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Maori New Zealanders


You can't talk about or understand New Zealand without knowing about its first human population, the Maori.

Maori carving in Otago Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Maori carving in Otago Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Much of the world is already familiar with certain aspects of Maori culture. One of the best-known Maori creations is the haka, a war dance popularized by New Zealand's national rugby team, the All Blacks, which they perform before a match. The Maori word kiwi has also become part of the shared global language (even if the original meaning has been obscured by product marketing).

Maori are a Polynesian people who settled in New Zealand in about the 14th century and today make up approximately 16.5% of the New Zealand population. The most obvious Maori legacy in New Zealand is the country's many Maori place names.

Maori were always more populous in the North than the South Island, and today, too, about 85% of Maori live in the North Island, with the greatest concentration in northern Hawke's Bay and the Bay of Plenty.

Most Maori are members of a particular iwi, or tribe, with hapū sub-tribes. However, the extent of urbanization among today's Maori means that one in seven or eight Maori do not identify with an iwi. Extensive intermarriage between Maori and pakeha (i.e., white New Zealanders) is another factor in how individual Maori identify themselves.

Some Maori history

The settling of New Zealand by the Maori is thought to trace its roots back to the spread into the Pacific of people from Taiwan about 4,000 years ago. The arc of migration south-east of Taiwan extends as far east as the Pitcairn Islands, but New Zealand is believed to have been the last of the Pacific islands to be inhabited. The Maori settlers probably came from the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and/or Tahiti, but Maori lore identifies the ancestral homeland as a place called "Hawaiki," from which the great leader Kupe led canoes across the seas to New Zealand.

Today's Maori cannot be talked about without understanding the agreement they reached with European settlers in 1840, called the Treaty of Waitangi. In it, Europeans agreed to honour Maori autonomy and property rights, and afford them the same rights as British subjects, in exchange for the Maori accepting the British colonization of New Zealand.

However, the agreement was subsequently strained by land ownership disputes that arose along with increase in the European population. Relations between Maori and white settlers reached their nadir in the 1860s, when disputes devolved into warfare. British troops (and, later, New Zealand government forces) fought Maori warriors in areas throughout New Zealand.

Maori resistance was fierce and strategically sophisticated, but the government was victorious by the early 1870s. In the wake of its victory, the New Zealand government confiscated great swathes of Maori land in the North Island. This only exacerbated the grievances that had led to the New Zealand Wars in the first place, and has greatly impacted the fortunes of the Maori to this day.

The Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975 was intended to redress claims under the Treaty of Waitangi, and is administered by the Waitangi Tribunal. Settlement has been difficult, and the passage of time means many claims are now impossible to fully establish, let alone solve.

Numerous protests by Maori, especially since the 1970s, have focused mainly on land claims under the Treaty of Waitangi, fueled by inequality that has Maori at a social and economic disadvantage to most other ethnic groups in New Zealand.

Settlements brokered by the Waitangi Tribunal were made throughout the 1990s and 2000s, totaling almost 1 billion dollars and large areas of Crown land. However, the plaintiffs are not Maori in general, but particular iwi and hapū, each of which represents between hundreds and tens of thousands of Maori. Critics of these settlements include University of Auckland academic, Elizabeth Rata, who alleges that it is a form of neo-tribal capitalism that does not serve the interests of most Maori.

Maori "Tino Rangatiratanga" flag
Maori "Tino Rangatiratanga" flag

Maori political representation

Maori were given an institutionalised political voice in 1867 with the Maori Representation Act, which established four seats for Maori in parliament. Currently, 23 of the 120 members who meet in the Beehive are Maori: a proportion of 19%, which is 3.5% higher than the proportion of Maori in the population.

However, Maori are still not well represented in local government. So, in the 21st century there has been a movement to establish Maori wards in localities throughout New Zealand in order to give Maori a more prominent role in town and city councils.

Furthermore, there has been a department of national government since the 1840s to serve the Maori population. Its latest incarnation is the Ministry of Māori Development, or Te Puni Kōkiri, established in 1992 with the goal of realising Maori potential.

Nevertheless, socially and economically, Maori New Zealanders generally remain at a disadvantage in relation to non-Maori New Zealanders. Typical markers of poverty, such as unemployment, incarceration, suicide rate, lack of education, domestic violence and substance abuse, are disproportionately high in the Maori population compared with other ethnic groups in New Zealand.

Initiatives to rectify this disparity continue. The most conspicuous is the revival of te reo Maori (the Maori language), which is currently spoken by no more than about 4% of the New Zealand population.

Maori haka, popularized by the All Blacks rugby team.
Maori haka, popularized by the All Blacks rugby team. (Image by holgerheinze0 from Pixabay)

Maori identity

Opinions are divided on what makes a Maori, with some basing it on a mystical "blood and soil" concept allegedly beyond the comprehension of non-Maori at one extreme, and an individualist "how you feel about your identity" at the other, which is more about social category than ethnicity. Having some Maori blood is generally acknowledged as being a required criterion for claiming Maori identity, but all else is fluid and up for debate.

Intermarriage has blurred the line between Maori and non-Maori, which can lead to comments made to Maori such as "You don't look like a Māori." Anecdotally, it is claimed that most Pakeha New Zealanders have at least one Maori ancestor (this writer being one such pakeha).

Neotraditionalism is a major trend in current Maori identity, with face tattooing, or tā-moko, being a conspicuous hallmark. Notably, New Zealand's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, has a Maori facial tattoo (moko kauae).

Memorial in Rotorua to Rangitīaria Dennan (née Ratema), New Zealand Maori tribal leader, teacher and tourist guide, and her husband, William, and to Maori ethnographer, Mākereti Papakura.
Memorial in Rotorua to Rangitīaria Dennan (née Ratema), New Zealand Maori tribal leader, teacher and tourist guide, and her husband, William, and to Maori ethnographer, Mākereti Papakura. 

Te reo Maori - Maori language

Some te reo Maori that anyone with a basic knowledge of New Zealand is expected to know includes the following:
kia ora - a greeting wishing someone life and health
Aotearoa - ("Land of the Long White Cloud," New Zealand)
Māoritanga - Māoriness, the Māori way of life
Pākehā - New Zealander of European descent
whānau - extended family
haka - Māori dance
hui - a get-together
koha - gift given by guests to hosts
marae - the area in front of a meeting house
mana - prestige, reputation
hangi - food cooked underground
kauri - a native conifer, and New Zealand's biggest tree
tapu - sacred, taboo
kiwi - flightless, nocturnal native bird
whakapapa - genealogy, genealogical recitation

Maori in popular culture

Finally, for a glimpse of what it means to be Maori in modern day New Zealand, the Alan Duff novel, Once Were Warriors, or the movie of the same name based on it, is a good place to start. Much has changed since the novel was written in 1990 and the film released in 1994, but it remains a powerful work that still affords an insight into what it is to be Maori in New Zealand today.

Books about New Zealand

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