Story: Biculturalism

Until the 1980s New Zealand was unofficially monocultural, with government policies favouring Pākehā culture. Since then, the Māori renaissance has led to a renewed emphasis on biculturalism, based on the partnership established between Māori and the Crown by the Treaty of Waitangi.

Story by Janine Hayward
Main image: Marae, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Story summary

All images & media in this story

From bicultural to monocultural

Before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Māori and British settlers lived within their own cultures. Pākehā–Māori (Pākehā who lived in Māori communities) were among the first bicultural people, who were comfortable in both groups.

After the treaty was signed, the settler population grew to outnumber Māori. British traditions and culture became dominant, and Māori were expected to adopt Pākehā culture.

Māori renaissance

From the 1970s a renaissance of Māori culture began, and Māori protested about issues such as land loss and breaches of the treaty. In 1975 the government set up the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate contemporary breaches, and from 1985 the tribunal could consider historic claims going back to 1840.

State-sector biculturalism

In the 1980s the government began to describe the treaty as New Zealand’s founding document. Government agencies began to recognise the languages, cultures and traditions of both Pākehā and Māori, and some government reports advocated biculturalism. In 2011 most government agencies had Māori as well as English names, and traditional Māori welcome and farewell ceremonies were often performed at official functions.


The idea of biculturalism is debated. Some people think New Zealand should be a multicultural society that officially recognises the cultures of many different peoples, not just of Māori and Pākehā. Others think that biculturalism doesn’t go far enough in supporting Māori culture and self-determination. They argue for separate Māori institutions, such as a Māori justice system or a separate Māori House of Representatives in Parliament.

How to cite this page:

Janine Hayward, 'Biculturalism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 December 2022)

Story by Janine Hayward, published 20 Jun 2012