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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - New Zealand : Maori

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - New Zealand : Maori, 2008, available at: [accessed 12 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Maori settled in New Zealand from the eleventh century onwards. For over a century of European settlement Maori tended to remain in rural areas, but by the 2000s more than 80 per cent of Maori lived in urban areas. According to recently published data from the 2006 Census, there were 565,329 people who identified with the Maori ethnic group and usually lived in New Zealand. The Maori population has increased by 30.0 per cent in the past 15 years, up from 434,847 in 1991 to reach 565,329 in 2006 (an increase of 130,482). More than one in seven people (14.6%) usually living in New Zealand in 2006 belonged to the Maori ethnic group. Just over half (52.8%) of all people in the Maori ethnic group identified Maori as their only ethnicity. In 2006, 42.2 per cent of Maori stated that they identified with European ethnic groups, 7.0 per cent with Pacific peoples ethnic groups, 1.5 per cent with Asian ethnic groups, and 2.3 per cent also gave 'New Zealander' as one of their ethnic groups.

Historical context

Maori population numbers were probably about 1 million at the end of the eighteenth century, with an agricultural and fishing economy and a social organization similar to those of Polynesians in the smaller islands to the north-east. There were differences between tribal groups and warfare between them was not uncommon. The arrival of white settlers brought rapid population decline to the extent that the Maori were believed to be on the verge of extinction towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the population had fallen to not much more than 40,000. As in Australia, colonial policy towards the indigenous population was to 'smooth the dying pillow' of an 'inferior race'.

Treaty of Waitangi

One initial result of European contact was the introduction of guns, which resulted in the escalation of indigenous warfare between Maori tribes in the 'musket wars'. There were important divisions between Maori at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Maori chiefs were divided over signing the treaty and were uncertain about its provisions. The English text of the treaty guaranteed Maori 'the full, exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands', while the Maori text used the words te tino rangatiratanga which could be translated as 'the sovereignty of their lands'. However, the Crown was promised kawanatanga, a Maori translation of 'governorship'. When the treaty was signed, there were some 2,000 white settlers, about 1 per cent of the population; many were uninterested in abiding by treaty regulations.


A number of Maori chiefs refused to sign the treaty, fearing that they would lose their mana (power) and their lands. Some, such as the Waikato Chief Te Wherowhero, were dispossessed of their lands following the 'Maori wars'.

In the 1840s, as Pakeha settlers increased in numbers, there were clashes in all parts of the country between Pakeha and Maori. Pakeha resented Maori ownership of much of the best land in the North Island. The purchase of land under the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi was too slow a process for many Pakeha and too rapid for many Maori. In 1852 the country had gained its first constitution, a parliament and six provincial councils. Maori, excluded from the electorate (as they were not individual property holders), sought to establish their own government and in 1858 elected a Maori king, Te Wherowhero. One intention of this King Movement (Kingitanga) was to halt the sale of land to Pakeha by placing it under the mana of the king, and to establish a legal administrative system in areas ignored by the British administration. Two years later the New Zealand wars began at Waitara in Taranaki province. During the wars, which lasted for 12 years, the New Zealand government sought to punish those tribes involved by confiscating their lands. Almost 3.25 million acres were confiscated, including much of the best Waikato land, the Taranaki coastland and land in the Bay of Plenty.

The wars demoralized the Maori. Even the 'loyal' Maori who had opposed Kingitanga and supported British troops lost land in the aftermath. In some cases it was taken in the confiscations (raupatu), but a variety of semi-legal means were used to dispossess tribes throughout the remainder of the century. Increasingly, the government sought to assimilate the Maori but, as one analyst wrote in 1980, 'the white man's peace was more devastating than his war', as Parliament oppressed Maori and appropriated their resources.

Waitangi Treaty under strain

After the land wars there were intermittent Maori attempts to reopen discussions on the Treaty of Waitangi, and to seek the restoration of confiscated land. In 1884 the Maori King led a deputation to London, but was refused an audience with the Queen and their petition was sent back to the New Zealand government, despite repeated unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with that government. An earlier movement, Te Kotahitanga (the Maori unity movement) was revived late in the century; it introduced a Maori Rights Bill into the New Zealand Parliament (where Maori had four seats) in 1894, seeking Maori control over their own lands, fisheries and other food resources, which was rejected two years later.

