6 Feb 2009

Waitangi Day celebrations free of protests

10:02 pm on 6 February 2009

Organisers are hailing the first protest-free Waitangi Day in decades as the beginning of a new era.

Friday marked the 169th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. The Treaty is New Zealand's founding document.

The commemorations at Waitangi in Northland have gone without a hitch, with a crowd of about 50,000 revelling in a holiday atmosphere.

For the first time in years there was no march to the flagstaff by Treaty activists, but just a small demonstration by a peace group.

As the day dawned on the birthplace of the nation, dignitaries including the Maori King, Tuheitia, and Prime Minister John Key attended a church service on the Treaty grounds, along with a record turnout of 1000 people.

Mr Key said a prayer and gave thanks for those who had the courage to sign the Treaty in 1840. He is the first Prime Minister to attend the dawn service in many years.

"It's a special place for New Zealanders and this is just again another small step in the progression towards racial harmony in New Zealand," he said.

Making an impressive sight on the bay just off Te Tii beach, 19 waka taua paddled out to salute Kingi Tuheitia and Mr Key as they watched the fleet from on board a twin-hulled waka.

Later, as the hundreds of warrior paddlers returned to shore, a mass haka rang out.

The crowd then relaxed in the sun for concerts by the Navy band and kapa haka groups.

The Navy again played a significant role at the Waitangi celebrations, including a 100-strong guard of honour and the HMNZS Canterbury anchored in the bay.

A 21-gun salute was fired from the ship at midday and the day ended with the beat the retreat ceremony conducted by the Navy.

Organiser Pita Paraone says he could not be happier with how the day went.

"This year we have a fairly new government and I think the relationship that (it) has been able to form with Maori political parties I think has contributed to the way the day has gone."

North Island events

In Auckland, people lined the shores of Okahu Bay to welcome dignitaries on yachts and waka. The event was a re-enactment of the landing of Governor Hobson there in 1841.

The event was the first time Auckland City Council and Ngati Whatua o Orakei have joined forces to host the official Waitangi Day celebration.

In Hawke's Bay, thousands gathered in sunny weather at Farndon park on the banks of the Clive River.

More than 100 people took part in marches from Napier and Hastings, many waving Maori sovereignty flags.

The theme of the celebrations was "Togetherness" and took place near where Hawke's Bay Maori chiefs signed the Treaty in June 1840.

The day included historical re-enactments of early settlers arriving in the region in cutters rowed by Sea Scouts, non-stop musical entertainment, waka rides and people signing a Treaty of the Spirit scroll.

In Wellington, about 12,000 packed a velodrome at Hataitai for a unique Waitangi Day concert.

The One Love festival uses the music of reggae star Bob Marley as a soundtrack for New Zealand's national day, as the musician was also born on 6 February. Headline acts were The Black Seeds and Little Bushman.

South Island celebrations

Official Waitangi Day celebrations in the South Island have been a relaxed affair, even though members of the Government did not attend.

In Southland, Ngai Tahu held a powhiri and luncheon at Te Rau Aroha marae at Bluff.

Iwi spokesperson Sir Tipene O'Regan says Ngai Tahu is not offended by the Government no-show and understands it has more pressing matters to deal with at Waitangi.

It fell to Opposition MP Pete Hodgson to speak on behalf of the Crown, which surprised many at the event.