WAITANGI, New Zealand (AP) – Thousands of New Zealanders watched indigenous Maori dancers twirl white “poi” balls in a blur of motion and take to traditional canoes, or waka, in the picturesque Bay of Islands as the country celebrated its 175th anniversary over a three-day weekend.
The national day, which was marked on Friday, is a mix of protests, music, celebration and reflection.
Known as Waitangi Day, it commemorates the signing of New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. The agreement between British royalty and Maori chiefs gave Britain sovereignty over the fledgling nation. It also guaranteed Maori certain rights over their traditional lands and fisheries.
The contents and meaning of the treaty have been hotly debated since it was signed on Feb 6, 1840, including whether Maori ever ceded sovereignty. Different versions in Maori and English meant different things. For the past 25 years, New Zealand’s government has been compensating Maori tribes that have brought grievances under the provisions of the treaty.
“I think it’s a day to reflect,” said Te Ururoa Flavell, the Minister of Maori Development. “Reflect on where we are as a nation in 2015. Reflect on the dreams and aspirations of our people 175 years ago.”
He said the treaty is not just about Maori but is about the relationship between all New Zealanders.
Each year, the tiny town of Waitangi in the far north of the country hosts a popular festival on the grounds where the treaty was signed.