[We] acknowledge New Zealand as a Sovereign and independent State… the admission of their rights… is binding on the faith of the British Crown. The Queen… disclaims… every pretention to… govern the Islands of New Zealand… unless the free and intelligent consent of the Natives… shall first be obtained.

This excerpt from the instructions of the British Colonial Secretary Lord Normanby to Captain William Hobson in 1839 framed the Waitangi Treaty of 1840, and sits in the museum at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in Bay of Islands, New Zealand today. It stands in stark contrast to the way indigenous populations were treated in much of the world, and even in contrast to the way the Māori were approached for more than 100 years.

So who are the Māori, what is their story, why did things turn out differently for them, and what lessons can we learn from Waitangi?

Nearly 1,000 years ago, the ancient Polynesian peoples were masters of the eastern Pacific Ocean, sailing between islands and land masses and settling them. From Hawaii to Australia to, as recent studies are discovering, even as far as possibly Taiwan, these ancient navigators spread over the entire region, including New Zealand. There, in relative isolation, the population settled the area, becoming what we now call the Māori people.

The large canoe on the left holds more than 100 people, and can do up to 13 knots through open seas. The sophistication in design and construction was well ahead of similar vessels designed elsewhere in the world.

The Māori organized into tribes, called iwi, and cultivated crops, fished, and hunted the wild birds that are common in New Zealand. They developed sophisticated arts and culture – especially masterful wood carving, and as with other Polynesian cultures, intricate dances. They also were masters at war, both in fighting each other, and as seen in their raids on other islands – perhaps most famously the Chatham Islands where they slaughtered the entire Moriori population living there.

While Abel Tasman (of the Tasman Sea) arrived in New Zealand in 1642, it is the mapping of the islands by Captain James Cook, who first visited in 1769, that really opened the area to Europeans seeking a new life in a far away land. By 1830, this population was estimated to be as high as 2,000. However, unlike in other places where European settlers brought their own ways with them, the majority of these lived with the Māori, and were known as Pākehā.

The first couple of decades had ups and downs for the Māori in their dealings with Europeans. On the one hand, Thomas Kendall created the first written form of the Māori language (using English characters) in 1815. On the other, acquisition of muskets through trade led to increased violence between the tribes, and a drop of 20-40% in population.

In 1835, fear of French Catholic expansion in the region caused the British and their Anglican missionaries in New Zealand to encourage the Māori to author a Declaration of Independence, and the groundwork was then laid for the admittance of New Zealand into the British Empire through the Waitangi Treaty of 1840.

The spot where the Treaty signing took place. The mast is topped by the modern New Zealand flag, with the British and Māori New Zealand flags halfway up.

The Treaty Grounds stand today as a testament to this unique moment in history: the negotiation of a Treaty, on equal footing, between the British Crown and approximately 500 Māori chiefs, one that promised to respect the historical property rights of the Māori in New Zealand. A tour of the grounds and museum there will enlighten visitors to both the Treaty itself, as well as the history leading to it, and subsequent evolution in European-Māori relations.

In Part 2, we will talk about the Māori post-Treaty, exploring their struggles and the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal.

Note: Waitangi Marae Chairman Ngati Kawa Taituha contributed greatly to this article. Much is owed to him for his knowledge and assistance in sitting down with me.

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