Māori settled in New Zealand from the eleventh century onwards. For over a century of European settlement Māori tended to remain in rural areas, but by the 2000s more than 80 per cent of Māori lived in urban areas. According to data from the 2013 census, there were 598,605 Māori in the country, making up 14.9 per cent of the total population. Of this group almost half (46.5 per cent) identified Māori as their only ethnicity, with the remainder identifying alongside one or more other ethnicities. The Māori population has increased by close to 40 per cent since 1991, when they totalled 434,847.


Historical context

Māori 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 Māori 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 warfare between Māori tribes in the ‘musket wars’. There were important divisions between Māori at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Māori chiefs were divided over signing the treaty and were uncertain about its provisions. The English text of the treaty guaranteed Māori ‘the full, exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands’, while the Māori text used the words te tino rangatiratanga which could be translated as ‘the sovereignty of their lands’. However, the Crown was promised kawanatanga, a Māori 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 Māori 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 ‘Māori wars’.

In the 1840s, as Pakeha settlers increased in numbers, there were clashes in all parts of the country between Pakeha and Māori. Pakeha resented Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori. Even the ‘loyal’ Māori 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 Māori but, as one analyst wrote in 1980, ‘the white man’s peace was more devastating than his war’, as Parliament oppressed Māori and appropriated their resources.

Waitangi Treaty under strain

After the land wars there were intermittent Māori attempts to reopen discussions on the Treaty of Waitangi, and to seek the restoration of confiscated land. In 1884 the Māori 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 Māori unity movement) was revived late in the century; it introduced a Māori Rights Bill into the New Zealand Parliament (where Māori had four seats) in 1894, seeking Māori 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 Māori history and political affairs. A Royal Commission’s findings on raupatu in 1928 vindicated the Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori were still primarily a rural population, residing 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 Māori 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 Māori lived in urban areas.

Protest movement

A more radical Māori 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 Māori issues. There was a renewed focus on the Treaty of Waitangi, centring on claims that it has failed to protect Māori 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 Māori issues as merely the grievances of militant radicals; this intensified Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori existence, of their prior occupation of the land and of an intent that the Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori 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, Māori were able to seek restitution and compensation for the loss of land and resources. Despite discussions of political reform no new Māori seats were created. Māori voters can choose either to be on the general electoral roll or to vote for one of the four Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori claims before the Waitangi Tribunal. Two years later the Tainui Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori claims. Simultaneously, Māori were critical of the continued slow progress in meeting their demands, though social changes resulted in the teaching of the Māori language and taha Māori (the Māori way) in schools, enabling some degree of biculturalism.

Resource management and conservation

Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori to battle for the preservation and integrity of their resources. Despite a series of new statutes, laws and speeches, Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori to a sum of money denied the social, political and cultural impacts of colonization and sought to eradicate Māori rights as established by the Treaty of Waitangi. It defined Māori rights within a colonial framework as ‘limited management rights’ rather than self-determination, and failed to recognize Māori spiritual attachment to their land. It was rejected by Māori 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 Māori rejected the ‘fiscal envelope’, resulting in considerable unity in Māori society but frustration for the conservative National Party government.

During 1995 Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori without close links to their tribes protested that tribally based settlements deliver disproportionate benefits to some Māori simply because of the assets available in their region, and would disadvantage urban Maori. Most of the major Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori issues have otherwise become less intractable. The slow settlement of historical grievances had yet to create an economic base enabling Māori 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 Māori leadership but a growing acceptance of the need for Māori sovereignty. This has led to considerable turbulence and fluctuation in New Zealand politics.

The New Zealand Parliament passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act in November 2004. The bill overruled a June 2003 court ruling that found Māori may have customary interests in the foreshore, which could allow granting of title by the Māori 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 Māori Affairs Minister Tariana Turia resigned from the government and formed a new Māori Party, a move that reduced Labour’s traditional Māori support.

The Māori Party gained four of the seven Māori seats from the Labour Party in the 2005 elections. Many Māori voted strategically for the Labour Party in protest against the National Party’s proposal to abolish the seven Māori parliamentary seats. The Māori 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.

Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori 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’.

In July 2007 the New Zealand Law Commission began a project to develop a legal framework for Māori 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 Māori groups and the ‘Waka Umanga (Māori Corporations) Act’ project proposes an alternative that allows tribes to interact with the legal system.


Current issues

The Māori enjoy a relatively strong position in society compared to other indigenous peoples around the world, thanks to the Treaty of Waitangi. Māori have long been seeking more secure protection of their treaty rights through constitutional provisions. The government recently announced that it is planning to undertake a constitutional review process, which will include a review of Māori representation, the role of the Treaty of Waitangi and other constitutional issues.

Relative to most ethnic groups in New Zealand, other than Pacific Islanders, the Māori are disadvantaged socially and economically. Most Māori are concentrated in areas of unskilled employment, where wages are low and unemployment rates are high. While there have been significant improvements over the last two decades in many areas, such as employment levels and life expectancy, significant disparities remain. 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.

A number of positive initiatives have been developed to address some of these areas of disadvantage. For example, since the adoption of the Drivers of Crime initiative, a project developed to reduce Māori offending and reoffending, the number of young Māori appearing in court has reduced by 30 per cent over the last two years. The government also launched the Youth Crime Action Plan in 2013, aiming to reduce crime and recidivism for young Māori. The 2013 census results also indicate that more Māori are achieving formal qualifications at university, with over 36,000 stating a bachelor’s degree or higher as their highest qualification – a more than 50 per cent increase since 2006.

In many parts of the country the Māori 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 Māori at all levels of education, and at the same time there has been a renaissance in the teaching and learning of Māori language and culture, partly through increasing numbers of bilingual classes in primary and secondary schools. There have also been growing numbers of specifically Māori-language schools (Kura Kaupapa Māori), extending from pre-school to secondary level. This focus on education has contributed to arresting the decline in Maoritanga (Māori culture) that tended to follow urbanization. Indeed, there has been a steady increase since the 1990s in the number of children being taught in te reo Māori. Policies promoting the recognition of Māori culture and the visibility of Māori identity in the national arena have been a positive factor in the revitalization of the language. An important step forward was taken in August 2017 when Rotorua became the first official bilingual city in New Zealand.

Issues attendant on reconciliation between white settlers and the Māori community are examined by the Waitangi Tribunal, which was created by an Act of the New Zealand Parliament in 1975. The Tribunal allows the retrospective resolution of grievances. Its findings are not legally binding but the recommendations are generally respected by society. While the fundamental issue of land return or compensation is at the forefront, most land claims remain outstanding, with Māori owning only 5 per cent of the country’s land.

Through the policy of biculturalism, and the practice of the Waitangi Tribunal, New Zealand governments have sought to enable Māori development. Māori tribes (iwi) have developed programmes for local development, but have often lacked the land and capital to implement them. Much less attention has been given to the more intractable problems of urban Maori. In this regard, a major challenge is how to use Māori 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 rapid urbanization of Māori from the 1960s saw the breakdown of iwi (tribe) and hapū (clan) systems. Māori leadership, however, worked to address the issues that arose from this breakdown and established multi-tribal urban authorities to help foster the economic, social and commercial development of urban Māori communities.


Updated January 2018.

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