Protest group Te Waka Hourua painted over the English version of the Treaty at Te Papa in December 2023. (Photo: RNZ, Samuel Rillstone)

Te Papa says it will “renew” its te Tiriti o Waitangi display, after protesters spray-painted over the English text in December last year.

Te Waka Hourua, the group which took the protest action, believes the English version doesn’t belong on display next to Te Tiriti. We invited the group to explain that position, and their response, written by Hannah Kremmer, is below.

Then we hear from historian Samuel Carpenter, who argues that both versions have their place in our national museum.

White lies

By Hannah Kremmer


Being a parent in any era is hard. Being a millennial parent comes with a special kind of emotional and mental whiplash. I spend my days thinking of creative ways to make money to feed my children today, while internally worrying about crop failure and whether there will be any food or clean water left for them in the years to come.

I refuse to send them to school because it’s an institution built with the purpose of assimilating them into a white supremacy capitalist system, but I worry about how they will get by on the fringes of a society that demonises difference. The most pressing worry I carry is the worry that there won’t be any future left for them to be a part of, as we radically exceed all planetary limits.

Now, one might think that adding the possibility of a 14-year prison sentence for my partner, and the prospect of solo parenting for any duration of our unstable future, could push someone over the edge of sanity. But, it’s quite the opposite.

For context, the dude who was arrested for abseiling in Te Papa is my partner, and together we have three beautiful, wild-haired children, who were cheering from the sidelines. Te Wehi is now facing multiple charges for Indigenous and climate-related actions, and, as a family, we’re dealing with the consequences of those actions daily.

I take my role in this narrative, mother and caregiver, very seriously. I’m not saying it’s not hard, that I don’t struggle, that I didn’t swing between fits of laughter and tears at the success of a kaupapa that’s been a part of our weekly lives for over two years. But I do it, my role, and I do it gladly, and I’ll do it for as long as it takes until the message makes it through.

Tell the truth: Sovereignty was never ceded. 

I know this now, but there was a time not that long ago when I didn’t. Before leaving home at 18, my life was like that of many white, middle-class families in Aotearoa. I never thought of myself as racist, because my friend groups were always diverse, and I was a kind person at heart. But racism couldn’t give a fuck about who you’re friends with and whether you’re nice to your grandma.

Put simply, racism is about power — who has it and who doesn’t. If you’re white, like me, then you have it. We live in a country where our state government is a direct product of the rape, theft, murder, displacement, and destruction of Indigenous peoples — of Māori, and their lands. We are a colonial state, an inherently violent and racist entity, meaning our institutions, and often many of the people who inhabit them, are inherently socialised as racist. Yet many Pākehā in Aotearoa struggle to sit with this harsh truth, let alone begin doing the work needed to deconstruct their own role of power and privilege in this story.

The action that took place at Te Papa had nothing to do with erasing history, and any of its supporting narratives. Rather, the action was demanding that supporting narratives (the English draft) be put in their appropriate place — that is, not right beside Te Tiriti, as if it has anywhere near the same legal, constitutional, and historical importance.

Alarmingly, and I don’t know how to better articulate it, most people just don’t care. They don’t care about people or about the planet. They’ve been successfully indoctrinated into the capitalist consumerist matrix, where the bottom line is king, and wellbeing is a burden. You’re only as good as what you produce, and you can only profit off that which meets the market’s predetermined values.

Human rights? Not valued. This apathy presents a problem. You can’t expect people to walk into a museum and determine the nuance and historical context for themselves with the display in Te Papa as it is now.

Both texts are displayed as if they’re of equal significance; the exhibit arrogantly establishing the implicit assumption that the English draft displayed is a direct translation of Te Tiriti, a text that few people can read on their own to decipher the difference.

For people to state that both versions are deserving of equal status, that we need to look to the past without letting the present sully our interpretation of it, well, that must be the most audacious claim I’ve heard in my 30 years. Arguments claiming that my ancestors had good intentions with regards to the English draft seem redundant at best, dangerous at worst.

And to that, I ask: Who cares what their intentions were?

