Contest and co-operation in a local commemoration of nation: New Zealand’s Waitangi Day

Patrick McAllister

Patrick McAllister

Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of Canterbury, Christchurch


New Zealand's national day, Waitangi Day, is commemorated on 6 February each year at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, where the Treaty was signed in 1840.  The commemoration provides an occasion for the Treaty partners to come together to reaffirm their commitment to the Treaty and to their common citizenship. However, almost every year  the day is marked by controversy and contest, as Maori take the opportunity  to protest at the Crown’s failure to live up to its Treaty obligations while others assert claims to Maori sovereignty.  In this sense the Treaty remains controversial, not yet settled, a document that is continually negotiated and in process (McAllister 2007).

By contrast, an annual local commemoration of the Treaty on the South Island, at Okains Bay near Christchurch, appears to proceed in an uncontroversial and harmonious manner, and to be marked by unity, cooperation and equality between Maori and Pakeha. Current Treaty issues are seldom mentioned there and the organisers try to keep the event ‘non-political’. On closer examination, however, this event is marked by a variety of historical and contemporary challenges. This article explores the nature of this commemoration and its implications for those involved, and examines some of the tensions, negotiations and compromises that surround it.

Okains Bay

Okains Bay is a rural settlement of around 30 families (almost all Pakeha) some 90 km from Christchurch on Banks Peninsula. Waitangi Day is commemorated there annually   in a series of activities that take place in and around the local Museum, called the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum. The event mirrors the national commemoration in a number of ways. There is a flag-raising, with the navy in attendance, and a formal hui (gathering) at which the governor-general’s representative, other dignitaries and visitors are welcomed.  The thousands of people who attend, including tourists, pay an entrance fee to the Museum. They observe the formalities at the hui then amble around the Museum grounds viewing the displays. Later they participate in a variety of ‘family fun’ activities on the grounds adjoining the museum. Food is provided by means of a large hangi as well as by a variety of other vendors.

But this similarity to the national Waitangi Day event masks a number of important  differences. One of these lies in the role of the Museum as co-ordinating body. The Museum was founded by a local Pakeha farmer, Murray Thacker, a dynamic and controversial figure whose ancestors came to Okains in 1856. Murray developed a passion for Maori history and culture (and for collecting) as a boy, and later excavated local Maori sites. He also acquired collections from others and repatriated important artefacts from overseas. By the early 1960s he had built up a large collection of Maori as well as 'colonial' artefacts - old farm machinery and suchlike - reflecting the history of  settlement on the Peninsula. 

In 1968, to house his collection, Murray bought the Bay’s cheese factory which had ceased operations and turned it into a museum, which was established as a Public Trust in 1977. The Board of Trustees includes a representative from the Ngai Tahu tribal council, Te Runanga o te Ngai Tahu (TRONT).   One of its runanga, Koukourarata (Port Levy), is also represented on the Museum Board. In 1976 Murray, in collaboration with senior members of Ngai Tahu, decided to hold a Waitangi Day commemoration at the Museum and the 6 February has been marked in this way every year since then.

A bi-cultural agenda

This decision was motivated by a number of things. The Museum policy, manifested in its name, its organisation, and in its displays, is explicitly bi-cultural. Apart from the Maori artefacts and Maori buildings (a store house and a meeting house)  there are a variety of antique buildings and artefacts associated with European settlement – a blacksmith’s shop, a pioneer cottage, and so on. The message conveyed by “the politics of exhibiting” here (McLean 2008: 286) is that both Maori and Pakeha have longstanding ties to the land, that they had similar concerns, such as subsistence and shelter, and that they interacted in a variety of ways. The Museum displays thus presents a picture of the imagined community and its history that is also constructed and reinforced every Waitangi Day.

Members of the Koukourarata runanga and other Ngai Tahu share responsibility with the Museum for the organisation of the day, and in particular for the formalities of the hui and powhiri (formal welcome) and the preparation of the hangi. The programme that they design affirms the significance of the Treaty as the nation’s founding document in which Maori and Pakeha have an equal partnership.

