Concerns over land and other matters continued to be voiced by Māori in the 1980s. The call was for greater Pākehā awareness and acceptance of Māoritanga, seen as guaranteed by the Treaty, and for acknowledgement of Māori as the tangata whenua (people of the land).
Māori were suspicious of the government using the Treaty as the unifying symbol of the emerging multicultural society. This was a way, it was suggested, of avoiding grappling with Treaty problems and the bicultural partnership. Māori opinion was divided, both on Treaty issues and on Waitangi Day events. Activists called for a boycott of Waitangi Day until the terms of the Treaty were honoured, but there was no unified response.
Tensions between activists and older leaders were most obvious to the public at Te Tii marae. Northern leaders had traditionally regarded the Treaty as a sacred covenant negotiated by their tūpuna or ancestors, and they were very uncomfortable when younger Māori branded the Treaty as a fraud. The marae became a place of confrontation between young and old, with marae trustees struggling to keep control. In 1981 an honours investiture of Graham Latimer and Whina Cooper at the marae was disrupted.
Government representatives and other speakers grew more cautious in talking of 'one people'. Each year problems of security on the Treaty House grounds confronted organisers. Larger numbers of police were required, and commemoration seemed farcical when numerous police in riot gear were needed at the 1983 ceremony. By then a sympathetic understanding of Treaty issues was evident among a widening circle of Pākehā.
A watershed came in 1984. A hīkoi (march) to Waitangi, organised in protest against celebrating the day, included representatives of many tribes, church leaders and some Pākehā. The impact of the protest was blunted when Governor-General David Beattie, James Hēnare and Hiwi Tauroa waited in vain for two hours to meet hīkoi leaders. The expression of kotahitanga (oneness of purpose) was impressive, and two hui followed, calling for a Māori consensus on the Treaty and no further Waitangi celebrations until the Treaty had been honoured.
Labour came to power in 1984 and decided on a strategic repositioning of Waitangi Day: a low-key official ceremony in Wellington's Beehive and a brief morning commemoration on the Treaty House grounds. There were protests at both functions and the northern Māori opinion, as expressed by Graham Latimer, was that Tai Tokerau's special part in the day had been bypassed.
In 1986 a similar programme was followed, with more promotion of the day as a national celebration; there were two partners to the Treaty, but the Pākehā partner now had many cultures to be acknowledged. When the dual commemoration pattern was repeated in 1987, protesters at Waitangi made speech making nearly impossible. It was obvious that dual ceremonies were not going to silence protest.
The government decided that in 1988 there would be no official commemoration. Local authorities could begin to consider appropriate ways of recognising the 150th anniversary of the Treaty in 1990. Northern Māori recognised Waitangi Day, but protest was controlled. The far northern Māori group, Te Kawariki, was given a right to speak: 'The real issue,' said its leader, Shane Jones, 'is sovereignty over our resources.' That remained an elusive goal.
Labour had set in motion measures to change the Treaty's position in the nation's life. By the end of the 1980s these included several pieces of legislation, the requirement that government agencies be more bicultural in their mode of operation, and an extension of the Waitangi Tribunal's powers, allowing it to investigate claims dating back to 1840.