Further attempts to restore the provisions of the Treaty were again made at various points in the twentieth century, and have remained the central theme of Maori history and political affairs. A Royal Commission's findings on raupatu in 1928 vindicated the Maori position, and offered the Waikato, Taranaki and Bay of Plenty tribes compensation, based on the value of their lands at the time and the degree of 'blame' that could be attached to them in the wars. Waikato refused the offer and many Maori demanded that the land and not money be returned to them. A revised offer was eventually accepted by the Waikato people in 1946, though the basic problem of land alienation was little changed.

By the time of the Second World War the Maori were still primarily a rural population, mainly in the North Island. Most lived in poor conditions, with inadequate housing, poor access to services and limited access to land, as no more than about 1 per cent of the land of New Zealand was actually owned and occupied by Maori. After the war much of the increased affluence of New Zealand escaped the Maori, despite new provisions for state housing, public health, education and other services. Many Maori began to migrate to the cities in search of employment, and a future outside traditional tribal (iwi) areas, hence problems of race relations and inadequate economic and social status became more visible. By the 1990s more than 80 per cent of Maori lived in urban areas.

Protest movement

A more radical Maori protest movement began in the 1970s with the formation of Nga Tamatoa, a group of educated young militants who campaigned on issues such as language teaching in schools. In 1975 they organized a Land March down the length of the North Island to the Parliament in Wellington, which created a wide public consciousness of Maori issues. There was a renewed focus on the Treaty of Waitangi, centring on claims that it has failed to protect Maori land, forests and fisheries. In 1971 Nga Tamatoa attempted to disrupt the annual Waitangi Day celebrations that commemorated the signing; such disruptions continue up to the present day.

Waitangi Tribunal

The establishment of a conservative National Party government in 1975 resulted in a tendency to dismiss Maori issues as merely the grievances of militant radicals; this intensified Maori opposition. In the same year, however, the Labour government had passed the Treaty of Waitangi Act, which set up a tribunal to investigate land claims and related matters. A number of Maori mounted legal challenges to the government over land issues. These came before the Waitangi Tribunal, which had the power to investigate new legislation for breaches of the treaty. Prominent among these cases was one opposing government plans to develop a fuel plant on the Taranaki coast, where Maori land had long been confiscated, that would have pumped industrial waste into coastal waters and onto reefs used by the Te Atiawa tribe of Taranaki for fishing. The Tribunal concluded that the proposed outfall constituted a breach of the treaty and the Chairman of the Tribunal, Judge Edward Taihakurei Durie, stated that the tribunal itself was 'an acknowledgement of Maori existence, of their prior occupation of the land and of an intent that the Maori presence would remain and be respected. It made us one country, but acknowledged that we were two people. It established the regime not for uniculturalism, but for bi-culturalism.'

During the 1980s there was a growing demand for Maori sovereignty alongside renewed attempts to gain a public commitment from the government to honour the Treaty of Waitangi. The demand for sovereignty emphasized the necessity for the acknowledgement that New Zealand is Maori land, and that confiscated land be returned to Maori. In 1984 the Tainui of Waikato demanded that the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi be enshrined in a constitution or bill of rights, and that there be a reform of the political system. The new Labour Party government increased the powers of the Waitangi Tribunal, enabling it to consider claims that had arisen since 1840, thus, for the first time, Maori were able to seek restitution and compensation for the loss of land and resources. Despite discussions of political reform no new Maori seats were created. Maori voters can choose either to be on the general electoral roll or to vote for one of the four Maori seats.

The provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi and the Waitangi Tribunal met more challenges in the second half of the 1980s. In 1987 the New Zealand Maori Council successfully opposed government plans to transfer certain assets to state-owned enterprises as a prelude to privatization, arguing that if Crown lands were sold off there would be no assets left to settle Maori claims before the Waitangi Tribunal. Two years later the Tainui Maori achieved a similar success when they challenged government plans to sell off coal-mining rights in the Waikato, when the coal was under land confiscated from the Tainui. The government also experienced problems when it ignored Maori fishing rights. At a time of economic recession, with the government seeking to restructure the national economy, these developments created tension in New Zealand society. There was a backlash as many Pakeha felt threatened by the apparently increasing scope and greater militancy of Maori claims. Simultaneously, Maori were critical of the continued slow progress in meeting their demands, though social changes resulted in the teaching of the Maori language and taha Maori (the Maori way) in schools, enabling some degree of biculturalism.

