Waitangi Day

Eddie Durie’s hope that a ‘new beginning’ might dawn upon the Crown’s relationship with Maori was well stated and shared by all Maori who looked to the Treaty of Waitangi for guidance, knowing full well that its potential for providing restorative justice lay entirely in the hands of the government, as the 1989 Crown Principles had demonstrated.

The flagpole, Treaty Grounds, Waitangi.

But that is not to say that Durie’s efforts were in vain; the reverse was more the case. As the academic ‘unease’ was demonstrating, the Tribunal in 1990 was in fact driving a new ‘Treaty hegemony’ that was rising without trace and could not be ignored for much longer.

As a consequence, the 1990 Waitangi Day celebrations loomed as a significant event, promoted by the government as the official sesquentennial commemoration whereby the 150th anniversary of the Treaty signing could be formally recognized.

The 6 February 1990 ceremony was an imposing event with thousands of spectators in attendance in brilliantly sunny conditions. On the harbour, at least twenty newly built waka were on show, vying for space amidst hundreds of small pleasure craft. A re-enactment of the Treaty signing event was also staged, based on the account of William Colenso, a missionary printer who witnessed the day’s proceedings. Colenso also suggested that Governor Hobson said, to each Maori signatory as he shook their hand, ‘he iwi tahi tatou’ – ‘we are now one people’.

Queen Elizabeth in attendance

Also present was Queen Elizabeth II who was midway through an extensive fifteen-day tour of New Zealand. Queen Elizabeth was of course the most important guest of honour at the official Treaty ceremony, and she later presented an address during which, in the spirit of the Sesquentenary, she acknowledged New Zealand’s difficult path to ‘nationhood.’

However, prior to her speech, the Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa, Whakahuihui Vercoe had addressed those gathered, including the Queen. During his tenure as Bishop, Vercoe was noted by some Māori as insensitive, lacking in patience and impolite. He was also, for better or worse, a straight-talker.

On this occasion, Vercoe spoke plainly of the Treaty, and what its avoidance by the Crown had meant to Māori. Many of his comments were seemingly directed at Queen Elizabeth herself.

One hundred and fifty years earlier, he said, a compact had been signed that had left Māori marginalised. ‘You have not honoured the treaty,’ he said. The language and customs of New Zealand were now English, not Māori. The Treaty did not require renegotiating or debating. ‘I want the Treaty to stand firmly as the unity, the means by which we are made one nation,’ he declared.

According to Bishop Vercoe, the Sesquicentenary was all about celebrating the Treaty. Māori had therefore come to Waitangi to ‘cry for the promises that you made and for the expectations our tupuna had had when signing 150 years ago.’  

Year of the waaka

As Bishop Vercoe was speaking, addressing the assembled dignitaries including the Queen, hundreds of yachts, boats and pleasure craft continued to sail into the Waitangi Harbour, participants in a glorious marine spectacle not seen since 1940.

Alongside the countless vessels, specially constructed waka assembled into a flotilla and approached the Waitangi headland. According to Māori historian Buddy Mikaere, the sight and sound of this score of waka taua, and their sweating, chanting crews would ‘forever remain etched in the memories of those who attended the Treaty commemorations.’

The waka had become a symbol of Māori unity and pride in this year of remembrance, he wrote. ‘Some say it is the vehicle which will carry the mana of Maoridom into the 21st century.’

Accordingly, 1990 had been pronounced as the ‘year of the waka.’ Mikaere, who sat on board one of the waka, found it hard to ‘sit among the sweating crew’, imagining the despair that must have gripped the survivors of the great Musket Wars’ raids of Hongi Hika, Tareha, Pomare and others.

Survivors and captives of those raids were often brought back to the north in canoes ‘just like this one’, thrown aboard to lie amongst the crew. Some of those captives would die for Ngā Puhi’s revenge. Others would become slaves, an even worse fate. As slaves they would be subject to the command of the smallest child, fed on scraps thrown in the dirt, forced to fight for food with hungry dogs, death always just a ‘crack on the head away.’

Kaupapa Waaka project

Carrying the ‘mana of Maoridom,’ the ‘New Zealand Kaupapa Waka Project’ had been launched for 1990, building on fifty years of planning. To mark the earlier centennial of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1940, wrote Mikaere, Te Puea Herangi, leader of the Tainui people of Waikato, had wanted to restore and build waka taua. ‘She had desired to express the tribal prestige of all Māori people by building a fleet of seven canoes, one to represent each of the major tribal groups of the country.’

Because the tribes needed to co-operate to successfully complete the waka taua, Te Puea’s programme would also have constituted an exercise in Kotahitanga or unity. ‘This was the ideal to which she and many other Maori had dedicated their lives.’ In 1940, Te Puea’s waka project had been enthusiastically supported by the Labour government of Peter Fraser. But the Second World War had intervened. Funds were no longer available for such an ambitious project. ‘As a consequence, only three waka taua were built by the end of 1940’, wrote Mikaere.

However, fifty years later, in 1990, Te Puea’s waka taua dream was revived ‘but on a much grander scale than even she could have imagined.’ This time, more than 20 waka were to be built or refurbished, ‘thereby demonstrating mana Māori and a pride in Mäori arts’, as well as encouraging ingenuity amongst Māori and reviving the ancient skills of waka construction. Waka also provided a potent symbol of Maāri capacity before the advent of Europeans, with their robust construction and ornate carvings depicting a gilded age of ‘Maori ingenuity, and fighting skill.’

Canoe styles had changed significantly since the days of first settlement; earliest Māori had arrived in double-hulled sailing canoes. By the time of first European arrivals, Māori had developed the single hulled waka, though they were not always so well constructed of course as those on the Waitangi harbour in 1990.

The ‘Kaupapa Waka’ project caused an explosion of activity around the country as various iwi groups began the task of building their waka, training crews and fundraising.

The goal was to attend the celebrations at Waitangi in 1990. But the Kaupapa Waka project was much wider; it was another expression of the Māori renaissance, fostering a rediscovery of carving and seafaring skills, a re-emergence of history and an awakening of tribal pride. Waka building was but one of the crafts which had changed significantly in the previous 150 years.

According to Mikaere, the hard labour of felling the trees and hewing them into canoes using only stone tools and fire had gone forever. The ancient tools had been replaced by chainsaws, steel chisels, fibreglass, laminated planks and marine paints. ‘Change is endlessly debated on the marae, and while some Māori mourn a continual erosion of traditional ways of thinking and doing things, others welcome flexibility and that change has brought.’

A waaka journey 1832

In 1832, one early explorer of Aotearoa, Lieut. Colonel St. John, recorded a journey he made aboard a waka during very rough seas, where the waka actually hit a sandbar and broke up mid-journey. According to St. John, the next morning, he accompanied seven Māori out towards the offending bar in a second large war canoe.

‘By the time we got there, the ‘Samuel’ (a local trading vessel) was under weigh.’ Observing the ‘Samuel’ to have been beached by the elements, St. John’s Māori companions asked him, did he intend continuing their journey? Not imagining for one moment that they would continue, wrote St. John, ‘I said that I would leave it to them and to my astonishment they said ‘very well then, we will go.’ I didn’t half like the idea because the waves were coming in tolerably large.’

The Māori crew fastened their mats about them and settled in for the journey. St John was directed to the bow where he was expected to assist a chief named Te Karekare (later Wiremu Paerata) with the steering. ‘We got out very well,’ St. John wrote, ‘excepting that we had a narrow escape of coming to grief from one roller breaking under us. Fortunately for the natives sitting forward in the canoe, the sea broke over the amidships and as the preponderance of weight was forward the sea passed under her.’