The first part of the word, Kāwana, is a transliteration into Māori of the English word governor. The suffix -tanga is very similar in meaning and use to the English suffix -ship, for example rangatiratanga (chieftainship) and kīngitanga (kingship). So a literal translation of the word would be governorship. From an idiomatic perspective, this word had little meaning to the chiefs signing the treaty, since the concept of being governed by an overseeing authority was alien to Māori.
The meaning attached to this word, and in particular how it relates to rangatiratanga is vital to discussion of the Treaty of Waitangi. This treaty is still vitally important in modern New Zealand, and remains the object of much controversy and political debate. Māori constitutional lawyer Moana Jackson has stated that, because the New Zealand government (identified as "Kawanatanga" in the Treaty text) is the body politic enforcing the Treaty and making settlements, "Kawanatanga" is the actual party to the Treaty, not the Crown,