THE people of New Zealand are celebrating the country's 150th birthday this year. But the celebration is tempered by the simmering grievances of many Maoris, the country's indigenous people, who say that while whites might think the anniversary of their arrival in these South Pacific islands is worth commemorating, native New Zealanders do not.
``We are now one people,'' Queen Victoria's representative told the Maori chiefs when they signed a treaty at Waitangi, ceding sovereignty to the British crown on Feb. 6, 1840. The Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed the Maoris rights to their land, forests, fisheries, and customs. These pledges have not been honored, however, and Victoria's descendant, Queen Elizabeth II, admitted with regal understatement when she came to Waitangi for the celebration on Feb. 6 that the treaty ``has been imperfectly observed.''
Over the last century and a half, the white community has by one means or another taken most of the Maori land, forest, and fisheries. More than that, New Zealand's 400,000 Maoris, who represent 12.5 percent of the population, are disproportionately represented in the lower income groups, prisons, and unemployment lines.
This anniversary year has focused attention on efforts by the Maoris to assert themselves and right the wrongs of the past.
An extremist minority, at least a couple of whom have been to Libya, want to expel all the pakeha (Europeans), and talk of militant action. Despite grave concerns about the Feb. 6 party, this militancy went only as far as a young woman throwing a wet black T-shirt at the queen amid cries of ``Go home.''
Even the moderate majority of Maoris, who were appalled at demonstrations against Queen Elizabeth, want their land returned, or compensation paid, and other grievances settled.
The Waitangi tribunal, a body set up by the government to investigate Maori complaints, has been swamped with applications for hearings, and about 70 percent of the country is subject to land claims.
As a result, both races have become anxious and suspicious of each other. Europeans, who do not hear repeated assurances that no privately owned land will be handed back, fear being sold out by a government that is striving to solve Maori grievances.
Moderate Maoris fear a white backlash against affirmative action and government handouts for exclusive Maori health, welfare, and job-training programs.
As Maori claims grow, and the government bends over backward to meet them, even sympathetic pakehas fear the matter is getting out of hand. A number of Europeans fearing eventual racial trouble, have left the country.
``What's really happened in this area,'' said Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, ``is that Maori expectations have risen, and they have risen to unreasonable levels.''
Chief Judge Eddie Durie, chairman of the Waitangi tribunal, agreed that large-scale return of land was impracticable and the economy could not afford massive compensation. A compromise is needed, he said, along with long-term strategies to assure a better future for the Maoris.
There is a major focus on unity and working together as 1990 celebrations continue in every city and community.
But many recall the chilling comments of two opposing politicians, even more relevant today than when uttered in 1988.
``This is the last chance we have to get race relations right,'' said Winston Peters, a Maori and the opposition national party's spokesman on Maori affairs. ``If we do not confront it now, in 10 years there will be violence in our streets and the race riots of Watts, Toxteth, and Soweto will have their New Zealand equivalent.''
Mike Moore, foreign minister and No. 3 in the ruling Labour Cabinet, said: ``New Zealand has reached a flash point in its history. We are becoming a society that threatens to go rotten before it's ripe. We are in a race against time.''