The Treaty in practice

Page 5 – Growing interest in the Treaty

The early 20th century saw new approaches to dealing with Māori grievances and a renewed interest in the Treaty as the nation's founding document. In 1932 Governor-General Lord Bledisloe and his wife gifted the Treaty grounds to the nation. It was hoped that the site would commemorate the unique relationship between Māori and the Crown. Two years later, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty was attended by up to 10,000 Māori. This was the first of many mass gatherings at Waitangi on 6 February each year. The economic situation of Māori was improving as well, especially with the changes in welfare from the mid-1930s.

Addressing grievances

Government began to investigate some grievances in the early 1920s, including those relating to confiscations following the wars of the 1860s. Many of these were found to be valid although it was not until the 1940s that some settlements were arranged, based on modest annual payments to trust boards. A more positive future and improved relations with the Crown's representatives looked possible.

New Zealand was at war in 1940, but the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was a chance for the government to make a show of unity and national pride. A new whare runanga opened at the upper marae on the Treaty grounds, its carving and construction having been supervised by Apirana Ngata. Newspapers highlighted the Treaty's central place in New Zealand history as the founding document of the nation.

Ngata knew that the government had to settle old grievances so that Māori 'could close their eyes to the past'. The Treaty might have been of growing historical significance to some Pākehā, but the gap between the sentiments expressed in it and the actual experience of it by Māori remained a sore point for some Māori leaders.

Towards equality

The economic circumstances of most Māori was improving from the late 1930s. T.W. Ratana, an influential Māori prophet appealing directly to the morehu (the poor and dispossessed) embarked on a significant political campaign from 1928. In alliance with the first Labour government after 1935, he was able to achieve some significant gains for Māori under the new welfare state.

During the Second World War the Maori War Effort Organisation mobilised more than 27,000 Māori men and women – nearly a third of the Māori population. This was a beacon of autonomy for Māori, run by and for the people. Māori soldiers returning after the First World War had protested that they did not receive the assistance available to their Pākehā comrades, although this may have been informal rather than official policy. There was no outright discrimination against Māori returned servicemen following the Second World War.

Important symbolic changes occurred. In 1947 the term 'Native' was officially replaced by 'Maori' in government business. The Native Affairs Department became the Department of Maori Affairs, and in 1948 Tipi Ropiha became the first Māori to head the organisation.

Some Māori were disappointed that the brief autonomy they enjoyed in wartime did not last. Many Māori wanted to keep the Maori War Effort Organisation because they liked its by Māori, for Māori aspects. Instead, the central government agency for dealing with Māori issues was revamped. Under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945, the tribal and executive committees that operated during the war came into a central structure and much independence was lost.