People and places

It is not clear where the name Okains originates from, but the Maori name for the area, Kawatea, dates back to the late 1600s and is associated with the origins on Ngai Tahu; it is also the name of a small bay (called Little Okains by Pakeha) at which Maori settlers to the area arrived from the Eastern North Island, led by the warrior, Moki, and who later absorbed the existing inhabitants.  Due to internecine warfare and then raiders from the North, Ngai Tahu sub-tribes on the Peninsula were decimated in the 1820s and 30s, and the Kawatea/Okains area was probably unoccupied when the Treaty was signed in 1840.  The main Ngai Tahu settlement on Banks Peninsula at the time was at Koukourarata. Nevertheless Okains was an important mahinga kai (food gathering place) and probably hosted temporary, seasonal camps. It was (and is) associated with Koukourarata because if falls within its general territorial area (rohe).  But Koukourarata people have close kinship ties with other local runanga, so Okains is also part of the traditional territory of Ngai Tahu as a whole.

After colonisation in the 1840s, Maori on the peninsula lost most of their land when Commissioner Mantell, acting under instructions from Governor George Grey, to “carry things with a high hand”,  forcibly purchased it for the Crown, and allowed Maori three small reserves, including 300 hectares at Port Levy (Koukourarata) (Evison 1988).  Mantell’s purchase was known as the Koukourarata block, and it was handed to the Canterbury Association to sell off to white settlers. The first of these bought land in 1850, and others followed throughout the 1850s and 60s (Hay 1990, Okains Bay 1997).  Murray Thacker’s ancestor (his FFFF), J E E J Thacker arrived in Okains in1856 and became a large landowner and timber merchant, and his sons and grandsons became successful farmers. Since the 1970s, however, the area has been experiencing a population decline due to various factors, much to the concern of remaining residents, whose numbers have dwindled to about 13000. 

This background illustrates why people from both Okains and Koukourarata (and Ngai Tahu more generally) have an interest in the area.  Okains residents have a strong attachment to the land and wish to secure the future of the Bay as a viable rural community through encouraging tourism and other developments. This concern is shared by former residents, and by kin and other close associates of present residents, who make up part of the large volunteer workforce required to stage the various events that make up Waitangi Day every year. From the Museum’s point of view, Waitangi Day is also important as a revenue earner.

While the museum may well be, for some, “a potent force for engendering respect for difference in identities” (McLean 2008: 283) for others it is not. Among the factors motivating Pakeha participants in Waitangi Day at Okains (apart from the benefits it brings to the Bay) is a basic sympathy towards the Maori cause, a recognition that Maori were deprived of their rights in the Bay, and a desire to restore a Maori presence there. Some Okains Pakeha residents do not share this stance, stay well away on Waitangi Day, and prefer not to associate with the Museum. Negotiations with members of this group have to be conducted on certain issues affecting the Museum and its relationship with Maori (see below). 

Among Maori, too, there are differences of opinion. Although some senior members of Ngai Tahu played a vital role in the initiation of a Waitangi Day event at Okains, there is  ambivalence and scepticism within the tribe, and many do not participate. Ngai Tahu as a corporation and legal entity does not officially support it, though certain prominent members of the tribe (as well as those from Koukourarata) continue to play a leading role on the day.  And in the 1980s, when there was something of a stand-off between Ngai Tahu and the Crown on the question of the Treaty claim settlement, there were vigorous protests against the Waitangi Day event at Okains by both Maori and other activists. Some Ngai Tahu do not attend because they associate the Okains event with Pakeha or Museum interests. Some are ambivalent about the morality of the Museum’s ‘ownership’ of Maori artefacts (taonga). Others feel that the entrance fee prevents it from being a fully public commemoration, and the fact that this fee accrues to the Museum along with the takings from the sale of hangi meals  (prepared, cooked and distributed by Koukourarata people) indicates to them that it is designed with the financial welfare of the Museum in mind.  Some stay away because they feel they cannot support a show of partnership and equality when there are still so many Treaty issues outstanding, and while Maori are still in a socially disadvantaged position nationally.  Another probable reason is that as a tribe, Ngai Tahu has some internal divisions that have historical roots (Evison 1993), and there are tensions between Koukourarata and other runanga that may be traced to this. The tribe as a whole also has its own annual commemoration of the Treaty, which some feel should have priority. This rotates among three sites, the closest to Okains being at Onuku on the opposite side of Banks Peninsula. When it takes place at Onuku, Koukourarata people first go to Okains and on to Onuku later. 

