The great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua, built for the 1940 commemoration and relaunched at Waitangi in 1974. Te Tii marae is in the background. (Photo: John Miller)

All nations battle divisions fed by mistrust and miscommunication. Waitangi is our best defence and advantage, writes Tainui Stephens. 


In November 1985, I had my first inkling that New Zealand’s race relations are probably unique in the world. I was in London as a reporter with my producer Mōrehu MacDonald, filming Sir Paul Reeves, who’d just been appointed Governor General of New Zealand. 

While there, we also took the chance to shoot a story on the aftermath of recent riots in Brixton and Tottenham. Black youth and the mostly white Metropolitan Police had fought it out after the death of innocent Afro-Caribbeans due to police actions. 

After interviewing residents at a Broadwater Farm council estate, we made our way to our van. We were immediately surrounded by a couple of dozen police who bustled us out. The naked display of pointless force riled our English cameraman who said to the cops, over and over: “You bastards. Leave the people alone.” 

I was freaking out and kept saying: “Shut up, Richard!” 

He said: “They won’t touch us. We’re white.” 

The impression I got from the people of different classes I met on that eventful trip was that there was a yawning gap between Black and White in the UK. They had few ways to talk to each other. 

It was different from my experience back home. For all the injustices and fatal arrogances of colonisation, Māori and Pākehā could find common ground to bridge their gaps. I myself was the product of a mixed marriage. The fact that we had a Governor General who was a Māori blew the UK crew away. 

There’s a particular reason why we overcome such gaps in this country: It’s Waitangi. 

For some, the Treaty between Māori and the British Crown, and the place where it was signed, represent endless protests and political game-playing. 

For others, it’s a lament for the loss of human rights. Then there are those who see it as a commemoration for the northern tribes alone. 

Citizens who are prepared to see the world through the eyes of their Treaty partner and who feel good about the annual celebration say: “Happy Waitangi Day!” 

Waitangi is a mixed blessing in a beautiful disguise. It’s a pretty place with a rich history. But its face is tattooed with a dynamic story of two sovereign peoples who have been through war and revival to work it all out. 

The blessing of Waitangi is the potential of Indigenous self-determination, and of collaboration with the world on equal terms. It’s mixed because it’s such hard work. 

Herepo Harawira at Te Tii marae in 1972 — among the generations of Māori leaders whose “wise orations” have been heard at Waitangi. (Photo: John Miller)

Every time I drive into Waitangi, I am pounded by memories of people I knew who worked to close the gap in their day — and those who still do. 

I park up by the Te Tii marae. I think of the Ngāti Rāhiri and Ngāti Kawa and their selfless hospitality over many decades. The small hall, big dining room and large marae regularly overflow with thousands of Māori and Pākehā engaged in discussion and debate about the state of the New Zealand nation. 

It’s quiet now. As I walk through the small carved gate, instinctive words of mihi fall from my lips for the dead, for the tribes who’ve gathered here, and for the leaders and visionaries who convinced (or otherwise) with their impassioned words. 

I see many women. Whina Cooper. Whaia McClutchie. Mira Szaszy. Eva Rickard. Titewhai Harawira. Ripeka Evans. Donna Awatere. Hilda Halkyard-Harawira. Annette Sykes. 

They come back to me, in all their anger and intelligent rage, their pride and expectations of better. 

Whina Cooper, Eva Rickard and Titewhai Harawira, at Waitangi, 1985. (Photo: John Miller)

The land next to the marae is known as Te Tou Rangatira. A paepae of majestic carvings now marks the place where, in 1835, He Whakaputanga was signed and we declared ourselves a sovereign people to the world. Five years later, on the same land, our tūpuna discussed the implications of the Treaty of Waitangi. 

I recall those carvings being blessed by Rev Māori Marsden. Not long afterwards, he was the minister at my son’s funeral. He was a deeply spiritual man and an intellectual giant. One of many. As I drive away from the grounds, he and my boy come back to me. 

I get to the Copthorne Hotel just over the bridge and pretend I’m staying there, so I can walk through to the beach out the back. The building itself resounds with the memories of generation after generation of Māori and Pākehā politicians, fantasists, bureaucrats, and media professionals with their sometimes well-lubricated bonhomie. 

I chance upon one of the great survivors, Neville Baker, and his wife Caii-Michelle. It’s a hot day and we walk across the lawn together. He’s gone now too. But he comes back to me here, and I feel his Te Ātiawa heartbeat. 

I walk on to Te Korowai ō Maikuku, the long, carved shelter where the waka Ngātokimatawhaorua lives. At 38 metres long, weighing in at 6 tonnes when dry and 12 tonnes when wet, this magnificent canoe was created for the 1940 centennial of the Treaty and used only once. 