Some dead white men “meaning well” 200 years ago is utterly useless. The here and now is all we have. And here, in 2024, our government condones genocide while sucking on the teat of earth’s resident bully, denies their own white supremacy while systematically dismantling what minimal provisions were in place for Māori, and pulls funding from community and health initiatives to put towards policies that disproportionately benefit the wealthiest in our country.

Tears fell hard and fast from my eyes when I heard the election results, because having been surrounded by activists and advocates for social justice the past few years, I had been lulled into a false sense of hope.

I will give credit where credit is due: imperial patriarchal colonisation and capitalism are impressive. They have everyone wrapped around their dirty little fingers. Everyday people, who won’t see the benefits being spouted by these despicable politicians, are salivating like a dog in a drought to argue in their defence, so ready to defend these men who are using them, the lower and middle class, as pawns in their boys’ club game of power, entitlement, and exploitation.

The action at Te Papa was a message — to the Crown and to the people of Aotearoa.

We can’t expect to see liberation come from within the very systems that were built out of oppression. The system continues to hold power because we allow it to, by remaining silent, remaining complicit, and by fearing the consequences that will come from taking action.

When I feel myself leaning into the fear of repercussions, I think of my tamariki. Of the society that has the audacity to tell them they’re not worthy, on their own land no less, and I let that rage guide me back to our kaupapa. Because this is their land, not mine. It’s time for an Indigenous voice to start running the show.


We need both Te Tiriti and the Treaty at Te Papa

By Samuel Carpenter

Historian Sam Carpenter hopes both texts will be retained in the new display, saying each version is needed to understand our history.


As a historian of Aotearoa New Zealand, I have a few thoughts on the defacing of the English text display of the Treaty of Waitangi at Te Papa.

The basic contention of the protesters is that the Māori text — te Tiriti o Waitangi — is the true text and that we should jettison the English text as it distracts from an understanding of the real treaty. In the reo Māori version, chiefs granted “government” to the Crown. In the English version, they ceded “sovereignty”. Although the Māori text has primacy, it can’t be understood in isolation from the English text, and the wider context. Here’s why I think that.

The Māori text is a translation of the original English draft (the same text as the “official” English version displayed at Te Papa).

At minimum, the English draft reveals the intent of the British Crown in intervening in New Zealand. And since the Crown was one of the parties to the Treaty, we need to understand the English background, and the way this treaty reflected other imperial treaties across the British Empire.

While most of the 540 rangatira (chiefs) signed the Māori text, 39 rangatira signed the English text at Port Waikato. For this reason, too, we can’t forget the English text. The Waikato-Manukau English Treaty copy was interpreted into Māori by Robert Maunsell, a missionary who was fast becoming a leading scholar of te reo Māori. (He eventually translated the entire Old Testament into Māori.)

While the English text speaks of a cession of “sovereignty”, that needs to be seen in the context of what the British Crown intended to do: create a basis for government and civil order in light of increasing law and order issues, incoming British (and French) migration, increasing speculation in Māori land, and the inter-tribal “musket wars” of the previous two decades. It’s not often appreciated in current public Treaty discourse how these issues were threatening Māori society. They’re also the key reasons why we got a treaty in the first place.

One of the main purposes of British “sovereignty” or “civil government” was therefore to protect Māori rights and tribal self-management (tino rangatiratanga or “sovereignty”) of lands and resources.

Thus, as Ned Fletcher, Judith Binney and other historians have highlighted, the humanitarian intent behind the Treaty means it’s possible to reconcile the meanings of the English and Māori texts. While Britain would create a basis for civil government (“sovereignty”) at a national level, Māori hapū would retain tino rangatiratanga (“sovereignty”) at a local level.

This contextualised explanation of both the English and Māori texts suggests that we must understand both to appreciate the full context of the Treaty and what was agreed. While the Māori text is the best evidence of what Māori agreed to, the English text can’t be dismissed. Understood in context, the English text can be reconciled with Māori understanding about retaining essential control of hapū (tribal) affairs, which is the best explanation of what “Māori sovereignty” meant in the context of 1840.

