Te Tiriti: The Treaty

The binary history of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Waitangi Day in Australia is the biggest single yearly celebration  of Maori culture. When I was younger, I largely participated in Waitangi Day as a point of easy cultural access: along with Whale Rider and Scribe, Waitangi Day was a way for me to engage with my culture and heritage in the absence of my extended Maori family. It is an opportunity to experience the sense of community that I craved growing up, one where people gather to share and celebrate our common cultural experiences: however these days, as I grow older and more politically aware, I find it harder to participate in that manner.

Waitangi Day is an annual public holiday in Aotearoa that celebrates the day of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on the 6th of February in 1840. The history of celebration of the Waitangi Treaty is long and complex, but in its current form the day is touted as one of education, national identity and cultural celebration. But for myself and many other Maori, Waitangi Day and the Treaty of Waitangi are the means by which the falsehood of a post-racial Aotearoa is constructed.

For what is considered the founding document of Aotearoa, there is a large level of inaccuracy in the translation of the Treaty of Waitangi. It is thus commonly argued that there are in fact two treaties: The Treaty of Waitangi, written in English, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, written in Te Reo Maori. It could be argued that Te Tiriti is a translation of The Treaty, but the differences in their wording, and thus their meaning, are too much to be chalked up to a quirk of translation.

The primary difference between the two documents lies in the way each discusses the concept of sovereignty.  The Treaty gives the Queen “all the rights and powers of sovereignty” over Aotearoa. Te Tiriti gives the Queen ‘te kawanatanga katoa’, ie: the complete government over Aotearoa. Te Tiriti cedes a general right of governance to the Crown in return for some protections and for the right for Maori to manage their own affairs. It proposes a relationship between Maori and Pakeha that entails some level of partnership and power sharing between the two communities, but The Treaty places all legislative and legal power in the hands of the crown. There is a clear difference in the aims of the two documents, one that is ultimately more sinister than a minor disparity in translation.

This extends to the discussion of land rights in the treaties. The Treaty grants the Crown exclusive right to purchase Maori land, and confirms that Maori have “exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates, forests, fisheries and other properties”.  Te Tiriti guarantees Maori “te tino rangatiratanga”, the exercise of chieftainship over their lands, villages and all their properties and treasures. There is evidently a difference between the ownership of something, as in the Treaty, and the right to govern it, as in Te Tiriti, and the concept of the crown having exclusive rights of purchase is not immediately clear in Te Tiriti. It was rather considered that the crown was understood to have the first option, rather than the exclusive right, to buy Maori land.

The treaties are in fact preceded by an earlier, stronger document: He Wakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni (the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand).
Signed in 1835 by a coalition of 34 Northern Maori chiefs, the Declaration of Independence declared the country to be an independent state known as The United Tribes of New Zealand. It declared that “all sovereign power and authority in the land should reside entirely and exclusively in the hereditary chiefs and heads of tribes in their collective capacity.” It also declared that no government would exist aside from those appointed by the coalition of Chiefs. It is now broadly considered to be a historical document without any constitutional relevance in contemporary Aotearoa.

That He Wakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni would eventually give way to a decidedly weaker counterpart is unsurprising. There is a clear pattern that emerges when the Te Tiriti and the Treaty are considered in comparison to one another, where the language of the former diverges from its English counterpart in regard to crucial areas such as governance and land rights. It is telling that these two treaties, that are so fundamentally incompatible to have diluted Maori sovereignty, are considered to be the founding documents of contemporary Aotearoa over an altogether more comprehensive document.

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