Maori of New Zealand

Location: New Zealand (Aotearoa)
Population: 400,000 (est.)
% of population: 12%-13%
Religion: Christianity, indigenous Maori beliefs
Language: Maori, English

The Maori are a people of Polynesian origin who inhabit New Zealand or Aotearoa, “the land of the long white cloud”. They make up 12%-13% of the total population of just over three million.

The origins of the Maori people are unclear. They almost certainly came from East Polynesia and the first settlers probably arrived in Aotearoa during the eighth century AD or earlier. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the Polynesians moved southward from the South China coast over hundreds of years since cultural influences can be traced back to South-East Asia and China. It is probable that there were two major waves of immigration into the islands; scholars of Maori history and legend believe that the ancestors of most of the present-day tribes arrived in about 1350 AD in a Great Fleet of Polynesian vessels. Oral tradition lists the names of canoes and the navigators and priests aboard them; the Maori were a sedentary tribal people who cultivated crops, snared birds and fished the sea and rivers. They engaged in tribal warfare on a seasonable basis and lived in fortified villages built on hill-tops. There was a strong sense of the presence of the ancestors of whom carvings were made, and all natural objects such as trees, rocks and water, were believed to contain a spiritual essence or power.

European settlement

European navigators first landed in New Zealand in the eighteenth century. Captain Cook’s expedition returned to Europe with news of great forests of tall straight trees suitable for ships’ timbers, and sailing ships were soon arriving to take on cargoes of timber. As was the case in Australia the most immediate effect of white traders and settlers arriving in New Zealand from the early nineteenth century was the rapid spread of western disease and illness such as influenza and TB which had previously been unknown amongst the Maori. A second dramatic effect of contact with the European was the introduction of muskets, first purchased on a visit to London by a tribal chief in 1820. The scale of warfare escalated rapidly as tribes were forced to obtain guns to defend themselves and used them against their enemies. Warfare became much more drawn-out and a period known as the Musket Wars began, a period during which perhaps one quarter of the Maori population was killed and some parts of New Zealand were depopulated. Weakened by the disruptive effects of war the Maoris accepted the mediation of Christian missionaries and became receptive to European influence.

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown. Sovereignty was ceded to the British in return for the guaranteed continued possession by Maoris of their lands, forests, fisheries and other properties, and the Maori granted the sole right of purchasing their lands to Queen Victoria. Not all Maori chiefs were enthusiastic about the treaty, however. During the 1840s and 1850s white settlers arrived in New Zealand in large numbers until by 1858 they outnumbered the Maoris. There were clashes throughout the country between settlers and tribesmen. It soon became evident that the Maori benefited materially by the immigration: a variety of new crops such as wheat, potatoes and apples were grown successfully and traded with Europeans; literacy spread rapidly and Maori schools were built.

Many Maori felt nevertheless that the advantages gained by the contact were outweighed by the

loss of Maori culture. In 1858 they elected a Maori king in a move to establish their own system of ordered government. Two years later the Maori Wars began after the Governor of New Zealand attempted to take possession of a fertile region at Waitara and his troops were resisted by a local chief. The conflict escalated and the government decided to punish the tribes by confiscating tribal lands. In all almost three-and-a-quarter million acres were seized; much of it good, fertile land. Although some land was later returned to the Maori, most of it remained in the hands of the white settlers. Partly to allay criticism in Britain, the government introduced the Maori Representation Bill of 1867. According to the terms of this bill the Maori were able to elect four Maori members of Parliament. One other result of the disastrous Maori Wars was the emergence of a pacifist movement led by a Maori prophet who established a settlement based on principles of non-violence similar to those espoused by Mahatma Gandhi in the twentieth century.

Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century government policy encouraged the Europeanization of the Maori. English became the only language of instruction used in the schools and Maori pupils were taught to respect European culture rather than their own. Maoris obtained full adult franchise along with Europeans in 1893, although since Maoris held land on a communal rather than an individual basis, few qualified to vote. Several politically moderate Maoris rose to high government office, but any attempts to regain the lands lost after the Treaty of Waitangi were unsuccessful, including one attempt made during a deputation to London.

In 1928, as a result of much agitation from Maoris, a Royal Commission was established with the purpose of investigating Maori grievances regarding the confiscated territory. The Commission, led by the Prime Minister, Gordon Coates, found in favour of the Maori, stating that they had been forced to fight in self-defence and that the Maori War had been “an unjust and unholy war”. Compensation was offered to the various tribes but the Waikato people refused the offer, demanding instead the return of their lands.

In the 1930s an alliance was forged between the Labour Party and the Ratana Members of Parliament representing Maori seats. This alliance has continued until the present day and in several elections Maori support has been crucial for maintaining the Labour Party in office. After the elections of 1935 the Labour government began to create a welfare state which was to have a great impact upon the living conditions of the Maori people. In 1946 the government made a revised offer of compensation to the various aggrieved tribes. Maori Trust Boards were established to administer the payments which were NZ$5,000 per annum in perpetuity. Whilst this payment was of help to some tribes, the problem of Maori alienation from the land remained.

