The Waitangi Tribunal has found the Maori chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi did not cede sovereignty to the Crown in a ruling described by a Ngapuhi leader as of "huge" significance.
Four years after its hearing on the issue, the Tribunal has released its long-awaited report.
It has upheld the claims of Ngapuhi and other northern iwi that the chiefs never handed over their power and authority to the British in 1840.
The Tribunal says Britain intended to acquire sovereignty through the Treaty and the right to make laws for Maori and Pakeha.
But it said the Crown's agent, William Hobson, explained the Treaty to Maori as granting Britain the power to control British subjects and thereby protect Maori.
In addition, the chiefs were promised they would retain their tino rangatiratanga - their independence and full chiefly authority.
The Tribunal said it was up to the Crown, as the party drafting and explaining the Treaty, to make its intentions absolutely clear.
Chiefs consented to the Treaty on the basis they and the Governor would be equals, it says, and the inescapable conclusion is that they did not cede sovereignty in 1840.
A Ngapuhi leader said the Tribunal's finding was of "huge" significance.
Ngati Hine chair Waihoroi Shortland said it also vindicated their struggle over many years to be heard, and to determine their own affairs.
"This is something hapu have waited for for the last four years, as we've waited for the report. It justifies everything for us.
"It justifies how our tupuna (ancestors) looked at the treaty, how they considered the agreement they made."
Mr Shortland said there would inevitably be a backlash over the Tribunal's report and the Crown would try to downplay it, but it was an opportunity for the government to re-examine its relationship with Maori, and there was no need for New Zealanders to be afraid of that.
Northland Network Waitangi member Moea Armstrong, who was at Waitangi today said she was overjoyed by its findings.
She said the report vindicated the views of other researchers and educators.
Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis said the finding corrects mistaken assumptions about the Treaty.
"The historical record has been corrected, Ngapuhi have been saying since the signing of the Treaty that they did not cede sovereignty and this report confirms that."
Report was 'wrong about British tricking Maori'
A Treaty of Waitangi specialist said the report was wrong to say British tricked Maori into handing over sovereignty.
Paul Moon from the Auckland University of Technology said there was no doubt the Crown had breached the provisions of the Treaty but the Tribunal had chosen parts of history to suit its argument.
"Blame is somehow put on the British fro somehow deceiving the chiefs, that's completely wrong that wasn't the British intention in 1840 at all.
"The colonial office said 'we only want to rule British subjects in the country' and the tribunal for some reason inexplicable have missed that all together."
Minister for Treaty Negotiations Christopher Finlayson said today's finding did not change anything.
But Mr Finlayson said the status quo remained.
"Every New Zealander goes to be tonight knowing that Her Majesty reigns over us and the Government rules."