While from the 1980s academic historians re-examined the broad significance of the Treaty of Waitangi, public historians began researching the minute details of how it had been ignored or breached in the past.
The Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 to hear present-day claims under the Treaty of Waitangi. It had a low profile until 1984, when it was granted the power to hear claims dating from 1840. From this time the tribunal acquired administrative, research and report writing staff, including historians, both as permanent staff and contractors.
Further legislation in 1988 gave the tribunal more powers and staff. By 1993 there was a backlog of several hundred claims and there were several attempts to streamline research. Historical claims (dealing with Crown policy or practice prior to 1992) ceased to be registered from 2008, but contemporary claims continued to be made.
In 2013 there were around 30 tribunal staff engaged in historical research and report writing. This work involved historical research and writing, liaison with claimants and presenting evidence at hearings. Freelance historians also worked directly for claimant groups.
Two types of historical reports were produced by the tribunal:
- those designed to assist claimant groups in putting forward a case to the tribunal
- those produced by the tribunal at the end of hearings as a summary of the evidence.
It has been asserted that, as a result of work carried out in New Zealand for treaty claims, no other country boasts such a comprehensive body of research into its colonial history. But despite the effort, expertise and money put into assembling them, many of the reports are read by a few hundred people only. Historians have expressed concern that the mass of research compiled by the Waitangi Tribunal and its associated bodies is not accessible to the wider community.
Office of Treaty Settlements
A policy unit set up in 1989 within the Department of Justice to examine treaty settlements became the Office of Treaty Settlements (OTS) in 1995. OTS had the power to negotiate settlements without first requiring a Waitangi Tribunal report. However, like the tribunal, it employed a small team of historians to research and evaluate claims.
Crown Forestry Rental Trust
The Crown Forestry Rental Trust (CFRT) was established in 1990 to collect fees from Crown licensed forestry lands and redirect this funding to assist iwi groups to prepare and present treaty claims involving such lands. By 2014 CFRT employed historians as research facilitators and also contracted out research to freelance historians.
Crown Law Office
Treaty teams, including historians, within the Crown Law Office provided advice to government in relation to legal and historical issues affecting the interpretation of the treaty. They represented the Crown before the Waitangi Tribunal, and provided advice to other government departments on their obligations in relation to treaty settlements.