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PIERS SEED: TAONGA - The ticking time-bomb under the Waitangi Tribunal

The word taonga is now deeply embedded in New Zealand’s psyche. We see it on the beautiful, glossy covers of coffee-table books and peppered amongst newspaper columns, magazines and books. We hear it trotted out reverently in Council and Government proposals and rolling from the lips of those who like to sprinkle their conversations with simple words appropriated from other cultures. It is as if we have never been without it. Taonga is an old friend as familiar and comfortable as a worn-in old slipper.


Taonga is a Maori word. It means, of course, “treasure”. We know this because people are always telling us that it does, so that must be the case. Most everything in the Maori World, it seems, is a “taonga”, a treasure, to the point one wonders if there is in fact anything ordinary in that World.


This is what the last two generations of New Zealanders – essentially anyone under the age of about fifty - believe and as far as they are concerned that is the way it has been since mankind crawled out of the primordial swamp. Given that they have experienced nothing else how could they possibly think any differently?


However those of us slightly longer of tooth know taonga has a past. We react to the word taonga with a great bitterness, for it is a word of shame, a word of infamy and duplicity.


For taonga as it is understood now is an invention of the Waitangi Tribunal, which has used it to shamelessly rape and pillage New Zealand for over forty years.


According to the Waitangi Tribunal the definition of taonga is:


“Treasures': 'taonga'. As submissions to the Waitangi Tribunal concerning the Māori language have made clear, 'taonga' refers to all dimensions of a tribal group's estate, material and non-material - heirlooms and wahi tapu (sacred places), ancestral lore and whakapapa (genealogies), etc”.



Stripped of the Tribunal’s carefully curated mystical framing this definition can be loosely translated in layman’s terms as:


“anything and everything in the world, physical, theoretical, spiritual, metaphorical, known or yet to be discovered”.


If you can see it, it is taonga. If you can think of it, it is also taonga. If you can’t think of it, it is still taonga. Taonga, then, is clearly one hyper-powerful word, seemingly the one word to rule them all.


So why is the definition of taonga so important? Because if taonga does indeed mean “everything in the world”, and if the Treaty supposedly guarantees Maori not only ownership of its “taonga” but active protection of it by the Crown, then it is game over. The Tribunal’s definition of taonga makes every other word in the Treaty redundant. Taonga is the Treaty.


So just where did the Tribunal’s taonga definition come from? And why is it that a full forty years after the Tribunal came up with its “definition”, the world’s most accessible source of information (Wikipedia) still says of taonga:


“The current definition [of taonga] differs from the historical definition, noted by Hongi Hika as "property procured by the spear" [one could understand this as war booty or defended property] and is now interpreted to mean a wide range of tangible and intangible possessions, especially items of historical cultural significance.”


While we might quibble that this “historical definition” was, technically speaking, missionary Thomas Kendall’s rather than his good pal Hongi Hika’s, the point is that it is common knowledge that the Tribunal’s 1980 taonga “definition” differs radically from its definition when used by the writers of the Treaty in 1840. This is surely a “Houston we have a problem” moment.


In its reinvented guise taonga has been the great wrecking ball in the Tribunal’s arsenal. Without it the Tribunal would be next to powerless. It is a magic word, an abracadabra, the trump card, a “you shall not pass”. In essence, just say taonga and money and/or assets fall from the sky.


The burning question is – is it possible that for forty years the Tribunal has been allowed to strip New Zealand of any and every asset, and impose jaw-dropping obligations on the Crown, on the basis of a disputed word? That forty years of politicians – of all stripes – have just stood by and let this happen? Appallingly the answer is yes.


So what are the practical consequences of taonga’s reinvention? In the order of 70% of Waitangi Tribunal recommendations have been justified – in part or in whole – by a reinvented taonga. Let that sink in for a moment – seventy percent of Tribunal findings are based, to a greater or lesser extent, on a seriously flawed definition of a key word.


Given the damage toanga has done in the service of the Tribunal you would think that its meaning would have been analysed, reanalysed and reanalysed again to within an inch of its life. But incredibly it has not. Yes, it is true that forty years ago, when taonga first raised its ugly head, there was a scattered up-roar – people did object to the Tribunal’s literally fantastic reinvention of taonga. But when the dust settled, when the rhetoric and appeals to reason and good faith ran out, New Zealand put its collective head in the sand,  rolled over, and went back to sleep. Forty years later it is still sleeping.


Forty years later, taonga still rules the roost in the Tribunal context, unchallenged. Meanwhile, in the real world, a veritable blitz of unsubtle taonga branding has bludgeoned this re-invented word into the hearts and minds of all New Zealanders, to the point that a word no non-Maori had heard of forty years ago is, as already noted, now inescapable. That, of course, is the endgame. Time and indoctrination are wonderful things.


