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by Janine Hayward

For several decades after the arrival of Europeans, New Zealand society was in many ways bicultural. However, this balance was temporary. From 1840 until the 1980s, government policies favoured Pākehā culture, although Māori culture and communities endured. Since then, the Māori renaissance has led to a renewed emphasis on biculturalism, based on the partnership between Māori and the Crown established by te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi).

From bicultural to monocultural, and back

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.

Biculturalism in the state sector

The Māori protests of the 1970s and 1980s brought about important changes in how New Zealand saw itself, and how the state delivered services to New Zealanders. The public sector began to talk about bicultural New Zealand and acknowledge te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) as the country’s founding document. Government departments began to adopt the idea that the languages, cultures and traditions of both Pākehā and Māori should be officially recognised by the state. In 1987, te reo Māori became an official language of New Zealand under the Māori Language Act. This gave everyone the right to use te reo Māori in official settings such as Parliament and the courts.

Becoming bicultural

Writer and academic Ranginui Walker (Whakatōhea) wrote, ‘To survive in the political economy, Māori are impelled to learn and to function in two cultures. Therefore Māori are, by definition, bicultural.’1In his 1992 book Becoming bicultural, educational psychologist James Ritchie described biculturalism as ‘a fact of contemporary social life so profound that everything we do, everything we are, must be considered and reconsidered in terms of it. My world is divided not just into Māori and Pākehā but into those who think biculturally and those who do not’.2

1987 royal commission report

In the late 1980s, reports emerged from the public sector that broke away from the assimilation policies of the past and reflected a new, more bicultural New Zealand. Many of these reports proposed changes to government departments to make them more appropriate and effective for Māori.

Perhaps the most significant example of the bicultural vision adopted by the public sector was the report of the Royal Commission on Social Policy in 1987. The report stated that ‘the Maori dimension is basic to New Zealand society and this must have profound implications for all social policy.’3 It included an extensive discussion of the Treaty of Waitangi and its implications and objectives for social policy. Most significantly, some chapters in the report were translated into te reo Māori, reflecting the fact that te reo Māori had been made an official language of New Zealand in 1987.

Other policy reports

In 1986 Puao-te-ata-tu: daybreak provided a Māori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. As with the other reports, its bilingual title reflected a desire to consider Māori–government relations in a new, bicultural, way.  A 1988 government policy paper on Māori affairs, He tirohanga rangapu: partnership perspectives, called for major changes to the delivery of Māori-affairs services to give a meaningful role to Māori. The Labour government’s response, Te urupare rangapu: partnership response, instead proposed a more modest restructuring of the Department of Māori Affairs. The 1990 National government continued the idea of biculturalism to some extent. Ka awatea: a new day set out the government’s blueprint for Māori development, which focused on education as the key to Māori achievement.

Reforming the state sector

One effect of the state-sector reforms of the 1980s was to reorient the outward appearance of the sector, and the way it responded to Māori, in a more bicultural direction. By the 2000s, most New Zealand government departments had a Māori name. Māori karakia and waiata were familiar at official functions, and tangihanga leave was provided. Māori words, symbols and concepts are now commonplace inside and outside the government and public sector. The Public Service Act 2020 requires senior leaders in the public service to recognise the aims and aspirations of Māori, and foster greater involvement of Māori in the public service.

Reforming other institutions

Although bicultural policy developed within the public sector in particular, other sections of New Zealand society also grappled with the ideas associated with biculturalism. In 1986 the bicultural commission of the Anglican Church released the report Te kaupapa tikanga rua: bi-cultural development. This recommended changing the constitution of the church to reflect and entrench partnership and biculturalism. The church adopted almost all of the commission’s recommendations, and today its structure still reflects the changes made in the 1980s.

Human rights lawyer Moana Jackson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Porou) argued for a more substantial form of biculturalism through the establishment of a Māori justice system. Professor Whatarangi Winiata (Ngāti Raukawa) argued for New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy to better reflect the nature of the treaty partnership.

Many incremental but important changes which reflect the bicultural journey have occurred in other aspects of New Zealand society. Until the 1990s, it was most common for only the English version of the national anthem to be sung. When Hinewehi Mohi (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe) sang only the te reo Māori version of the anthem at a rugby international at Twickenham in the United Kingdom, it caused a national debate. It then became more common for the te reo Māori version of the national anthem to be sung first, followed by the English version. Today, this is how the national anthem is always sung. From 2022, a new public holiday in June celebrated Matariki, the Māori New Year.

