Story: Biculturalism

Page 1. From bicultural to monocultural, and back

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Early biculturalism

Before te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) was signed in 1840, Māori and the largely British immigrant population were already exploring ways of living alongside each other. In many ways New Zealand society was bicultural, because both peoples were able to operate within each other’s cultures. Over time, Māori and Pākehā learned from each other’s culture and adapted their own cultures as a result. Pākehā-Māori (Pākehā who lived in Māori communities and acted as intermediaries between the two cultures) were among the first truly bicultural people in the country. Some rangatira encouraged these Pākehā-Māori to marry into their families, in order to benefit from their ‘bicultural’ skills.

Becoming monocultural

In 1840 New Zealand’s population was around 90,000 Māori and only about 2,000 non-Māori, so Māori continued to enjoy the authority recognised in He Whakaputanga (the 1835 Declaration of Independence).

However, this population imbalance was reversed in subsequent decades. Following the signing of te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, the British established government in New Zealand. The non-Māori population grew to greatly outnumber Māori and, despite the protections promised in the treaty, governments came to regard British traditions and culture as dominant. All non-British cultures (not just Māori) were expected to be assimilated into the dominant Pākehā culture.

For a long time, therefore, New Zealand was unofficially monocultural. For example, the Hunn report, a review of the Department of Māori Affairs released in 1961, made far-reaching recommendations on social reforms affecting Māori people, including advocating for the moving of rural Māori families into cities, where the culture was overwhelmingly Pākehā. No provision was made for protecting Māori culture by encouraging kin groups to migrate together.

Fancy venue

The first Waitangi Tribunal hearing, in 1977, was held in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel in Auckland. By the 1980s hearings took place on claimants’ marae, or in other venues that better reflected tikanga Māori and te ao Māori (the Māori world). This change of policy indicated a greater acceptance of biculturalism by official bodies.

Māori protest

As a result of urbanisation, by the 1970s many Māori were living in cities. As the government continued with policies which Māori believed breached Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Māori organised high-profile and effective protests such as the 1975 hīkoi led by Whina Cooper. Through these protests, Māori (and their non-Māori supporters) drew attention to the Crown’s breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. In late 1975 the government responded by passing a law to establish the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate claims of contemporary treaty breaches. In 1985, after further pressure from Māori protest, the government extended the tribunal’s powers to breaches of the treaty since 1840. The tribunal’s reports introduced ideas such as ‘treaty partnership’ into New Zealand politics.

In 1980 the Māori MP Matiu Rata (Ngāti Kurī, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Whātua), who as minister of Māori Affairs was influential in establishing the tribunal, left the Labour Party to form Mana Motuhake, a political party that advocated greater Māori autonomy. In 1982 Hiwi Tauroa (Ngāpuhi), the race relations conciliator, released a report, Race against time, which argued that the state of race relations in New Zealand required urgent action. These developments helped to lay the foundations for acknowledging the need for biculturalism.

How to cite this page:

Janine Hayward, 'Biculturalism - From bicultural to monocultural, and back', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Janine Hayward, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 10 Jan 2023 with assistance from Janine Hayward