Waitangi Day – 6 February – is Aotearoa New Zealand’s national holiday held to commemorate the signing of New Zealand’s founding document – the Treaty of Waitangi – in 1840.
The national holiday was first declared in 1974, and since then has grown in significance for all New Zealanders through the Māori renaissance that has fostered better understanding of the Treaty’s ramifications.
Official celebrations are held at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the Bay of Islands, Northland, but there are also many other events throughout the country.
Māori cultural performances, speeches from Māori and Pakeha (European) dignitaries, and a naval salute are all part of the annual activities at Waitangi.
The Ngatokimatawhaorua, one of the world’s largest Māori ceremonial waka (war canoe), sits on the grounds at Waitangi. The 70-year-old waka was refurbished and relaunched for the 170th celebrations in 2010.
Each February, Ngatokimatawhaorua must be prepared for its Waitangi Day outing prior to the big event. Made from massive trunks of New Zealand’s giant kauri trees, the gigantic waka – which weighs an incredible six tonne when dry – must first be moved by human force across the Treaty grounds and down to the sea. It is then moored in the water for up to two days allowing the wood to swell and become airtight, thus doubling the weight.
Carried out and blessed by members of the local iwi / Māori tribe, this is a tradition that happens only once a year to celebrate Waitangi Day. The enormous wooden vessel, with room for 80 paddlers and 55 passengers, is an impressive sight both on land and on the water.
Waitangi also hosts a festival on the special day that includes music, dance, food and traditional Māori customs.