The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is quiet first thing in the morning, though that will soon change as the cruise ship passengers arrive for their tours. The cafe is equally quiet when Ngati Kawa Taituha, Chairman of the Waitangi Marae, comes in to join me. Together, Maori New Zealander and Jewish American, we sit down to talk about the Maori people and their history, as well as this beautiful area.
The Royal Tour: We are at the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds. What does this place mean to you and to your people?
Ngati Kawa Taituha: This place has got a long history. We can trace back to our Polynesian roots, more than a thousand years ago, navigators who sailed the Pacific seas. This is where they landed and first settled, shaping the land and spreading over all of what is now New Zealand. We have had a connection to this land and this place ever since.
TRT: And in 1840, this was the site of the treaty between the British crown and the Maori people, right?
NKT: Yes. In that time since coming here, Maori had established our own way of life, customs, traditions, and the rest. But in the 1700s, we had our first contact with the Europeans, starting right here in Bay of Islands, mostly because of Captain Cook, who went around the entire country, calling this bay the most beautiful place on Earth, complete with a safe anchorage. So this became New Zealand’s largest trading center, because of that. British traders came here to trade, and Maori supplied many of the colonies in the area. The Maori were very proactive, and this site is actually the place where, five years before the Treaty, we signed the Declaration of Independence, which was witnessed by the British.
TRT: And that was to prevent the French from coming in?
NKT: Correct, that was part of what sparked it. The British were fearful that the French would claim the area, and so encouraged Maori leaders to come together to sign this declaration.
TRT: So here we are in 2018, nearly 200 years after the Treaty was signed. Why is this site still important to the Maori people as more than just a historic place?
NKT: The Treaty is a huge part of our narrative as Maori in modern society. The ancestors’ intention in signing the Treaty was to protect our property, and also to partner with Britain to enforce a lawful society. The Treaty represents, as an elder told me once, a sort of marriage. We both said our vows, and we’ve had ups and downs, but we’ve worked hard at it. There have been some breakdowns, but for us, the Treaty isn’t just a document, it’s a statement of the protection of Maori rights, and this place is the embodiment of those rights.
TRT: That makes sense. Today, in modern New Zealand society, do Maori feel they are equal citizens? Or is there discrimination?
NKT: Back in my grandparents’ generation, it was quite hard. There were government policies that took away their right to go to school and to speak the Maori language. It was quite harsh. There were public strappings even for speaking Maori. So it has certainly been a challenge for people to be Maori in this European world at times. But a lot of things have happened since then, and we Maori have banded together to stand up for ourselves. We’ve used whatever channels we can find to make our point, and demand the equality promised in the Treaty. There was a huge land march, for instance, in 1975 that led to the implementation of the Waitangi Tribunal, so we have a place to go now for grievances, both with New Zealand and the British crown.
TRT: And there have even been official apologies from the crown, I am told?
NKT: Yes. In fact, in most settlements, the crown has apologized for injustices experienced by the Maori. That’s such an important part of the healing, just acknowledging that things haven’t been as promised. Part of the settlement in many cases has also been monetary compensation from the crown for loss of land and resources. Unfortunately, that compensation has only been about 1% of the true value of the loss, but it is something. One tribe is really leading by example, though. They got NZ$170 million, and invested it into becoming one of the biggest players in the tourism industry down south, and they have turned it into a NZ$1 billion trust now, to provide scholarships, medical care, and other infrastructure to their people. And there are many other tribes not far behind them.
TRT: So you are optimistic about the future?
NKT: Yes, definitely. We are carving our own path. That’s the Maori way of doing things. You don’t depend on others to sustain your tribe. The Maori economy is growing and we have a lot more opportunities for our people than before. The old discrimination is outdated and not relevant in today’s New Zealand. We have equal opportunity and a lot of potential in front of us. It will take work to get us there, and to completely move past the issues this partnership has had. We will have to review if this is a partnership that is completely serving our needs. But I am confident that we will find a better way to do things that will get us there.
TRT: One of the hardest things in a modern society is keeping traditions alive. The Maori have some incredible ones, like wood carving. How do you make young people want to keep those going in the digital age?
NKT: We have gone through a few phases. Two hundred years ago, we were strong in all of our traditions. Now we are living in a modern world, and we are looking at how to use the modern technologies to assist in keeping old traditions alive. We don’t want to lose them, but we also know we have a lot to compete with. One of the things I am doing personally is giving one hour tours here in the Treaty Grounds, so it is a basic overview, which will hopefully give some of these young people the interest in coming back to learn more, to learn why we have these traditions, to get them to sit with their elders. The elders have so much knowledge to pass along, and not just stuff on the surface. We are talking spiritual knowledge and more. And they are waiting for young people to come to them. But for those who don’t have the time to do that, we are creating shortcuts. We are working on YouTube videos, and other digital programming for those who don’t have the time to sit down with the elders between work and family and such. So there are advantages to having these digital programs that will come to them in a short span at their own pace.
TRT: I look forward to seeing that!
NKT: So do we! There are a lot of young people who are so passionate about the culture today. They are carrying the responsibilities of moving our culture forward. But for those who aren’t yet comfortable, we need to reach them somehow.
TRT: Since we are a travel blog, I feel I should ask you something more about travel. People who come to New Zealand visit Auckland and Wellington, they see the beauty of the South Island, they maybe do a Lord of the Rings tour. Not as many people come to the Northland. This is your ancestral homeland. Why should people visit?
NKT: We are quite blessed in New Zealand to have so many beautiful places, but for me, Bay of Islands is the most beautiful. But even more than the scenery, it is about the culture here. This is where the Maori and the Europeans first met, so there is history here you won’t find anywhere else. The ideal would be to come here to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds first, to get an understanding of the way this country was formed and then to visit Auckland and the rest of the country. Go to a cultural performance to understand the Maori people, and then you will have a better understanding when you travel the rest of the country. That’s how I visit other countries. I want to know where the place came from, what the past was like, and then to use that to see where it is going.
TRT: I agree with that approach wholeheartedly!
NKT: If any of your readers out there want to truly have that experience here in New Zealand, we would be glad to welcome them here in Bay of Islands! We have even won national awards for our hospitality and cultural experiences!!
TRT: I am sure many of them will. Thank you so much for sitting down and speaking today about such important subjects.