Cornell Tukiri

What happened at Waitangi

More than 50,000 people gathered at Waitangi on February 6, 2024—one of the largest attendances on record. What brought them?

Written by       Photographed by Cornell Tukiri

Driving south on State Highway 1 in the middle of the night, the crescent moon above, I wonder what this year’s Waitangi Day will hold. My friend Mikky, who’s Danish-Māori-Australian like me, says she’s eager to soak it all in, whatever the day brings. My 11-year-old daughter Audrey is groggy from our 2.30am start from Doubtless Bay.

Waitangi Day is a time for all Māori to reflect on what was promised when their tūpuna signed the Treaty on February 6, 1840. The document was intended to enshrine a partnership between Māori and the Crown and to protect the right for Māori to maintain their rangatiratanga over their lands, their reo and their other possessions.

Māori from all over the motu have been calling for this year’s event to be big. Tension filled the previous days, and protest interrupted political speeches: “E noho,” the crowd told Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. Sit down. A waiata also drowned Act Party leader David Seymour’s speech—a song which contained the lyrics “Whakarongo, e noho”. Listen, sit down. Launching into waiata is the accepted mode of informing a speaker that the audience does not share their views—or that it’s time to stop talking.

Artist and activist Tame Iti (Tūhoe) leads supporters of his performance piece onto the bridge that connects the Te Tii Marae side of Waitangi to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. The procession chanted, “The Treaty is a fraud. Honour the Treaty.”

The stars are still out when we arrive at Te Whare Rūnanga marae. People are scattered along the grass on picnic mats and blankets, quiet in the darkness. The air is cool and crisp, but I feel warm with manaakitanga—the feeling of welcome.

I hear the chanting of a karakia, and Ngāpuhi kaumātua Hōne Sadler leads today’s guests onto the marae ātea, and finally onto the mahau, the porch in front of the wharenui (meeting house), to be seated.

Bishop Te Kito Pikaahu opens the dawn ceremony, then Pita Tipene, the chairman of the Waitangi National Trust, speaks of how the Treaty was signed in a part of Waitangi called Ruarangi. He says Ruarangi can be interpreted as ‘two skies’ or ‘horizon’ or ‘meeting of the land with the sky’; and as we all know, he adds, the horizon we see changes according to landscape and weather.

The performance piece led by Tame Iti was a silent protest where supporters carried white flags that represented the blank space left when Māori deities Ranginui and Papatūānuku were separated in the creation story.
A kaiwero (challenger) prepares to welcome another ope (group) onto Te Whare Rūnanga at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Te Whare Rūnanga was opened on February 6, 1940 and hosts thousands of manuhiri (guests) every year.

“I think we really have to learn the context of Te Tiriti o Waitangi,” he says, “along with He Whakaputanga, the declaration of independence. If our society is still coming to grips with Te Tiriti o Waitangi, He Whakaputanga is almost not known at all.”

“Because, what this is all about, is learning about our history to move forward.”

I’m surprised to find the dawn ceremony is more church service than pōwhiri, with Bible readings instead of speeches. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon delivers a passage from Corinthians about the body as a metaphor for a group of people: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”

When it comes to David Seymour’s turn, I think, “Here we go,” as he takes to the podium for his reading. But there’s no heckling or disruption this time.

Coalition government leaders are led onto Te Whare Rūnanga at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. David Seymour is accompanied by Hinerangi Cooper-Puru, Dame Whina Cooper’s daughter. Some of the observers lined the entrance carrying signs that were in the shape of the Treaty document with red paint spattered on them. The signs read “Toitū te Tiriti” (“Honour the Treaty”).
The sun rises at the Treaty Grounds as thousands of people gather for the February 6 dawn service.

As the ceremony concludes, the rising sun turns the sky a brilliant orange. We walk up to the flagpole opposite the Treaty House, looking out over the bay as it takes on colour. The sound of bagpipes floats up to us. Mikky walks ahead of Audrey and me, leading us towards a large crowd gathering around a group of Aboriginal dancers. She stops to watch the performance—it’s particularly meaningful to her, as she has just moved home from Australia to reconnect with her whakapapa and study te reo.

Eventually, the scent of mussel fritters and frying onions lures us down the hill to the lower Treaty grounds and Hobson’s Bay, around the corner from where the parade of waka is arriving.

I feel like I’m still waiting for something to happen—for the discontent that Māori have expressed over the last few months to erupt.

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Toitū te Tiriti (uphold the Treaty) was a call to action by Te Pāti Māori in response to the new government taking office in December; its coalition agreement includes a suite of policies widely perceived as anti-Māori. The call is especially directed at Seymour, who campaigned on holding a referendum to redefine the principles of the Treaty and how they apply to present-day New Zealand.

Over the past 50 years, the way the Treaty applies to life in Aotearoa has been defined by the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal, distilled into a set of principles: partnership, reciprocity, mutual benefit, active protection of Māori interests, and redress for past wrongs.

James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party, delivers a reading at the karakia service at Te Whare Rūnanga, where thousands gathered for the 5am start.
Both tangata whenua, people of the land, and tangata tiriti, people who are party of the Treaty, were present at the dawn service.

The Act Party, which won 8.6 per cent of the vote, claim that Māori having different political rights under the Treaty means Māori have a bigger say in decisions than other groups. Treaty scholars write that Māori in fact have less political clout and worse outcomes across the board as a result of the way Treaty and its principles are applied.

The karanga (call) for Māori to unite is in response to the threat of some Treaty principles being undone: a reversal of the revitalisation of te reo, of Māori voices having a say at all levels of decision-making, and of the partnership between the Crown and tangata whenua.