However, Koukourarata Maori and Okains Pakeha have a number of things in common which account, I think, for their common participation in Waitangi Day. As indicated above, their histories are intertwined, and both are settlers to the area, though 250 years apart. Both have a strong attachment to Okains as a place associated with their ancestors, and to the Peninsula in general.  In the Maori case, too, attachment to place is inseparable from genealogical connection.  Maori express this in saying “I whakapapa to Koukourarata”, meaning “I have an ancestral/ genealogical connection to Koukourarata”.   To Maori, the ancestors are extremely important and influential in their lives. The link to the land is a spiritual link, and this is expressed in relation to Koukourarata as ancestral home. The association with place is extremely strong and is tied up with genealogy and hapu (sub-tribal) identity. Koukourarata, in the words of a PhD graduate who was associated with it, “is a major factor in the formation and retention of our identity”, our “central reality” (Ramsden 2002). And because Okains is part of Koukourarata’s area, they have an ancestral connection to it as well.  This joint interest in and ties to place, and the Koukourarata claim to Okains land, are acted out through the hui on Waitangi Day.

But it was not always like this. Since the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal and the process of Treaty claims in the late 1970s, together with the formalisation of Maori groups in terms of Tribal councils, identification between particular hapu and iwi groups and specific areas of land has grown, and membership of runanga has become important, strengthening ties between people associated with the same ancestral area and ties between people and land. Koukourarata people speak of this process as one of  “coming home”.

Under the settlement between Ngai Tahu and the Crown in 1998, in terms of the Treaty, areas of land on the South Island were returned to the tribe and an amount of $170 million agreed on as compensation for losses resulting from Treaty breaches. Although only a small amount of Crown land in Okains was returned to Maori ownership (the 37.5 acre public Reserve along the river banks and at the beach) this was enough to make explicit the historical claim that Koukourarata has to the Bay. The continued involvement of  Koukourarata people with the Waitangi Day commemoration is an annual reminder that this is part of their rohe (territory),  and that they are in the process, as they put it, of re-establishing their mana (authority, power, status) in the Bay. Perhaps an additional factor is that part of the Reserve near the beach is leased out as a popular camping area, bringing in considerable revenue to the leaseholder. This is an arrangement that the runanga may have a claim to in the future, so it is as well to keep the fire (ahi ka) burning in the Bay, as they say. Prior to the Ngai Tahu settlement, Koukourarata runanga’s support for the Okains Bay Waitangi Day event was not very strong.

In fact, under the settlement with Ngai Tahu the Crown land returned to Maori ownership was administered by the local authority, Banks Peninsula District Council, which fulfilled this function through the Okains Bay Reserve Board,  which included  some who were not sympathetic to the Maori or Museum causes. Lacking any real voice on the Reserve Board (although they have a representative on it), the Koukourarata tie to Okains is acted out on Waitangi Day through their organisation and control of the hui. The people of Koukourarata are associated with the Tutehuarewa marae, their home marae, but they also have turangawaewae (standing place/rights) at other peninsula marae to which they are linked genealogically. So with the constitution of a marae in the museum grounds on Waitangi Day, they have a strong claim to turangawaewae there; they are tangata whenua there, the original inhabitants. On Waitangi Day they claim this right and display it publicly, while at the same time reinforcing the relationship with their Treaty partners in the interests of local and national unity.

