Protest, space, and Waitangi Day

The 6th of February is New Zealand’s annual day of cultural performance par excellence. It is not a remembrance and reflection of what is undoubtedly this country’s most important historical moment, but instead an enactment of contemporary understandings of the Treaty of Waitangi by both Maori and the Crown. Such cultural performances are symbolically rich stories, with the roles of the state and Maori told and expressed in a variety of ways.

Architecturally this performance is played out at, and between, Te Tii marae and the Treaty grounds at Waitangi. The partnership between Maori and the Crown is spatially expressed each year by symbolically important rituals being conducted and protocols observed at each specific site. People gather, welcomes occur, addresses are given, entertainment provided, bridges crossed, debates take place, demands are made, and protests held. The actions of the various parties are frequently beamed into households by the television networks and reported in the national newspapers, leading to a national construction of space that represents current perceptions of cultural and race relations. As Patrick McAllister states, the “spatial dimensions of the commemoration of the Treaty perform a significant meta-communicative function, for it shows that the ‘landscape of nationhood’ is symbolically bifurcated.”

Sue Abel’s analysis shows that media coverage of Waitangi Day implicitly pushes the concept of national unity (‘we are all one people’, ‘we are all New Zealanders’) and effectively marginalised and contained dissent by, for example, positioning protest action as a threat to the national interest (‘celebrations turned nasty’, ‘protesters taunted police lines’). This fits well with McAllister’s assertion that the state “creates what it wants to present as a mirror image of an ideal society” – in this case a national day that emphasises bicultural unity. But Abel’s analysis suggests that it is better to talk of a trifurcation of space at Waitangi, rather than McAllister’s bifurcation – with the participants being the state, Ngapuhi elders and those gathered at Te Tii marae, and protesters.

Wild Maori do not have a place in the geography of Waitangi. They must either negotiate a position alongside the state in the Treaty Grounds, with tame Maori at Te Tii, or be part of the general public outside either of these places. The media will often place significant focus on wild Maori marching in from other areas, heightening the emphasis that they are externals to proceedings. Access via non-controlled entry points is also often associated with wild Maori – for example, trying to gain access to the Treaty Grounds through the surrounding bush or by climbing trees.

Reporting of demonstration action reinforced the occupation of in-between space by wild Maori. Protesters and their actions are almost always placed outside the Treaty Grounds and Te Tii marae – in 1980 they established a picket line at the front gate to Te Tii, and in 1982 police formed a line some 40 metres from the entrance to the Treaty Grounds to keep protesters at bay. Reporting of 1982 demonstrations also emphasised efforts by protesters to gain access to the Treaty Grounds through the bush reserve, another in-between space. Additional police had to be brought out from the Treaty Grounds to deal with “violent clashes” with protesters, making it clear that these took place outside the well-controlled state space, thereby ensuring official proceedings “went smoothly” and “were a scene of peaceful and colourful tranquillity.”

The government responded by denying access to the Treaty grounds, then retreating from Waitangi celebrations, and then eventually returning by the end of the decade. Waitangi as space became a pawn in a political contest, and its place in the national psyche moved with each action and counter-action. Official ceremonies were relocated to Wellington in an attempt to ease tensions around Treaty issues – the need for such physical relocation was testimony to how fractured space had become at Waitangi. Arguably, the relocation indicated that bicultural unity as the concept behind New Zealand’s national day was too bold – instead the symbolism shifted to nationwide celebrations of New Zealand.

The state did not return official ceremonies to Waitangi until 1990, when the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty was commemorated. Nearly twenty years after this, protest remains a prominent part of Waitangi Day proceedings, as does an awareness of its spatial representation.

NB.  This is a summary of an address prepared for the Symposium on New Zealand Architecture in the 1980s on 4th December 2009 at Victoria University of Wellington (see here).


Abel, Sue, Shaping the News. Waitangi Day on Television, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1997.

McAllister, Patrick, “Waitangi Day: An Annual Enactment of the Treaty?”, pp 155-180 in SITES: Journal of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies of the Pacific Region, 4(2), 2007.

Walker, Ranginui, Ka Whawai Tonu Matou. Struggle Without End, Penguin, Auckland, 2004.


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