The words of the treaty

Waitangi Day service at Waitangi, 2011 (click for image credit)

Waitangi Day service at Waitangi, 2011 (click for image credit)

This week, in recognition of the 174th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February, we focus attention on the five excellent stories that sit under Te Ara’s sub-theme of Te Tiriti – the Treaty. Those stories tell the full history of the treaty from its origins to its wide impact on modern New Zealand. They are:

  • He Whakaputanga – Declaration of Independence: the origins of the treaty lie in two gatherings of northern tribes, the first in 1834 to provide for a United Tribes flag to fly on ships and thus represent the country in international commerce, and the second in 1835 to declare the independence of New Zealand under Māori as a way of preventing claims to the country by the French.
  • Treaty of Waitangi, written by the foremost treaty scholar Claudia Orange, describes the steps that led to the preparation and signing of the treaty in 1840, and then the subsequent, largely unsuccessful, efforts by Māori to try to ensure the treaty was recognised.

These are all fascinating stories which tell of tragedy and loss, of hopes dashed and millions of acres of land taken. But they also tell about the creativity and goodwill of many New Zealanders, especially following the fierce debates of the early 1970s. The debates and tensions have not stopped, of course, but New Zealand state and society have responded at times in imaginative and fruitful ways.

What comes through powerfully after reading these five stories is the importance of words. When the Declaration of Independence was signed the document was in Māori, and then translated into English. The word ‘rangatiratanga’ was translated in English as ‘independence’. Five years later the Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up, at first in English, but when it was translated into te reo Māori, ‘rangatiratanga’ was seen as the equivalent of ‘chieftainship’ not independence. Since Māori were guaranteed under the treaty their ‘rangatiratanga’, misunderstanding was almost certain. Added to this was the fact that in 1835 the Māori word ‘kingitanga’ had been translated as ‘sovereignty’. But in 1840 ‘sovereignty’ became ‘kāwanatanga’. In such mistranslations and confusions many later difficulties resided.

Road sign showing the Māori name and the English name for Aoraki/Mt Cook (click for image credit)

Road sign showing the Māori name and the English name for Aoraki/Mt Cook (click for image credit)

The importance of words does not stop there.  One of the cases examined by the Waitangi Tribunal was on te reo Māori, the Māori language. The tribunal declared it to be a taonga (treasure) which should be protected under Article Two of the treaty. Words, Māori words, had become protected. And, as the entry on settlement processes explains, one of the aspects of some settlements has been restoring traditional Māori words as place names. The country’s highest peak was once more Aoraki; Ninety Mile Beach was returned to its original name Te Oneroa a Tōhē.

Finally, the story on the principles of the treaty takes the argument further. The tribunal declared that what was important in the end about the treaty was not the precise words, but rather the ‘spirit’ of the treaty. This encouraged successive governments to begin drawing up a set of ‘principles’ of the treaty. In other words the story ends with precise words becoming less important, and meanings, or the spirit, becoming the essence. In the journey from words to spirit, we learn much about the long and hugely important history of the Treaty of Waitangi.

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Karen Teasdale || February 7th, 2014

    Beautifully said. Thank you for an article in the spirit of the words.

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