During the years of World War Two and the decades of the urban migration, it slept, and waited. In 1974, it was renovated and relaunched, and since then has been at the epicentre of an explosion of interest in waka. Of all sorts. Building them, using them on a daily basis, and travelling the oceans. 

I can still see the greatest modern Māori navigator Hekenukumai-nga-iwi Busby standing tall in Ngātoki as he bellows out the incantations to stir 150 paddlers into action. Hek and Hilda come back to me. So do Wiremu Wiremu and Alan Karena. 

Standing second from left Nicky Conrad, then Tupi Puriri, and Alan Karena

Ngātokimatawhaorua at Waitangi, 1974 (Photo: John Miller)

Over the years, there’ve been many photographs in the shelter showing the canoe’s creation from three large kauri trees. For a long time, there was one that showed my grandfather Bobby Roberts as a lanky teenager, working the bullocks in the Puketī forest. After he passed away, Bob Nepia, one of his mates from those far-off days, gave me an axe head that they’d used in the bush. It’s a heavy damned thing. They were tough men. My karanipā, my grandfather, comes to me at Waitangi. 

I walk up the path to the Treaty grounds. It was the route that Lieutenant-Governor Hobson took as he went to meet with the assembled Māori chiefs. I often wonder what he must have felt as he trod this same path. 

The meeting had been called late, and he wasn’t in uniform apart from his hat. He was in an anxious mood — as well he might have been. There were 1400 Māori and about a dozen Pākehā waiting. The Māori were astute observers of human nature and inheritors of a long tradition of political conflict and debate. Queen Victoria’s mouthpiece faced a substantial people. 

I tread the vast lawn of the Treaty Grounds, proud that this is the land where our forebears took a shrewd punt on history and signed on the dotted line. The Treaty House on the left was home to James Busby, the official representative of the British government. 

On the right is a flagpole around which protests in the 1970s by Ngā Tamatoa forced the government, and the Māori people themselves, to take the Treaty of Waitangi seriously. 

Momentous modern advances in land rights, education, language and justice were seeded here near that big white flagpole. Hana and Syd Jackson, and Ted Nia, come back to me, as do other activists who’ve made the world pay attention. Mei kore ake a Hone, Tame, Moana, Jane, Pania mā. 

Waitangi 1972. A Ngā Tamatoa protest by the flagpole, with police in attendance. (Photo: John Miller)

Upon this land, the wise orations of generations of Māori leaders have presented the Māori position to wave after wave of Pākehā and their leaders. Tupi Puriri, Himi Hēnare, Tarutaru Rankin, Nicky Conrad, Mac Taylor, Simon Snowden, Rima Edwards and so many others are long dead, but they come back to inspire new warriors of the word. 

My final destination is through a stately grove of trees to the magisterial Whare Rūnanga. The strategic genius of the Māori meeting house is that it was a 19th century response to external forces that wanted to obliterate the tribes. The idea was to create a sanctuary where the people could meet and talk in physical and spiritual safety. Indigenous architecture would combine the sleeping capacity of a whare puni, the artistry of a pātaka, and the space and spirit of a Pākehā church. 

A meeting house would typically represent the entire body of an ancestor. The Māori mind loved gathering in the belly of the ancients. Whare tūpuna were established everywhere and became citadels of Māori language, lore, and governance. 

Inside this national whare, a short sentence has been carved on one wall: “Ko au anō tētahi i reira.” I too am one who was there.

It’s a reminder that racism is a lived reality and Māori will not be denied in discussions that protect the common purpose of our nation. 

Larry Parr and Lynn front left, Taura Eruera just behind, Titewhai Harawira on front right.

Waitangi 1972, outside Te Whare Rūnanga. Among those gathered, Larry Parr (front left) and Titewhai Harawira (front right). (Photo: John Miller)

Waitangi is more than a powerful word in legislation and history. It’s more than sausage sizzles and a family day off. Waitangi is about human truths in an age when truth is elusive. To invoke the name of Waitangi is clear evidence that people of difference can engage. When we utter the word, we close the gap. 

One classic Waitangi photograph moves me to my bones. Ngāti Tūwharetoa perform a haka on the first Waitangi Day in 1934. These taut warriors hover in time, eternally poised in the act of saying: “This is who we are. This is how it is. Let’s talk.” 

Me tangi tonu ngā wai o Waitangi, e hohoutia anōhia ai ko tōna rongo.

Waitangi, 6 February 1934. Ngāti Tūwharetoa performing the peruperu. (Taken by an unidentified photographer. Part of New Zealand Railways: Assorted Photographs)


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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