Much protest has revolved around Waitangi Day, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. Commemorations began as a result of Governor-General Lord Bledisloe gifting the Treaty House and grounds to the nation in 1932. In 1934 his gift was marked by celebrations at Waitangi where up to 10,000 Māori attended. At the centenary of Waitangi Day in 1940, Māori politician Apirana Ngata drew attention to Māori concerns over race relations in New Zealand.
New Zealand Day
In 1960 the Waitangi Day Act declared 6 February as a national day of thanksgiving in commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. However, it was not until 1974 that this day became a national holiday, renamed New Zealand Day. This was seen as inappropriate by many protesters, who felt it denigrated the Treaty of Waitangi.
In 1971 activist group Ngā Tamatoa organised the first protests at Waitangi on Waitangi Day – something that was to become a regular occurrence. In 1973 Ngā Tamatoa members wore black armbands, to signify mourning the loss of Māori land, at Waitangi Day celebrations. Common refrains were ‘Honour the treaty’ and ‘The treaty is a fraud’. In 1979 protests at Waitangi were taken up by the Waitangi Action Committee. In 1981 the investitures of Sir Graham Latimer and Dame Whina Cooper were targeted as a part of the Waitangi Day protests. This represented an overt clash between more conservative Māori leaders and more radical protesters.
For Waitangi Day in 1984 a hīkoi (march) was organised from Ngāruawāhia to Waitangi. It has been described as the pinnacle of Waitangi Day activism. Eva Rickard was appointed president and Titewhai Harawira secretary of the hīkoi. Around 4,000 protesters assembled at Waitangi, hoping to meet with Governor-General David Beattie, but they were prevented from crossing the Waitangi bridge. The following year, activist group Te Kawariki, from the far north, began to protest at Waitangi on Waitangi Day. This continued through to the 2000s.
Political controversies – 1990s onwards
At the 1990 Waitangi celebrations, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the treaty, a young Māori woman threw a T-shirt at Queen Elizabeth II. Almost as controversial was a speech by the Reverend Whakahuihui Vercoe, the Bishop of Aotearoa, who recalled the failure of the Crown to honour the treaty.
Politicians have often had a difficult time at Waitangi. In 1998 then opposition leader Helen Clark was brought to tears when Titewhai Harawira challenged a male elder for allowing Clark, a Pākehā, to speak on the marae when Māori women could not. In 2004, as prime minister, Clark was jostled, as was Prime Minister John Key in 2009. The ongoing protests have meant that politicians have often avoided attending Waitangi Day at Waitangi, with official government observances happening instead at the governor-general’s residence in Wellington.