The Waikato is New Zealand’s longest river. The farmlands of the Waikato valley are often said to be the richest in the world. Tonnes of butter and cheese are made from the milk of the cows which graze on the Waikato fields.
Before the Pakeha arrived in New Zealand the Waikato river was a great highway for the Maori. They used the country’s many rivers as their roads, travelling along them in their canoes and settling on the fertile river banks. The river was an important centre of Maori life and the Waikato tribe was one of the most powerful tribes in Aotearoa. Unlike any of the other tribes in New Zealand, the Waikato tribe has kings and queens. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Pakeha were arriving to settle in New Zealand. The tribes had signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British, but they had not expected so many settlers. The treaty had promised to protect them but already much land had gone to the Pakeha, some of it unfairly, or for very little money and cheap trade goods such as axes and blankets. And still the settlers wanted more land.
In 1985 there was a meeting of many important tribes. They joined together in what they called Kingitanga – the Maori King Movement – and they elected a Maori king. They thought that if they united under one king, as the Pakeha were united under their queen, Victoria, they would become stronger, and better able to stop the Pakeha from takint over all of Aotearoa.
The warrior they chose as their king was the leading chief of the Waikato tribe, and ever since then his descendants have had the title of king or queen, and have led Kingitanga.
The Land Wars in the Waikato Valley
The second half of the nineteenth century was a sad time for the Waikato Maori. There were wars between the Kingitanga tribes and the Pakeha over land. A British army invaded the Waikato valley and its gunboats sailed up the Waikato river. Many Pakeha and Maori were killed in battles along the river, and the Maori king and his followers retreated into the hills to the west, where they remained in exile for many years. This hilly country is still called the King Country. No Pakeha entered the King Country bt the settlers confiscated almost all the tribal land in the Waikato valley. The Waikato tribes were described as rebels by the government, and the settlers believed they deserved to lose their land. They took even the land of Maori who had not fought against the settlers in the Land Wars.
Today, the government admits that the Maori were treated unfairly. The Treaty of Waitangi should have protected their land and it did not. Over a century ago the Waikato tribespeople returned to the Waikato from exile in the King Country. The tribe received some money from the New Zealand Government for the loss of their lands, but not enough to remove the feeling of injustice.