Grappling with the Treaty of Waitangi

Waitangi Day, our treasured national day off work. What is it all about, really?

I am 40 years old, born and raised in this country, and I realise to my shame that I have never grappled with the Treaty of Waitangi.

In principle I understand that it is our nation’s most significant founding document, an agreement made between Maori and British 175 years ago, but my limited knowledge of the Treaty is clouded by myths and misperceptions, most of those gleaned from news reports about settlement claims or Waitangi Day protests.

I usually avoid thinking too much about Waitangi Day because it seems suspiciously like something I might need to feel guilty about. That niggle of discomfort means I prefer to disengage from it altogether.

So this week, for the first time in my life – which seems outrageous, I should have done this years ago – I read the Treaty of Waitangi.

There are plenty of versions and helpful notes about it online. It turns out the Treaty is only one page long. It has an introduction, three short statements and an epilogue. I should really be a bit more familiar with my nation’s most defining document.

Despite its brevity the Treaty is not all that easy to read. The English version is a mind-numbing muddle of ornate prose. The opening sentence is over 200 words long, confounding enough when English is your first language.

I found it more valuable to read summaries and notes about the two different versions of the treaty. I already knew that the Maori and English texts were different. I never realised how important some of those differences are.

Where the English version gives Maori “undisturbed possession” of their lands, the Maori version gives them “tino rangitiratanga”, a much stronger phrase. The Maori chiefs thought they were giving the Queen the right of governance, like letting her be a very powerful administrator I suppose, without losing any of their authority to manage their own affairs. Contrast that with the English version, which has Maori ceding to the Queen “all the rights and powers of Sovereignty”.

The tension between the two versions is problematic, as history has proven. Since then, attempts have been made to chart a way through the differences by establishing a range of Treaty principles.

But there is no definitive list of principles, which makes things even more fluid and complicated. So what to do? The easiest option is to mutter that it’s all water under the bridge and take the day off. That is what most of us do on Waitangi Day.

In the interests of not flinching I am trying to decolonise my brain for a moment. Imagine aliens landing on Earth. “We come in peace,” they announce with unparalleled weapons and technology. They write up an agreement for us in their own language and then they help themselves to running the place.

Several generations later their descendants roll their eyes if we try to suggest that maybe things didn’t turn out quite the way they had originally been proposed.

How to move forward? We are a multi-cultural nation in a global society. If only one thing ever changes, I think it should be something as simple as making te reo lessons compulsory in New Zealand schools. For the clunk and grind of cultural friction, language is a soothing oil. “Ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria. My language is the window to my soul.”

Te Reo is rich and expressive, a uniquely New Zealand language. I would love to see the next generation of Kiwis fluent in Te Reo Maori. That alone would make a whole world of difference to the New Zealand of the future.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 6 February 2015. Reproduced with permission.