Treaty gala leaves Maoris and whites worlds apart

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The Independent Online


New Zealand's Waitangi Day, which marks the founding treaty between the Crown and the Maori people, ended last year in a welter of insults and saliva, with the Governor-General spat upon, the flag trampled, the diplomatic corps upbraided, while the nation's top Maori civil servant engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a leading Maori nationalist.

Yesterday's celebration - keenly awaited in a country which now looks to race relations for its main source of political excitement - was almost as dramatic. But this time it was theatre of sublime disengagement.

The official ceremony was held behind locked gates in the garden of Government House in Wellington, with only a handful of arrests being made outside the fence. At Waitangi itself, where the treaty was signed in 1840, a mostly Maori gathering was convened. Violence flared briefly when hundreds of Maori activists were stopped by police from crossing a bridge leading to the site of the signing. About 50 were reported to have swum across the river and there were three arrests.

It is difficult to think of a parallel elsewhere in the world where a solemn covenant is commemorated by both parties at different ends of the country because of bad feeling between the signatories. But there has always been something odd about New Zealand's attachment to a treaty that was broken as soon and as thoroughly as possible, with the Crown making war on, and seizing millions of acres from, a people it had pledged to treat as British subjects.

The immediate cause for violent Maori protest in recent years has been the government's attempts - seen as niggardly and patronising - to make reparations for the land seizures. But a deeper problem has emerged. In the Maori text of the 1840 document, Britain promised to protect Maori political sovereignty. But the English textpledged far less. In effect, two incompatible treaties were signed on 6 February, 1840. The land grievances may be solved in time: the sovereignty issue is much thornier.

The sight of marquees on a windy lawn in Wellington, while nationalist flags flew in the far north showed how far political thinking of Maori and Pakeha (Europeans) have diverged at a social level as well. The races seem set to remain apart. On Wellington's docks yesterday, a solidly white queue snaked towards a replica of Captain Cook's bark Endeavour, which is visiting the country. Nearby, a mostly Maori crowd (many of whom regard the Endeavour's arrival in 1769 as the beginning of their woes) spent their public holiday at a concert, drawn there by Maori bands including the rap group Upper Hutt Posse. Sample lyrics: "Fuck New Zealand, ya call me a Kiwi, Aotearoa is the name of the country."

Meanwhile in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, the only victim of violence turned out to be a tree, a landmark on the summit of one of the city's volcanic cones. This otherwise blameless Scots pine has come in Maori minds to represent "the wairua [spirit] of colonialism" since it was planted to replace a native Totara pine cut down by drunken British sailors at the turn of the century. Early yesterday, a Maori armed with a spear was intercepted by security men near the tree. He told them he was a medicine man, thrust the spear into the tree trunk, then ran off into the dark. His whereabouts, like the future of race relations in New Zealand, is unknown.