On Waitangi Day at Okain’s, Ngai Tahu elders (kaumatua) occupy the marae (including the front row of seats on the pae pae) together with representatives of the Museum and Okains Bay.  The hui, taking the form of a ritual of encounter with all its elements (see Salmond 1989) involves the welcoming of visitors (manuhiri), including the Governor General’s representative, onto the marae by the hosts – constituted as a group by both Maori and Pakeha.  A challenge (wero) is provided by ‘warriors’ from the Koukourarata cultural group, who also perform haka  to welcome the visitors. Speeches by Maori elders are followed by supporting songs (waita) and haka from their cultural group, followed by speeches by the governor-general’s representative and the local mayors, who thus help to authorise the event, with supporting songs provided by Pakeha. So the structure of the meeting echoes the structure of the Museum and its message and helps to constitute both in bi-cultural terms.   

These events and their recent historical context have to some extent transformed both Okains and Koukourarata, linked them to each other and also to the national discourse around the Treaty, constructing a new narrative of place. Staging a Waitangi Day event at the Museum in collaboration with Ngai Tahu changed the nature of Okains as a place by introducing a bicultural national discourse into a local settler space, redefining it and giving it a new identity. The Ngai Tahu settlement confirmed this change and gave it a legal status, transforming the experience of place for both locals and outsiders. Waitangi Day at Okains has also helped to provide Koukourarata people with a sense of identity and community and to reinforce their links with each other.  Many of those who participate at Okains as tangata whenua are kin. The cultural group that provides the warriors for the wero and the songs and dances that provide support for the speakers is from Koukourarata.  I was told by a senior member of the Koukouratata runanga that most of its members are kin, and that the occasion afforded by Waitangi Day at Okains was one of the things keeping the cultural group active.

This construction of place and of the nature of the bi-cultural relationship to which it is linked is continuously evolving. The Museum Board strives to have something new on show each Waitangi Day, as a mark of progress and development, at which this narrative is repeated and extended. In 2007 this was an event rather than a new display or building,   one that demonstrates how the meaning of Okains as a place and its relationship with Ngai Tahu is constantly being transformed through the activities associated with Waitangi Day, and how this meaning is continually authorised in various ways. On this occasion Murray Thacker formally announced that part of his farm, 20 ha of beachfront at Kawatea Bay and adjoining bush, was being placed under a covenant in order to preserve it in perpetuity in the interests of Okains Bay, Ngai Tahu and the nation. The covenant would be signed that day. The announcement was made at the hui, which was attended by Sir Brian Lochore, former All Black captain and Chair of the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, which helps landowners to establish such covenants, as well as by Mark Solomon, kaiwhakahaere (elected chairman) of TRONT , who signed the covenant on behalf of the tribe. The significance of this site lies in its association with the origins of Ngai Tahu (see above).  

 Some tensions and ambiguities

As indicated earlier, however, certain tensions and ambiguities remain. One illustration of these is in the two large Maori war canoes (waka) which the Museum houses, which are launched each Waitangi Day (weather and tides permitting) and paddled up the river watched by crowds of spectators. The larger of the two is identified as the Ngai Tahu waka - its name is Kotuku Mairangi.  It was built in the late 1980s by senior Ngai Tahu, working on the project at Okains Bay. Murray provided the totara log, accommodated them and assisted them, but there was a problem with it once completed;  it was unstable and capsized easily. Murray then took on the onerous task of making it seaworthy, cut it in half lengthways, and built in an additional 60 cm wide strip into its 19 metre length, increasing its overall width to 1.5 meters, a mammoth undertaking that took him nine years. It was then formally handed over to TRONT. However, by agreement it is kept under shelter and maintained at the Museum, although it is Murray in his personal capacity who is responsible for it, not the Museum Board. It is available for use by Ngai Tahu runanga for ceremonial or other occasions, by arrangement with Murray, but it has to be at Okains on Waitangi Day. So although the waka is seen as the tribe’s cultural property, it is subject to an agreement that means that it is housed at Okains (in the Museum) and used there on Waitangi Day. Interestingly, the uncertainty and confusion that surrounds this arrangement helps to keep the link between the Museum and Ngai Tahu alive and is in keeping with the nature of the Treaty itself as an ongoing  process of negotiation (McAllister 2007).

