WAITANGI, New Zealand (AP) — In a fiery exchange at the birthplace of modern New Zealand, Indigenous leaders on Monday strongly criticized the government’s approach to Maori, ahead of the country’s national day.

The holiday, known as Waitangi Day, is held on Feb. 6 to mark the anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, a foundation document signed by British colonists and Maori chiefs in 1840 that establishes and guides the relationship between New Zealand’s government and its Indigenous population.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and other members of his right-leaning coalition government visited the historic treaty grounds for a public meeting with Maori leaders on Monday.

The gathering unfolded amid months of protests against the government’s proposals to review the treaty and implement potential changes to how it affects modern laws.

After winning the election in October last year, Luxon’s National Party-led government foreshadowed policies to roll back the use of Maori language and Maori-specific public services, and redefine the impact of the treaty on the legal system.

The policy proposals have sparked nationwide Maori protests, which culminated in a call for unity from the Maori king through a rare royal proclamation in December.

A local Maori tribe welcomed Luxon on Monday with a spirited “haka” — a traditional dance or challenge accompanied by a chant — and song, before Maori speakers urged the government to change its course.

“Our sneaky strategy is to say it time and time and time again in every forum so that it catches your conscious and subconscious: that is to protect the Treaty of Waitangi,” said Rahui Papa, a Maori leader.

Several thousand people attended the event, with some reportedly holding signs splattered with fake blood, urging the government to “honor the treaty.”

Luxon said the treaty remains an important part of the country’s future and called on all New Zealanders to “value our differences.”

“The treaty is our past, present and future. It has shaped the country we have become, and the obligations it imposes on both sides will always be with us,” he said on Monday.

“However, we must aspire to go forward not as two sides, but together as New Zealanders because there is more that unites us than divides us,” Luxon added.

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