Te Tiriti o Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed on 6 February 1840 between Māori and the British Crown and is often said to be New Zealand's founding document.

There have been many misconceptions around te Tiriti and issues with its implementation have arisen almost from the time it was signed. This module explores the key issues and aims to provide a basic understanding of te Tiriti and the context in which it was created.

Pre European Māori

Māori did not have a collective name for themselves before the first Europeans arrived.

The social and political units of Māori in Aotearoa were the iwi (tribe), hapu (subtribe) and whanau (extended family). Iwi was generally seen as the link back to the waka or canoe which brought the ancestors of the tribe (comprised of hapu which were made up of whanau groupings).

The mana (power or prestige) of tribal groupings was vested in rangatira (chiefs), giving them the right to make decisions on behalf of the rest of the group.


There are traditional regional areas related to each grouping, but ownership of resources (especially land) was communal. Individual ownership or sale and exchange of land was not part of traditional Māori culture.

In Māori terms it is more appropriate to consider that land owned people rather than people owning land. Māori and Pakeha world views in 1840 differed in many ways and these need to be clearly understood before considering the context in which te Tiriti (the Treaty) was agreed.

Even the Māori cartographic view was different. The North Island of New Zealand (Te Ika a Maui) has its head at the top (south) and tail at the bottom (north), so Māori from Waikato would say they were going down to Waitangi, not up.

Māori cosmology was rich with things spiritual where dead ancestors walked beside the living and spirits lay hidden in all things. This is often given as explanation for why Māori were so receptive to the new spirituality brought by early European missionaries.