During the 1950s and 1960s there was a marked drift of Maoris into the cities and problems previously avoided began to surface. Many were young, unemployed and of low economic status, and race relations in the cities deteriorated. Under the Maori Affairs Act of 1953 anyone who was more than half Maori had to enrol on the Maori electoral roll, whilst those of half-Maori blood were given the choice of enrolling on either the Maori or the general roll.

Maori protest

In the early 1970s a Maori protest movement began to develop, led by young militants belonging to Nga Tamatoa, a group which campaigned on several major issues such as language teaching in schools. In 1975 the great Land March of Maoris, led by older Maori activists, moved down the length of North Island to the Parliament Buildings in Wellington. Attention was focused once more on the Treaty of Waitangi, and Maori protests became more persistent, to the increasing consternation of many whites (pakehas) who had previously believed New Zealand society to be a model of egalitarian and non-racist principles.

A Waitangi Tribunal was set up in order that all breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi should be investigated. During the 1970s and 1980s several cases involving land and fishing rights were brought before the tribunal and won by Maoris. Public attention was focused on the traditional customs of the Maori and their complex food-gathering procedures. Maori interests were not taken into account in the planning of industrial developments, but Maori protests about the threat to the Waitara fishing reefs from a proposed synthetic fuel plant gained much support from the large body of New Zealanders concerned about environmental issues. Government policy towards the Maori was now changing and the emphasis was no longer on assimilation but on greater awareness of Maori land rights and their relationship with the environment. The Electoral Amendment Act of 1974 recognized the fact that many people of part-Maori descent felt themselves to be Maori. It directed that a Maori was a person of Maori race and so was anyone descended from such a person. Maoris were permitted to transfer their names from one roll to the other if they so wished.

Demonstrations against the Springbok Tour of 1981 marked a watershed in New Zealand’s race relations. There was unprecedented violence in the cities and a test match was halted by anti-apartheid protesters. Another march, the Hikoi or peace march, took place in 1984. Maoris from all over New Zealand marched to Waitangi to present their grievances at the Treaty commemoration ceremony, but they were prevented from presenting their case and their mood became increasingly militant, with many marchers calling for Maori sovereignty. There have been increasing calls for Maori control over the funds spent by government in administering Maori affairs.


In 1985 the Labour Party returned to office. The Prime Minister, David Lange, immediately announced that a White Paper for a proposed Bill of Rights had been prepared. The government proposed to increase the powers of the Waitangi Tribunal which would be empowered to investigate Maori land grievances going back to 1840, when the treaty was signed. Although there was discussion about increasing the number of Maori seats in parliament the number remained fixed at four. This means that although the Maori now make up as much as 13% of the population, they still have only 5% of parliamentary seats.

The problem of under-development remains for the Maori people. According to “Race Against Time”, a report published by the Human Rights Commission in Wellington in 1982, only 4.7% of professional people are Maori, and they are concentrated in the fields of teaching, medical work and social work. Sixty-four per cent of Polynesians hold non-skilled jobs compared with 38% of whites, and 67% of Maoris leave school with no qualifications compared with 28.5% of whites. Crime is much higher amongst Maoris, as is alcoholism, whereas health standards are lower. The government is now committed to a community-based health scheme which concentrates on a holistic approach to health. Maori are being encouraged to develop projects themselves which will meet the needs of the community. In the field of education, four more bilingual primary schools are being opened and Maori language classes are more widespread than before.

Recent developments

There have been several important precedents established under the Lange Labour government. In 1987 the Treaty of Waitangi faced one of its most important cases when the NZ Maori Council sought to restrain the government from transferring certain assets to state-owned enterprises, alleging that this was inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty. The court upheld the Maori case and the judges placed emphasis on the Treaty as a partnership requiring “utmost good faith”. The interests in the case were later settled by agreement and given legislative form in the Treaty of Waitangi (State Enterprises) Act 1988. There has been a rush of claims to the Tribunal which is expected to be reviewing claims until the end of the century. The Department of Maori Affairs began implementing its “Devolution Programme” (Tukua Te Rangatiratanga) to return many of its functions to Iwi (or Tribal) authorities, and other Maori programmes were instituted, including the Maori Language Act of 1987, which established the Maori Language Commission to promote Maori as an official language of New Zealand.

Many of these developments produced strains within New Zealand society. There was a backlash as many whites felt threatened by the new Maori militancy and Maori claims to land. Many Maoris were also critical of what was regarded as the slowness or bad faith of the government in implementing pro-Maori policies. There was controversy in 1987 as some Maoris supported the military coup by Colonel Rabuka in Fiji. The 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi in February 1990 was expected to highlight these tensions.

Yet in many ways there are signs of optimism also. There is a high rate of inter-marriage between the two communities; many whites as well as Maori are learning the Maori language, and the possibilities for co-operation and reconciliation are good. In 1985, Sir Paul Reeves was sworn into office as the first Governor-General of Maori descent.

(See also Aboriginal Australians)