Historian has the treaty ‘in her DNA’

"If New Zealanders don’t know their past, they don’t know themselves and will never understand how great New Zealand Aotearoa really is."

"If New Zealanders don’t know their past, they don’t know themselves and will never understand how great New Zealand Aotearoa really is."

MAKING A NATION: Neither Maori nor the British knew how signing the Treaty of Waitangi was going to turn out “so there was a great deal of trust on both sides”, Treaty historian Dame Claudia Orange said during her visit to Gisborne this week. Picture by Liam Clayton

ONE of Claudia Orange’s favourite artefacts in the newly-opened Waitangi Museum is a wooden head carved by Ngapuhi leader Hone Heke.

A signee (and later opponent) of the Treaty of Waitangi, Heke carved the head in 1814 when he was on a trip to Sydney.

“What he did was he carved an image of himself,” the historian says. “He made a ‘selfie’.”

In Gisborne this week to give a talk on her nearly 40 years of research into the Treaty, Dame Claudia said the Waitangi Day opening of the $14 million museum – located at Northland’s Waitangi Treaty Grounds – was the result of years of work.

“It is an amazing, interactive experience that vistors can rush through in 20 minutes, or history beavers might like to spend hours and hours.

“To this day I don’t believe people are as well informed about the Treaty as they could be and this museum contributes greatly to the already wonderful Treaty Grounds.”

It has been nearly 30 years since The Treaty of Waitangi, Dame Claudia’s book based on her PhD thesis, became the go-to reference on the founding document of New Zealand and she has devoted her career to the subject ever since.

You could say it is in her DNA.

A fluent speaker of te reo Maori, her father Monty Bell worked at the Department of Maori Affairs in Gisborne (her two older sisters were born in Gisborne) until the late 1920s when, at the urging of MP Apirana Ngata, he and translator/land laws expert William Cooper went to work on land consolidation in Northland.

Speaking to the audience of more than 160 that gathered at Lawson Field Theatre on Thursday evening, Dame Claudia offered a brief history of the signing of the Treaty and said that, had it not existed, New Zealand could have been very different.

'Non' to the French

At the time of the signing in 1840, Maori were considering which nation would offer the most benefits and protections as a partner and, concerned about how the Tahitians had been treated, had already ruled out the French.

Meanwhile, the British were concerned about the activities of the commercially focused New Zealand Company, which was already buying up land, designing a flag and trying to set up its own de facto government.

“They did not just want this arrangement with Maori, they also wanted a way of controlling their own settlers who, by the late 1830s, were arriving in their hundreds,” she said.

“Had the treaty not been signed, New Zealand could have been a very different place.”

Tairawhiti Museum in conjunction with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the national services arm of Te Papa Tongarawa: The Museum of New Zealand brought Dame Claudia to Gisborne.

“She is doing a few talks around the country and we wanted to bring her here because we know that interest is high,” says Te Papa’s Gisborne-based development officer, Sally August.

Though she has recently stepped down as the national museum’s head of research, Dame Claudia remains at Te Papa where she has taken up a research fellowship.

“If New Zealanders don’t know their past, they don’t know themselves and will never understand how great New Zealand Aotearoa really is,” she says.

“But there is still a lot of work to be done in looking into things like treaty signatories, which people, often descendents, are increasingly interested in.”

As part of that, she hopes people with information about signees in the Gisborne/East Coast region, who signed the Turanga Treaty, brought here in May, 1840, will contact her to share their knowledge.

“Things have changed so much over the years that the research and books are always going to need to be added to. By and large, I don’t think I’m going to be short of things to do.”

ONE of Claudia Orange’s favourite artefacts in the newly-opened Waitangi Museum is a wooden head carved by Ngapuhi leader Hone Heke.

A signee (and later opponent) of the Treaty of Waitangi, Heke carved the head in 1814 when he was on a trip to Sydney.

“What he did was he carved an image of himself,” the historian says. “He made a ‘selfie’.”

In Gisborne this week to give a talk on her nearly 40 years of research into the Treaty, Dame Claudia said the Waitangi Day opening of the $14 million museum – located at Northland’s Waitangi Treaty Grounds – was the result of years of work.

“It is an amazing, interactive experience that vistors can rush through in 20 minutes, or history beavers might like to spend hours and hours.

“To this day I don’t believe people are as well informed about the Treaty as they could be and this museum contributes greatly to the already wonderful Treaty Grounds.”

It has been nearly 30 years since The Treaty of Waitangi, Dame Claudia’s book based on her PhD thesis, became the go-to reference on the founding document of New Zealand and she has devoted her career to the subject ever since.

You could say it is in her DNA.

A fluent speaker of te reo Maori, her father Monty Bell worked at the Department of Maori Affairs in Gisborne (her two older sisters were born in Gisborne) until the late 1920s when, at the urging of MP Apirana Ngata, he and translator/land laws expert William Cooper went to work on land consolidation in Northland.

Speaking to the audience of more than 160 that gathered at Lawson Field Theatre on Thursday evening, Dame Claudia offered a brief history of the signing of the Treaty and said that, had it not existed, New Zealand could have been very different.

'Non' to the French

At the time of the signing in 1840, Maori were considering which nation would offer the most benefits and protections as a partner and, concerned about how the Tahitians had been treated, had already ruled out the French.

Meanwhile, the British were concerned about the activities of the commercially focused New Zealand Company, which was already buying up land, designing a flag and trying to set up its own de facto government.

“They did not just want this arrangement with Maori, they also wanted a way of controlling their own settlers who, by the late 1830s, were arriving in their hundreds,” she said.

“Had the treaty not been signed, New Zealand could have been a very different place.”

Tairawhiti Museum in conjunction with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the national services arm of Te Papa Tongarawa: The Museum of New Zealand brought Dame Claudia to Gisborne.

“She is doing a few talks around the country and we wanted to bring her here because we know that interest is high,” says Te Papa’s Gisborne-based development officer, Sally August.

Though she has recently stepped down as the national museum’s head of research, Dame Claudia remains at Te Papa where she has taken up a research fellowship.

“If New Zealanders don’t know their past, they don’t know themselves and will never understand how great New Zealand Aotearoa really is,” she says.

“But there is still a lot of work to be done in looking into things like treaty signatories, which people, often descendents, are increasingly interested in.”

As part of that, she hopes people with information about signees in the Gisborne/East Coast region, who signed the Turanga Treaty, brought here in May, 1840, will contact her to share their knowledge.

“Things have changed so much over the years that the research and books are always going to need to be added to. By and large, I don’t think I’m going to be short of things to do.”

Te Tiriti / The Treaty

• The Treaty of Waitangi, Tiriti o Waitangi, is an agreement made in 1840 between representatives of the British Crown and more than 500 Maori chiefs. It resulted in the declaration of British sovereignty over New Zealand in May, 1840.

• The Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 established the Waitangi Tribunal and gave the treaty recognition in New Zealand law for the first time. The tribunal could investigate possible breaches of the treaty by the New Zealand government or any state-controlled body, occurring after 1975.

• From 1985 the tribunal was empowered to investigate claims dating back to 1840 and could also commission research and appoint legal counsel for claimants.

• Though not all claims have been settled, major settlements with Maori claimants have been reached from 1992.

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