Before 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 their own cultures. Over time, both 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 chiefs encouraged these Pākehā–Māori to marry into their families, in order to benefit from their ‘bicultural’ skills.
In 1840 New Zealand’s population was 70,000 to 90,000 Māori and only about 2,000 non-Māori, so Māori retained a great deal of their earlier authority.
However, this balance between the two cultures was not maintained in later years. Following the signing of the Treaty of 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 1961 Hunn Report introduced a policy of moving rural Māori into cities to help them adapt to city life, where the culture was overwhelmingly Pākehā. No provision was made for protecting Māori culture.
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 Māori customs and traditions. This change of policy indicated a greater acceptance of biculturalism by official bodies.
Māori came together in the cities during the 1970s, leading to social changes that became known as the ‘Māori renaissance’. Through high-profile protests such as the 1975 Māori land march, Māori (and their supporters) made the government more aware of claims that the Crown had breached the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi. In late 1975 the government responded and established the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate claims of contemporary treaty breaches. In 1985 it extended the tribunal’s powers to also investigate historic breaches of the treaty. The tribunal’s reports introduced ideas such as ‘treaty partnership’ to New Zealand politics.
In 1980 the MP Matiu Rata left the Labour Party to form Mana Motuhake, a political party that advocated greater Māori autonomy. In 1982 Hiwi Tauroa, then 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 increasing biculturalism.