foreshore_and-seabed-controversy. 1/11/2007.

Rendition of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, 6th February, 1840, by Marcus King. (Wellington, Free Lance) 1939.

Reference number C-033-007


Reina Whaitiri was born in Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand in 1943 to a Pakeha mother and Maori father. She is affiliated with Kaitahu, Waitaha and Katimamoe. She has taught English literature at the University of Auckland for 15 years and is currently teaching courses in Hawaiian, Pacific and Maori literature at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She has co-edited two anthologies of writing by Maori including the highly successful Whetu Moana, a collection of poetry by Polynesians. Her academic interests are Maori women’s poetry, literature by indigenous peoples, and Pacific literature which she co-teaches with Professor Albert Wendt.