It should also be underlined that the language of the Māori text draws from both Māori terms of political authority and western or biblical terminology. Terms such as government/governorship (“kawanatanga”) and law (“ture”) were taken from scriptural translations. In a similar way to He Whakaputanga/the Declaration of Independence of 1835, the Tiriti text intermixes Māori and biblical concepts and reflects discussions, over the preceding 30-plus years, between Māori leaders, missionaries, the British Resident (James Busby), and the governors of New South Wales. The Treaty, like the Declaration, was thus a cultural and intellectual “co-production” that reflects the entangled lives and thoughts of Māori and European societies.

We therefore need both texts — Māori and English — in their wider political and intellectual contexts, to get a richer, fuller appreciation of what te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi meant to the parties who signed it and marked it with their moko.

Furthermore, what Māori tino rangatiratanga/sovereignty meant in 1840 can’t simply be uplifted and applied in 2023. The country has gone through many political, social and constitutional evolutions in 184 years. “Treaty principles” allow us to abstract some of the essential promises of the Treaty agreement. However, the application of these principles (including to constitutional issues or government policy) is neither straightforward nor obvious.

For these (and other) reasons, Te Papa, and other public institutions in the country, including the Waitangi Tribunal, need to continue to refer to both Māori and English texts of the Treaty. Rather than emphasising the differences between the texts, or discarding the English text altogether, reading both texts together is necessary.

Each text reflects different cultures and languages: there is no such thing as direct equivalence of languages. But neither was each text alien to the other. The texts are also “Treaty partners” that can relate to each other, and find common ground, despite differences.

Continuing to read both language texts in context is good historical (interpretive) practice. At this time of heightened public sensitivities, it also may prove to be more fruitful for our ongoing public discussions over the Treaty’s meaning and relevance in the 21st century.

A response to Hannah Kremmer

However Te Papa renews or replaces the English text display, it should be made clear to museum goers that it was the Māori text — Te Tiriti — that most chiefs signed. Then, if we want to argue legally or constitutionally about what text is most important, we might confine ourselves to the Māori language text.

But my main point, above, is that Te Tiriti was not produced in a vacuum. Rather, it was a product of historical relationships — even rangatiratanga is language use derived from the Bible rather than the pre-European world (see Salmond, Knowledge is a blessing on your Mind, 2023).

If we read Te Tiriti narrowly, by itself and without context, we deprive it of its various strands of intellectual genealogy.

Anger directed at colonial history and new forms of colonialism in our present (including aggressive global capitalism) is justified.

Colonisation has been occurring for centuries — and, some would say, has always occurred in human history. Treaty-Te Tiriti or no Treaty-Te Tiriti, colonisation would still have happened somehow. What the Treaty-Te Tiriti was designed to do was hold back or control irregular colonial settlement through legal means. The tragedy is that state power was often directed against the people it was meant to protect (Māori). But it also did regulate and control British (French, American and other) settlement in these islands, restricting settler purchasing of land and providing courts to resolve disputes peaceably.

Māori were quite quick in some areas to take their disputes (often with Europeans) to the general courts, as recent scholarship has shown. And Māori fought in the courts from the 1980s especially, and won significant battles for Treaty recognition against a Pākehā-dominant government. This type of legal protection against dispossession (although late in the colonial day) was actually what Te Tiriti/the Treaty was about. The Māori economy is now worth $70 billion and a big part of that picture is Treaty settlements, and those court battles.

But, standing back from all this history, what does it matter? The anger is apparently being directed against present-day injustice and power inequities: in this fight, Te Tiriti o Waitangi becomes a weapon to argue for greater Māori liberation from oppression or injustice.

“Māori did not cede their sovereignty” is an argument that Māori are free, always have been free, and ought to be free in the future. That is a righteous cause, too, and it’s what Te Tiriti-the Treaty was about at the outset: to hold back injustice and dispossession.

That it did not do so often is no fault of the Treaty itself — whether English or Māori text. The Crown, or settler governments in the Crown’s name, breached both language versions, whichever way you look at it. Both versions are needed to uphold the sacredness of the Treaty compact and restore the honour of the Crown now. Treaty settlements are helping immensely (though never perfectly) to restore the promise of te Tiriti o Waitangi, including through co-governance of taonga or natural resources.


Dr Samuel Carpenter is a Pākehā historian. He has a PhD in history, lectures in New Zealand history in Tāmaki/Auckland, and has worked in the Treaty sector in Wellington. You can read more of his work here.

© E-Tangata, 2024

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.