20231211 new zealand
A protestor from the group defacing a historic exhibit at New Zealand’s National Museum, Te Papa, in Wellington. Image Credit: AFP

Wellington: A dozen protestors from a Maori activist group were arrested Monday at New Zealand's national museum after defacing an exhibit about the country's founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi.

Police said a man absailed from above the exhibit at the Te Papa museum in Wellington, before using an angle grinder and spray paint to damage a panel which is several metres high.

The protestors were from the Te Waka Hourua group, who describe themselves as defenders of justice for Maori, New Zealand's Indigenous population.

A group spokesperson said the exhibit was defaced because the English text "misleads visitors to believe it is an accurate translation" of the Treaty's Maori version.

20231211 protester
A protestor from the group defacing a historic exhibit at New Zealand’s National Museum. Image Credit: AFP

The incident follows protests last Tuesday that saw thousands criticise the newly elected conservative government for its policies toward Maori, posing an early leadership test for Prime Minister Christopher Luxon.

Police said they made 12 arrests on Monday. Four people were charged with offences including intentional damage and breach of bail.

Eight protestors were arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave the museum, but were later released without charge, police added.

The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi was an agreement between British colonial powers and Indigenous Maori chiefs.

The original documents are housed at the National Library in Wellington, not at the Te Papa museum.

There are Maori and English versions of the Treaty, which differ. There is debate about whether Maori ceded sovereignty to the British crown in the Indigenous text.

A group from Te Waka Hourua later protested outside the museum in Wellington harbour with banners reading "Tell The Truth" and "Sovereignty Was Never Ceded".

No museum artefacts were damaged, a Te Papa spokesperson said. The floor where it happened was shut following the incident, but the museum stayed open.

"We respect the right of people to protest, but we are disappointed that the group has damaged this display," the museum spokesperson added.

The exhibit shows English and Maori versions of the Treaty, the spokesperson added, with information panels - like the one defaced - highlighting the differences.

Maori leaders accuse Luxon's conservative coalition of racist policies, including undermining the Treaty of Waitangi, which also protects Indigenous rights.

The new government also wants to switch the names of some departments from Maori to English and close the Maori Health Authority, Te Aka Whai Ora.

Luxon condemned the defacing of the museum exhibit on Monday.

"The reality is that people should be free to protest, but I don't think there is any need to deface an exhibit at our national museum," he told reporters at parliament.