What was needed forty years ago was not a throwaway reference to Hongi Hika but a factual, thoroughly researched, indisputable analysis of the history of this word. Forty years –  and a wrecked country –  later, after waiting in vain for someone else to do it, I have attempted to drag this planet-sized elephant in the room back into the nation’s cross-hairs by publishing a book, titled – rather prosaically – “Taonga and Contra Proferentem – Thoughts on the Waitangi Tribunal process”. 


The first half of this book presents what I believe is the first in-depth analysis of taonga, while the second half deals to its partner in crime, “contra proferentem”. Taonga and contra proferentem are a matched set in that contra proferentem is taonga’s enabler. The use of contra proferentem in Treaty interpretation is yet another, possibly even more gigantic, scam which has been used to “disappear” the English Treaty version and make the Maori version – the so-called “Te Tiriti” – with its use of taonga, the presumed actual treaty. But that is another story.


The analysis details the gradually changing meaning of taonga by examining key sources chronologically from 1820 to 2020 and by examining the thousands of common-usage examples of taonga used in newspapers from 1842 to 1900. It also examines the Tribunal’s justification for their definition – although “justification” is too strong a word for a “process” which can only be described as an insult to scholarship, not to mention good faith.  


The 25 word summary of 130 pages of analysis is that it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that on February 6 1840 taonga meant a physical, alienable, portable object – in other words “property” as envisaged by Thomas Kendall, if not necessarily acquired

“by the spear”. You will search in vain through 160 years of historical evidence for any usage of taonga as envisioned by the Tribunal.


While proving what we all already suspected forty years ago may seem rather an anti-climax the difference between “suspicion” and rigorously researched fact is infinite. Suspicion and intuition are both practically and legally useless – at least in the European World. Researched fact is a toothed weapon that can be used by politicians and lawyers and this is why this book was written.


It is said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and we presume that the politicians who created the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 had such good intentions. However there is only one thing worse than a bad idea and that is a good idea implemented badly. The Tribunal, according to the title of one book, was supposed to “Heal our History”, to draw the two sides of an open wound together to form a seamless, harmonious unity – a nice dream to be sure even if we might suspect it a little optimistic.


Somewhere along the line something went terribly, hopelessly wrong. The operation was botched and left us instead with a Jupiter-sized boil sucking the life-blood out of a withered, skeletal New Zealand flailing in its death throes. That boil should have been lanced forty years ago and my hope is that this book goes some way towards providing a lance – all we need now are some politicians and/or lawyers brave enough to pick it up and use it. It will be a very messy business, involving a lot of kicking and screaming, but that is what is required before the patient dies.


Piers Seed is the author of Hoani’s Last Stand – the real story of Rangiaowhia (Tross Publishing) and Taonga and Contra Proferentem – Thoughts on the Waitangi Tribunal process (


4,347 views173 comments


I agree with all that has been said, but expressing one's views is like farting into a tempest. The Coalition doesn't care about our views.

It is fine that Bassett Brash Hide and other similar actors put these questions to us people of the franchise but they must also send their messages to the three Coalition Leaders and demand their responses.

Invertebrate Luxon is the big negative in the Coalition. Peters and Seymour must knock sense into him and explain that it is fine for him, now elected PM, to follow the wishes of the National Party controllers as long he and his controllers they understand that National will NOT be part of the next government, except perhaps on the…

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We bloody well do. Make mistake about that fact.


Thanks for this it is excellent, I hope you are not expecting this to be a logical exchange with common sense prevailing?. :-)

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We are bloody brash basset and hide, for fucks sake stop this poor me automatic throwing of the hands in the air garbage and don't you or anyone else hear dare to declare " it's all to hard."

No it most certainly flaming well is not.

Blitzkrieg national with emails aplenty, and get right in behind new Zealand first and ACT. You put that shoulder to the wheel and as sure as God made little apples by fucking christ you push as hard as you can against not the unhinged and brainless bullshit of mindless entitlement, but those you voted for that won't deliver what they promised to.

Te pati maori can parade like a strung chook…


It's difficult to add anything of substance to Seed's excellent analysis, although I highlight his point that the bloated meaning of taonga is a direct result of Maori submissions to the Waitangi Tribunal. These submissions seem to be a stunning example of disinformation at the same level as Trump's insistence that the election was stolen. At least Trump can readily be refuted by the available hard evidence, It's rather more difficult when there is a dearth of nineteenth century written commentary about the Treaty, and all the folk who might have provided that commentary are dead. Perhaps Seed's book will remedy that position. In the meantime we need to remember that those submitting to the Tribunal are relying on t…


We are now paying for the cowardice of 1980's politicians

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Nail hammered home, directly on the head. Brilliant mate 👏

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