The uncertain status of the Ngai Tahu waka was also manifested in the question of a new shed planned to house it. In 2002 the Museum proposed that a shed be constructed on the Reserve near the river for ease of launching the two waka. The Koukourarata runanga agreed. This was followed by a series of negotiations between the Museum, the Reserve Board, TRONT and the runanga that went on for a number of years,  through which certain differences became apparent. Discussions included the question of where exactly and by whom the shed should be built, how it should be designed and, most importantly, who would pay for it. Some on the Museum Board felt that it should be financed by Ngai Tahu because if the Museum raised the money for it there would be ambiguity over who owned the shed, since it was on Ngai Tahu land.  At different times in this drawn out process it seemed that some funding would be available from Ngai Tahu and/or the Koukourarata runanga. At one point it was said that Ngai Tahu had made a substantial amount available but that it had not been uplifted so the offer had lapsed. In the end  Koukourarata was able to make some money available for the shed but the bulk of the funding came from the Museum itself, with materials supplied by Murray and labour contributed by people connected to the Museum. Some on the Museum Board were disappointed that more funds had not been forthcoming from the tribe, since it indicated a reluctance on the part of Maori to become fully involved. 

Although the proposed waka shed site was on Ngai Tahu land, the Okains Bay Reserve at the time was administered by a largely conservative Reserve Board, which was concerned particularly with the issue of where exactly the shed should be placed. To some on the Board the shed was going to be too close to the Okains Bay Community Hall, also situated on the Reserve. It was also seen as being too big, detracting from the overall appearance of the area. It took a long time and a number of meetings before the Reserve Board agreed to the design and location of the shed. Here the existing divisions between pro-Museum people and others in the local community were again apparent.

Indirectly connected with this was also another matter – the placement of a new footbridge across the river, funding for which had been secured by the Okains Bay River Enhancement Committee.  This committee was charged with the conservation and rehabilitation of the river frontage at Okains, which was seen as a potential tourist draw-card as well as an important area for Waitangi Day events. An old footbridge across the river at the point where the waka were normally berthed after their trip up the river on Waitangi Day, was rickety and dangerous, and it impeded the movement and use of the waka at that point. The construction of the new bridge required the permission of the Reserve Board, and it was reluctant to grant it, arguing that the bridge should be built in the same position as the older one, while the Enhancement Committee (on which the Museum had a representative) wanted to build it further inland, where it would be less costly (because of a shortened span) and out of the way of the waka on Waitangi Day. The stand-off was finally resolved only by calling a public meeting under the auspices of the Banks Peninsula District Council, at which a vote was taken indicating that the majority favoured the upper, cheaper site, away from the proposed waka shed. 


What the tensions and divergences of opinion concerning issues such as the Ngai Tahu waka, the shed and the bridge indicate is not that there are intractable conflicts and differences between the two parties that organise and participate in Waitangi Day each year, but rather that Maori and Pakeha are able to continue to collaborate in this way despite the occasional problems that arise, and that most of these ultimately get solved in one way or another. And in this respect, although Waitangi Day at Okains does not suffer from the annual protests and political tensions that are expressed at Waitangi itself, the process of the on going and successful co-operation nevertheless mirrors the nature of the relationship between Maori and Pakeha at the national level, and the nature of the Treaty itself which, as I have argued elsewhere (McAllister 2007), is not a final agreement but a basis for continuing interaction and compromise.


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Evison, H. (1993) Te Wai Pounamu, the Greenstone Island: A History of the Soutehrn Maori during the European Colonisation of New Zealand. New Zealand. Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board. Te Runanganui o Tahu.

Hay, R B (1990) Sense of place: cross cultural perspectives from Banks Peninsula, New Zealand. Unpublished PhD thesis. Christchurch: University of Canterbury, Dept of Geography. 

McAllister, P. A. (2007) “Waitangi Day - An annual enactment of the Treaty?” SITES: New Series, vol 4, no 2, 2007.1-26.

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Okains Bay  (1997). Okains Bay School: 125th Anniversary 1997. 

Salmond, A. (1989)  “Rituals of encounter among the Maori.” In Bauman, R. and Sherzer, J. (Eds.) Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press.