Resource management and conservation

Maori participation in resource management and conservation has become increasingly prominent as the effects of the Resource Management Act (1991) and the Conservation Act (1987) have become apparent. These acts included rights of reparation for past and ongoing violations of the treaty, including the right to have Crown land (and resources) returned to traditional owners, and the right of Maori to control and manage their natural resources according to their own cultural values. Nevertheless there was slow progress in making reparations by returning land and other resources. Few resources have been available to Maori to battle for the preservation and integrity of their resources. Despite a series of new statutes, laws and speeches, Maori had experienced little real change in practical terms; this increased the frustrations of militants and angered conservative Pakehas who believed that scarce financial resources were being wasted on ingrates.


At the end of 1994 the New Zealand government sought a 'once and for all' settlement for all Maori grievances, with a 'fiscal envelope' of NZ$1,000 million, after which all treaty claims would be deemed by the Crown to have been settled. The attempt to reduce all issues of justice for Maori to a sum of money denied the social, political and cultural impacts of colonization and sought to eradicate Maori rights as established by the Treaty of Waitangi. It defined Maori rights within a colonial framework as 'limited management rights' rather than self-determination, and failed to recognize Maori spiritual attachment to their land. It was rejected by Maori activists in many places, though in December 1994 the Waikato Tainui tribe reached an agreement with the government concerning one of the largest of the 400 outstanding claims. The settlement cost the government NZ$170 million, involved the return of 14,000 hectares of land to the Waikato people and a government apology for raupatu. Generally Maori rejected the 'fiscal envelope', resulting in considerable unity in Maori society but frustration for the conservative National Party government.

During 1995 Maori demonstrators occupied a number of sites, including a public park in Wanganui and the tourist centre of Rotorua, in an ongoing series of protests over the Crown's allegedly illegal occupation of Maori land. Disputes within Maoridom over the distribution of settlement claims met conservative reaction. In May 1995 Prime Minister Jim Bolger and Dame Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu, Queen of the Tainui, the largest Maori tribal federation, signed an agreement under which the government would give cash and land to a total value of NZ$170 million in full and final settlement of land grievances. Under the agreement, which concerned 500,000 hectares of land illegally seized by European settlers in the 1860s, the government handed back thousands of hectares of land that remained under government control. Activists opposed the May 1995 settlement on the grounds that it was insufficient and land would go to the wrong people. Tribes with little claim on fishing rights and urban Maori without close links to their tribes protested that tribally based settlements deliver disproportionate benefits to some Maori simply because of the assets available in their region, and would disadvantage urban Maori. Most of the major Maori land claims had yet to be decided upon, including three-quarters of South Island and large tracts of North Island.

A small group of militant Maori continued to press for a version of sovereignty; they proved a disruptive force at Waitangi Day celebrations and on other occasions, alienated Pakeha, whose views on Maori issues have otherwise become less intractable. The slow settlement of historical grievances had yet to create an economic base enabling Maori to achieve greater self-determination in terms of economic sovereignty, and there remained a range of opinions on how self- determination might better be achieved. There were generational and rural-urban and regional divisions in Maori leadership but a growing acceptance of the need for Maori sovereignty. This has led to considerable turbulence and fluctuation in New Zealand politics.

In many parts of the country the Maori language lost its role as a living community language in the post-war years. In the past decade there has been a steady increase in the percentage of Maori at all levels of education; at the same time there has been a renaissance in the teaching and learning of Maori language and culture, partly through increasing numbers of bilingual classes in primary and secondary schools. There have also been growing numbers of specifically Maori-language schools (Kura Kaupapa Maori), extending from pre-school to secondary level. This focus on education has contributed to arresting the decline in Maoritanga (Maori culture) that tended to follow urbanization. In 2004 Maori Television, a government-funded TV station committed to broadcasting primarily in the Maori language (te reo), began broadcasting. Maori language enjoys the equivalent status to English in government and law.

