Sir Apirana Ngata has a pre-eminent place in the pantheon of Māori luminaries. He is widely regarded as a visionary leader who, in an illustrious political career, championed biculturalism when assimilationist policies were the norm. He energetically promoted Māori language and culture, and land reform. He was an MP for nearly 40 years, and held MA and LLB degrees. He was a Cabinet minister and served as Deputy Prime Minister.
His face graces our $50 note — put there, as it happens, by Don Brash when he was Governor of the Reserve Bank.
However, as soon as the topic of sovereignty under the Treaty of Waitangi crops up, Māori nationalists dismiss Ngata as a “man of his time” with old-fashioned views. The conversation turns awkward as they are obliged to explain how Māoridom’s favourite son has feet of clay given he maintained that rangatira handed full sovereignty to the Crown in 1840.
This dismissal comes despite the fact that Ngata’s law degree “included honours in constitutional history, something which gives his position on sovereignty and the Treaty even greater credence” — as Ewen McQueen notes in his book One Sun in the Sky.
What has brought the topic into public view is that the NZ Centre for Political Research — a public-policy think tank set up by former Act MP Muriel Newman in 2005 — last week republished Ngata’s explanation of the Treaty for general distribution. Ngata’s booklet was first published in 1922, in te reo, to explain Te Tiriti to Māori. In 1950 it was translated into English by M.R. Jones.
Dr Newman told The Platform that “around 1.1 million copies of his explanation of the original Māori version of the Treaty have been delivered to New Zealand homes as an insert in 52 newspapers around the country”.
Apart from a very brief introduction by Newman (of around 50 words), the remainder of the booklet is entirely Ngata’s own analysis. This hasn’t stopped her from being denounced on social media as “Māori bashing” in a bizarre case of attempting to shoot the messenger. Inevitably, the booklet has also been described as “misinformation”. That one of the Māori world’s greatest statesmen and most revered leaders is accused of such doctrinal error is extremely difficult to take seriously.
The most common reason for dismissing Ngata’s analysis was summed up by a commenter on X (formerly Twitter): “Apirana Ngata’s views on Te Tiriti belong to another era. We have moved on in our understanding. This is being used now by those with out-dated, dangerous views about Te Tiriti.”
Ngata — who was born in 1874 — published his booklet 82 years after the Treaty was signed. His work could be seen as a much more timely analysis than anyone commenting in 2024, but reaching such a conclusion seems to be challenging for some.
Writing for The Spinoff, Māori Treaty scholar and lawyer Carwyn Jones acknowledged Ngata as “an important figure and one of significant mana” while also arguing his views were moored in a particular time and are, after all, only one man’s opinions. As Jones put it: “Respected figure though [Ngata] is, he is only one person.”
This claim is beyond disingenuous. As McQueen notes: “Sir Apirana’s thinking [on sovereignty] aligned with that of Tāmati Wāka Nene, Rēnata Kawepō, Eruera Kahawai, Te Mātenga Taiaroa and so many other Māori leaders before him… These chiefs viewed the Treaty as establishing the sovereignty of the Crown over all New Zealanders.”
Ngata’s views were, in fact, “in good company”, McQueen says, and were the accepted interpretation by Māori for much longer than a hundred years after the Treaty was signed in 1840. And Ngata proclaimed exactly the same view of the cession of sovereignty at the Treaty Centennial celebrations in 1940.
Jones tries to buttress his Man Alone thesis with a sly comparison with the development of scientific theories: “All views must be understood in context. We wouldn’t rely on one single explanation of the environmental impacts of the use of fossil fuels from 100 years ago to inform our response to climate change.”
Historical and linguistic analysis are not sciences, and it is political purposes that have driven much of the revisionist explanations of the Treaty. As just one example, it has gone largely unremarked that “taonga” in Article Two has been translated in Ngata’s booklet as “possessions”. Furthermore, he specified examples of the material possessions he believed the Treaty was referring to — canoes, taiaha, greenstone patu, and kumara pits.
Now “taonga” is commonly translated as “treasures, or anything Māori prized”, including the non-material.
There is obviously a huge difference between the real-world implications of the two translations — and the range of possible Treaty claims to be made under the modern translation. These have included te reo, which the Crown is obliged to protect under the Treaty as a taonga. Māori have also claimed ownership rights to radio spectrum on the same basis.
It’s impossible, of course, not to notice that while activists are willing to reject Ngata’s views as dated they firmly reject the notion that the Treaty was a product of its time and therefore even more dated and perhaps irrelevant — given it was signed 184 years ago.
Ngata’s adamant assertion that Māori ceded sovereignty in Article One to the British Crown is particularly troublesome for those interpreting the Treaty as implying a 50:50 partnership between the Crown and iwi.
The notion of an equal partnership was, of course, the source and justification for much of the Ardern-Hipkins government’s extensive policy of co-governance, including in Three Waters and the revised Resource Management Act. Ngata’s interpretation is Kryptonite to the co-governance project.
Ngata also saw the government’s quelling of insurrection in the Waikato and Taranaki in the 1860s and subsequent confiscations of land as not only justifiable but also a consequence well understood by Māori:
“Some have said that these confiscations were wrong and that they contravened the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi. The government placed in the hands of the Queen of England, the sovereignty and the authority to make laws. Some sections of the Maori people violated that authority. War arose from this and blood was spilled. The law came into operation and land was taken in payment. This itself is a Maori custom — revenge, plunder to avenge a wrong. It was their own chiefs who ceded that right to the Queen. The confiscations cannot therefore be objected to in the light of the Treaty.” Ngata acknowledged, however, that grievances were justifiably held by those iwi that were “too severely punished”, and those who were punished for the “wrongs… done by others” but he generally endorsed the Crown’s actions in putting down what he viewed as a rebellion.
Perhaps what will particularly stick in the craw of those who want to dismiss Ngata’s views is the tough-love approach expressed in the concluding paragraph: “The Treaty made the one law for the Māori and Pakeha. If you think these things are wrong and bad then blame our ancestors who gave away their rights in the days when they were powerful.”
His words echoing across a century, Māoridom’s greatest leader might as well have called out, “Suck it up, buttercup!” to those now dissatisfied with the consequences of their ancestors signing away sovereignty at a time when Māori outnumbered Pakeha 40:1.
By putting more than a million copies of Ngata’s booklet into New Zealanders’ hands via newspaper inserts, Newman has effectively used the mainstream media to undermine the preferred views of much of the mainstream media.
And by contributing nothing more than the briefest of introductions, she has also removed herself from the debate, leaving only Ngata’s words in the spotlight. What media organisation could afford to be seen to be turning down the opinions of someone as venerable as Sir Apirana Ngata?
As Newman noted: “As far as we are aware, no newspapers refused to include it.”
In contrast, last September, democracy activist Julian Batchelor told Sean Plunket on The Platform that NZME, the publishers of the NZ Herald, had rejected a full-page ad, worth $10,000, that advertised an anti-co-governance rally. It included a call to honour Sir Apirana Ngata.
Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by ThePlatform.kiwi and is published here with kind permission.