In December, the Māori king, Kiingi Tuuheitia, called for Māori and non-Māori to gather for a hui-ā-motu (national meeting) “to unify the nation”. People from around the country mobilised, and six weeks later, a crowd of 10,000 gathered at Tūrangawaewae Marae in Ngāruawāhia.

Kiingi Tuuheitia delivered a national wero (challenge): “The best protest we can do right now is be Māori; be who we are, live our values, speak our reo, care for our mokopuna, our awa, our maunga, just be Māori.”

People move to the headland on the Treaty Grounds to watch the sunrise. The Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand is flying—a design adopted by a group of chiefs in 1834.

Chatting to other attendees, I’m struck by the diversity of people standing with Māori at Waitangi. I meet visitors from overseas, and people from around the country.

Some have been drawn here with Kiingi Tuuheitia’s kōrero in mind. Peta Walsh, an early childhood teacher from Whangarei, tells me, “It’s very important for my Māori mokopuna to have a childhood where this is normal.” Where being Māori is normal.

This conversation about identity and finding belonging is reinforced by a kōrero I have with two young Chinese New Zealanders who’ve come to Waitangi to stand in solidarity with tangata whenua and show their support as tangata tiriti—people who are part of the Treaty.

Erica Blundell and Sidney Gig-Jan Wong were part of a contingent of 46 young Chinese New Zealanders who’d taken part in a kaupapa called Pāruru, a trip that had taken them first to the Hokianga to acknowledge the wreck of the SS Ventnor, where the remains of 499 Chinese miners sank off the coast in 1902.

The trip was also about building a sense of place by looking to the past and acknowledging the journeys that had brought them here, while strengthening their identity and connection to Aotearoa, and learning how to deepen ties with tangata whenua.

The waka taua (war canoe) Ngātokimatawhaorua and its many paddlers heads towards the beach at Waitangi where thousands line the sand, bridge and any vantage point to catch a glimpse of the waka powering through the water.

As someone of mixed heritage who grew up in Australia, I resonate with what they say about not feeling a place to connect to their whenua (land), about their feelings of shame around their identity, and not feeling ‘enough’.

Blundell says the group had had several kōrero over “cups of tea and biscuits” about this within their community and amongst the Hokianga iwi and hapū that they’d come to know over the years.

“The great thing about going to the Hokianga is that we were with people who knew our community, so were able to ask the mana whenua what we could do to better support them in asserting the mana of Te Tiriti,” says Blundell. “There was no straight answer, but what I took away was that it’s in the spirit, values and opportunities to demonstrate in your actions that this is something you stand for.”

Quiet time near the Forum Tent at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Shade was at a premium on Waitangi Day, and temperatures regularly topped 28 degrees. Staying cool was paramount for these aunties and uncles.

Wong says he’d felt a lot of confusion and shame around his identity and this trip had helped solidify how he felt about himself and his place in Aotearoa. A visit to a friend at a nearby marae helped: “She said the fact that we care, we showed up and wanted to learn was all we needed to start showing our support for Te Tiriti,” he says.

“So for Chinese New Zealanders, I think that’s something we could do, to come together at Waitangi and to show we are a part of this.”

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This feeling of kotahitanga, of togetherness, reaches a crescendo upon the arrival of the Hīkoi ki Waitangi, the March to Waitangi.

The 200-kilometre hikoi has taken place every year since 1985, leaving Te Rerenga Wairua at Cape Reinga at the beginning of February and making its way south through the townships of Te Tai Tokerau. The march is a statement of support for the Treaty and of He Whakaputanga—the declaration of independence signed by Ngāpuhi chiefs in 1835.

A waka hourua (double-hulled canoe) heads towards the beach where it is being hailed by kaikaranga (callers). After the waka is brought onto the beach, the local people perform a whakatau, a settling.
The bridge to Waitangi also provided opportunities for cooling off as temperatures soared. Tino rangatiratanga and United Tribes flags line the walkway.

The previous week, I joined the march briefly as it passed through Doubtless Bay, near home, and onto Kenana Marae. Hīkoi leader Reuben Taipari told the crowd he’d been surprised and uplifted by the reception—all along the route, people had come out to the State Highway 1 to cheer them on and fly tino rangatiratanga and he whakaputanga flags.

There were perhaps 60 people on the hīkoi then, but by the time they arrive at Waitangi, the group is in its thousands. I hear their waiata and karakia before I see them—and then I glimpse the black, white, red and blue of their flags.

As the hīkoi crosses the one-lane bridge from Paihia to Waitangi, people gather to see them step on the Treaty grounds. The enormity of it takes my breath away. Addressing the crowd, Taipari asks us not to go home and return to our individual lives. “Sustain this resistance, sustain this solidarity, sustain this kotahitanga, whānau—and we will find our freedom.”

A kaihoe (paddler) awaits instructions on the beach at Waitangi. Many of the waka had dedicated wahine crew; it’s the 20th year that women crews have been present at Waitangi.

This wero is a call to the country to keep coming back, to remember what has happened in the past, to learn from it and grow together in unity.

For now, the singer Ladi6 has taken to the stage, and people are dancing. It occurs to me that the protest and dissent I expected is here, but it doesn’t look the way the media expected it to look. It’s one big diverse whānau Māori relaxing on a hot summer’s day, sharing kai, reconnecting with whānau, having meaningful kōrero—but most of all, taking up space, making noise, being visible, saying: we’re not going anywhere. Your Treaty principles bill can’t touch us, can’t turn us all into generic New Zealanders. As I look at my daughter’s tired, happy face, I think to myself, This is what Waitangi Day is about.

Forgetting our weary feet for a moment, we join the dancing.

Myjanne Jensen (Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa, Ngāpuhi) is a journalist based in Northland. Documentary photographer Cornell Tukiri (Ngāti Whaawhaakia, Ngāti Hikairo, Ngāi Tahu) is in Auckland.

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