Current issues

Relative to most ethnic groups in New Zealand, other than Pacific Islanders, the Maori are disadvantaged socially and economically. Most Maori are concentrated in areas of unskilled employment, where wages are low and unemployment rates are high. In 1995 the national unemployment rate was 8 per cent, but for Maori it was 21 per cent; by 2006, however, the comparable figures had fallen to 3 per cent and 9 per cent respectively. Similar gains have been made in terms of life expectancy. In 1950 Maori life expectancy was 15 years less than the New Zealand average, but by 1989 this disparity had fallen to eight years, though the gap has not subsequently been reduced. Poor living conditions and health, with inadequate housing in inner urban areas and relatively high rates of unemployment, have contributed to poor self-image, violence and criminal behaviour. However, at the time of writing all the indicators have improved at least in a small way. A major challenge facing Maori is to use Maori resources and other systems to enable development for the urban dispossessed, for whom social organizations other than the tribe (iwi) - which is of more significance in rural areas - have greater validity.

The New Zealand Parliament passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act in November 2004. The bill overruled a June 2003 court ruling that found Maori may have customary interests in the foreshore, which could allow granting of title by the Maori Land Court. The new legislation effectively extinguished this native title and resulted in extensive public protest. In May 2004, a hikoi (protest march) of 20,000 people marched from the north of New Zealand's North Island to the capital Wellington. Associate Maori Affairs Minister Tariana Turia resigned from the government and formed a new Maori Party, a move that reduced Labour's traditional Maori support.

The Maori Party gained four of the seven Maori seats from the Labour Party in the 2005 elections. Many Maori voted strategically for the Labour Party in protest against the National Party's proposal to abolish the seven Maori parliamentary seats. The future success of the Maori Party depends on the extent to which the founding strategies, centred on what some saw as relatively 'academic' issues of foreshore and seabed ownership, extend into more broadly based policies centred on health, education and employment, where Maori disagree on the most appropriate policies. The Maori Party failed to gain the support of Ngai Tahu, one of the most influential and wealthy iwi, which sought to avoid direct affiliation with any single party. Ironically, it also came to a degree of accommodation with the National Party.

Maori Party representatives accuse the government of 'eroding the relationship between the Crown and Maori' and applauded the September 2007 recommendation of the New Zealand Parliament's Justice and Electoral Committee that the 2006 Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi Deletion Bill not be passed. The bill, which was supported by all parties except the Green Party and the Maori Party, proposed to wipe the words 'the Treaty of Waitangi and its principles' from New Zealand's law books. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination's August 2007 report confirmed Maori reservations about the government's will to yield to the standards of the Treaty. The Committee concluded that the New Zealand government was acting to 'diminish the importance and relevance of the Treaty and to create a context unfavourable to the rights of Maori'.

Progress before the Waitangi Tribunal, although slow, has remained positive in recent years. While the fundamental issue of land return or compensation is at the forefront (with a governmental fiscal envelope of NZ $1,000 million or US $687 million), most land claims remain outstanding, with Maori owning only 5 per cent of the country's land.

In July 2007 the New Zealand Law Commission began a project to develop a legal framework for Maori who want to manage communal resources and responsibilities. Existing legal structures in New Zealand, such as trusts, companies and incorporated societies, do not cater well for the cultural norms of Maori groups and the 'Waka Umanga (Maori Corporations) Act' project proposes an alternative that allows tribes to interact with the legal system. Maori leaders, however, hold out little hope that the current government coalition will support the bill in its un-amended form.

In October 2007 police arrested a group of Maori activists in the eastern North Island on weapons and terrorism offences, alleging that the group had been training and preparing to commit acts of terrorism within New Zealand. Although they were initially arrested under the Terrorism Suppression Act, the Solicitor General decided against charging them under this Act describing it as "almost impossible to apply in a coherent manner". However, the weapons charges remain. The Maori arrested were all members of Tuhoe, a tribe that did not sign the Treaty of Waitangi and seeks to create a Tuhoe nation within New Zealand. The police have been criticised for the manner in which they carried out the raids; cordoning off whole communities, detaining, searching and photographing individuals without charge and seizing property. There has been a series of protests and calls for an inquiry into the Government's conduct over the police raids.

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