Te reo Māori revival

Revival of te reo Māori has been a vital part of biculturalism in recent years. The number of New Zealanders who can speak more than a few words and phrases in te reo is growing. It is now not unusual to hear towns and cities being referred to by both their Māori and English names, and many people refer to New Zealand as Aotearoa.

    • Ranginui Walker, Ka whawhai tonu mātou: struggle without end. Rev. ed. Auckland: Penguin, 2004, p. 389. Back
    • James Ritchie, Becoming bicultural. Wellington: Huia; Daphne Brasell Associates, 1992, p. 6. Back
    • The April report: report of the Royal Commission on Social Policy: Te Komihana a te Karauna mo nga Ahuatanga-A-Iwi. Vol 2. Wellington: Royal Commission on Social Policy, 1988, p. 3. Back

Continuing debates

‘Not bicultural enough’

Biculturalism has been criticised for not going far enough, restricting the tino rangatiratanga guaranteed to Māori in te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi). Some have argued that reform of existing institutions and processes is superficial and does little to advance Māori and treaty rights. They believe that true biculturalism demands the development of different and specifically Māori institutions to express the treaty partnership more meaningfully. In 2015 the Iwi Chairs Forum released Matike mai, a report which advocated for constitutional transformation in Aotearoa. It proposed a number of models which would allow Māori to exercise authority (by Māori, for Māori) alongside non-Māori. In 2019, the government commissioned an independent report called He puapua. This talked about how Aotearoa New Zealand could recognise the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in New Zealand. It discussed ways for Māori to exercise authority from a basis of tikanga Māori.

Multiculturalism or biculturalism?

New Zealand is home to many different peoples and cultures, but the state effectively recognises only the dominant Pākehā culture and the indigenous Māori culture. Some people would prefer that New Zealand was officially multicultural. This would mean, in policy terms, that the state would officially recognise and provide for the culture, language and rights of multiple cultures, not just Pākehā and Māori.

However, people who support biculturalism believe an official multicultural policy would make Māori culture and language no more important than other cultures and languages. They argue that te Tiriti o Waitangi establishes a particular expectation for the Crown to protect the rights of Māori. Many people who support biculturalism see it as an important foundation for a successful multicultural New Zealand. It is important that all people have the freedom to exercise their culture preferences; the debate is about which cultures should get official recognition.

Multi- or bicultural?

Ranginui Walker (Whakatōhea) once remarked, ‘Māori remind Pākehā that becoming bicultural enough to be at ease in the other founding culture of the nation is the first step towards becoming multicultural.’1 In 1997, Race Relations Conciliator Rajen Prasad argued for a new way to think about New Zealand which avoided the debates of the past. He described New Zealand as ‘a multi-ethnic society with an indigenous culture and with a founding document that regulates the relationship between iwi and Crown.’2

Bi-national or bicultural?

Some people have suggested the need to talk about New Zealand as bi-national, rather than bicultural. ‘Bi-nationalism’ sees New Zealand as one country with two nations – Māori and non-Māori. This model would allow the non-Māori nation to be multicultural, and allow Māori the opportunity to pursue greater autonomy.

Political scientist Dominic O’Sullivan (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kahu) asserts that biculturalism is ‘binary thinking’ used widely in the 1980s and 1990s to secure Māori a voice in political decision-making within the framework of a treaty partnership between Māori and the Crown. He argues that Māori were the junior partner in that relationship and Māori aspirations for self-determination could not be realised within that model. He advocates a differentiated citizenship which positions Māori differently in terms of their relationship with the Crown.3

Although it is now less common for people to talk about ‘biculturalism’, ideas about the appropriate relationship between Māori and non-Māori will continue to evolve.

    • Ranginui Walker, Ka whawhai tonu mātou: struggle without end. Rev. ed. Auckland: Penguin, 2004, p. 390. Back
    • Quoted in Augie Fleras and Paul Spoonley, Recalling Aotearoa: indigenous politics and ethnic relations in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 221. Back
    • Dominic O’Sullivan, ‘Postcolonialism’, in J. Hayward (ed.), New Zealand government and politics (6th edition). Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 106–113. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Janine Hayward, 'Biculturalism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Janine Hayward, published 20 June 2012, reviewed & revised 10 January 2023