The Maori disruption last week of New Zealand's annual national ceremony of Waitangi Day was foreshadowed in the middle of an October night last year. The sound of a chainsaw drifted from the top of One Tree Hill in the middle of Auckland's suburban sprawl. A 37-year-old Maori called Mike Smith had climbed the hill to fell a Scots pine, the lone tree on the summit and one of Auckland's few natural landmarks.
The attack had a kind of logic. The original "one tree" was a native totara, which was some 300 years old when a group of drunken British sailors chopped it down at the turn of the century. The Scots pine was the sole survivor of a shelter belt planted to protect its successor. As it grew, it became, to some Maori, a symbol of white domination, an image of their replacement, even effacement from the land. "That tree is a shrine," said Smith. "A shrine to our cultural oppression." He was arrested and immediately became a hero to thousands of Maori.
There have been similar actions: colonial statues have been beheaded, television studios invaded. New Zealand once prided itself on its race relations. Now, there is growing fury on both sides and pessimism about how much longer the pakeha (the whites) and the Maori, who make up 13 per cent of the population, can live together.
At Waitangi last Monday the full force of this mood was felt. The national day ceremonies traditionally bring New Zealand's two cultures together. There are Royal speeches and hakas on the Mission House lawns; naval vessels stand at anchor while huge whaka taua (war canoes) moved across the water of the Bay of Islands. But in the early hours, protesters attempted to burn down the Mission House, the nation's most historic building.
When the ceremonies began, about 500 demonstrators overran a welcome by local elders for government officials and the diplomatic corps. One protester bared his tattooed buttocks at the Governor-General, Dame Catherine Tizard, the Queen's representative. Some spat at her, others trampled on the national flag. The microphones were turned off when the Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, attempted to speak, while foreign diplomats fled under a hail of abuse.
Finally, after a Maori independence flag had been run up, the ceremonies, for the first time ever, were abandoned. The national day will continue to be celebrated, but probably never again at Waitangi.
The white majority has seen its totems - the Crown, the flag, its elected leaders, insulted. As one constitutional lawyer, who has spent many years dealing with Maori grievances, said: "Something in New Zealand changed that day. There was something ugly in the air."
Already on talkback radio - the jungle floor of public opinion - the white backlash can be heard. Pakehas announced that they too own chainsaws, which could be used to good effect on Maori whare runanga, the great carved meeting houses which dot the country. One leading Maori activist, Hone Harawira, who had already spoken of "girding for war", said last week: "New Zealand is entering a new and scary era and had better learn to live with it." Another activist in private draws a comparison - not as a cautionary tale, but as an example to follow - with the civil conflicts of Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese and the Tamils are in roughly the same proportion as the pakeha and the Maori.
Maori grievances date back 150 years. What has really brought discontent to its present pitch is a failed attempt to satisfy them. On the surface, the most recent offer of reparations seemed more generous than any made before. Under last year's oddly entitled "Fiscal Envelope", the government proposed to set up a NZ$1bn (£435m) fund as a "full and final" settlement for claims based on all the illegal confiscations, dodgy land purchases and outright thefts which since 1850 have taken millions of acres out of Maori ownership. The whites waited for applause. They were shocked when the Maori tribes unanimously rejected the offer.
The main objection was to the lack of any prior consultation with Maoridom. The sum was not only too small, it was also, as one observer put it, "insultingly round", suggesting that it was quite arbitrary. It excluded many Maori claims on the national parks and other conservation land, on minerals and oil, on riverbeds, shorelines and the seas.
But the problems do not end with land claims. When Mike Smith, detached from his chainsaw, (the tree will probably survive as he was interrupted half way through his task) arrived in court, he refused to enter a plea, on the grounds that the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi entitled him to alternative Maori jurisdiction. Interpretation of the treaty - under which sovereignty (kawanatanga) was ceded to Britain, in return for a guarantee of full chieftainship (tino rangatiratanga) to the Maori - has become a full-time and highly competitive industry. Like Mr Smith, many Maori now claim the treaty means they are entitled to a form of local sovereignty, to control their own lives, laws and lands. Until those claims too are addressed, they promise no respite in their campaigns.
Much of this debate has been rehearsed before. What is new and sinister is that the Maori argument has been taken over by extreme radicals. There is a strange silence from moderate Maori leaders, who seem to approve of the activists and their methods. The only Maori criticisms of the Waitangi protests were concerned with breaches of intra-Maori protocol - people from one tribe should not, uninvited, use the territory of others for protest. Few seemed concerned about how the activists had angered the white majority. In the words of one chief, they have "pushed the door further open" than years of polite oratory ever managed to do.
New Zealand has changed, socially and economically. It was famously the first country to establish a welfare state but, since the mid-1980s, its governments have blazed the trail into a post-welfare society. Free market reforms have been among the most extreme in the world, leading to an increase in inequality greater than in any other country, including Britain. And the Maori are the chief victims. They lag behind pakeha on almost every index - health, crime, housing. Unemployment is around 10 per cent, which is very high by New Zealand's standards, and the Maori are over-represented in the jobless queues. Among urban Maori, an epidemic of child abuse is reported while schoolteachers talk of wild and alienated pupils.
The activists probably don't really believe their own wild words. Certainly many enjoy holding the moral high ground - and, since little other ground, high or low, is in Maori hands, they will not easily give it up. The treaty, they point out, was a sacred covenant between a great power and a newly evangelised race. "You taught us to look up to heaven and pray, and while we were looking up, you stole the land from under us," one great Maori said in the 1890s. It was an indictment that has yet to be answered.
But there is another danger, that the white consensus that justice must be done to the Maori will collapse. No wonder an angry Prime Minister said, after cancelling a meeting with Maori leaders, that, as things stood, "the country could not live together in peace".