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Kāwanatanga – Māori engagement with the state

by Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins

From the outset the relationship between Māori and the British-installed government was burdened by cultural misunderstandings and British disregard for Māori custom. Central to ongoing debate has been the term ‘kāwanatanga’, variously understood as ‘governorship’, ‘governance’, ‘government’, and ‘sovereignty’.

Defining kāwanatanga

The term ‘kāwanatanga’ is derived from a Māori-language version of the English word ‘governor’. There is no exact equivalent in Māori for this word, since traditional Māori society had decentralised forms of leadership, administration and social control that were quite different from the monarchic and bureaucratic systems of government developed in Britain. As a result, when the first representatives of the British government took up their posts in New Zealand, they needed new terms to explain to Māori the kind of administrative control they proposed to introduce.

1835 Declaration of Independence

In 1835 a group of northern chiefs representing ‘the united tribes of New Zealand’ signed a Declaration of Independence drawn up by the British Resident, James Busby. The declaration stated that the chiefs would not permit any kāwanatanga except their own to be exercised in their country, ‘unless by persons appointed by them, and acting under the authority of laws regularly enacted by them’.1 The unfamiliar term ‘kāwanatanga’ is likely to have been explained to the chiefs as meaning that they would retain their existing chiefly authority unless they knowingly chose to transfer it to others.

Governorship or governance?

The Māori word ‘kāwana’ is an adaptation of the English word ‘governor’. ‘Kāwanatanga’ is derived from it and is often translated as ‘governance’. However, some historians such as Judith Binney have suggested that when chiefs first encountered ‘kawanatanga’ in the text of the Treaty of Waitangi, they may have understood it to refer only to the role and functions of the governor, William Hobson. That is, they may have understood kāwanatanga to mean ‘governorship’ rather than ‘governance’. The distinction between these two meanings is significant, and may have influenced the chiefs’ decisions to sign the treaty.

Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by a much larger number of chiefs, including many of those who had signed the 1835 declaration. The Māori text of the first article of the treaty stated that these chiefs, ‘ka tuku rawa atu ki te Kuini o Ingarani ake tonu atu te Kawanatanga katoa o o ratou wenua’. In the original English version of the treaty this expression reads, ‘give absolutely to the Queen of England forever the complete sovereignty over their land.’2 The term ‘kāwanatanga’ was used by the translators to mean ‘complete sovereignty’.

Redefining kāwanatanga

In recent times scholars of the Māori language have questioned the accuracy of this translation. They have suggested that many chiefs would not have signed the treaty if they had understood that by doing so they were surrendering ‘complete sovereignty’ over their tribal lands. Anthropologist Hugh Kawharu has made a new translation of the treaty using the term ‘government’, rather than ‘sovereignty’, for ‘kāwanatanga’. Kawharu noted, ‘There could be no possibility of the Māori signatories having any understanding of government in the sense of “sovereignty”: ie, any understanding on the basis of experience or cultural precedent.’3

Tino rangatiratanga

The second article of the treaty confirms that although ‘kāwanatanga’ of their country will be transferred to the British Crown, Māori retain ‘te tino Rangatiratanga’ of their people, land and all other possessions. The original English version of the treaty gave the meaning of ‘te tino Rangatiratanga’ as ‘full, exclusive and undisturbed possession’.4 Kawharu later translated this term as ‘unqualified exercise of their chieftainship’5.

Throughout the history of the state’s relations with Māori, the exact meaning and application of the terms ‘kāwanatanga’ and ‘tino rangatiratanga’ have been debated by the two parties, and often disputed. The state has aimed to enforce kāwanatanga through various means including patronage, co-option, force, and legislative and institutional arrangements. Some Māori, especially in recent years, have interpreted ‘tino rangatiratanga’ to mean Māori self-government.

    • Quoted in Facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi. Wellington: Government Printer, 1976, preface. Back
    • Quoted in Facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi, preface. Back
    • I. H. Kawharu, ‘Treaty of Waitangi – Kawharu Translation.’ Waitangi Tribunal (last accessed 28 May 2012). Back
    • Quoted in Facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi, preface. Back
    • I. H. Kawharu, ed., Waitangi: Maori and Pakeha perspectives of the Treaty of Waitangi. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1989. Back

Implementing kāwanatanga

Accommodating Māori custom

In the first years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the colonial administration found it practically impossible to extend its control to all Māori districts. The first governors had almost no military force at their disposal and a limited civil administration. They therefore had little choice but to tolerate and even accommodate Māori law and custom.

For example in 1844 Governor Robert FitzRoy introduced the Native Exemption Ordinance. This provided that in legal cases involving both Māori and non-Māori, convicted Māori thieves could pay up to four times the value of goods stolen in lieu of other punishment. This was a legal equivalent of the traditional Māori custom of muru, or retribution for a crime.

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 provided for the establishment of native districts where many Māori ‘laws, customs, and usages’ would ‘be maintained for the government of themselves’. However, no such native districts were actually established.

Legally European

One example of the government’s policy of assimilating Māori into European life came in 1912. A provision was introduced to the Native Land Amendment Act enabling Māori to apply to the Native Land Court to be declared a European in law. This Europeanisation was not based on their proportion of non-Māori blood but on social factors such as knowledge of the English language, basic European education, and sufficient income from a profession, trade or land. Before the provision was repealed in 1931, 77 Māori were declared Europeans.

Assimilation and British law

The government’s limited recognition of Māori customary law was intended as a temporary measure, until a later generation of Māori accepted British-based law. Persuading Māori to embrace European habits, customs and language was part of this process. Government-sponsored Māori-language newspapers such as Te Karere Maori or the Maori Messenger Te Manuhiri Tuarangi and Maori Intelligencer invited Māori to surrender to Pākehā ‘the regulating of all things, for with him is wisdom and power and wealth and nobility, and he will preserve the government (Kawanatanga) of your island… cast aside the Maori life, and adopt the usages of the Pakeha’.1 Many Māori followed this advice but the majority chose to retain at least some features of ‘the Maori life’.

Armed enforcement

At times the government resorted to armed force to assert its kāwanatanga and counter challenges to its authority. In 1844–45 the northern chief Hōne Heke Pōkai and his followers repeatedly chopped down the flagstaff at Kororāreka (later Russell), which flew the symbol of British kāwanatanga, the Union Jack.

Governor Robert FitzRoy eventually employed armed force to quell Heke and his allies. A later governor, Thomas Gore Browne, asserted kāwanatanga by refusing to recognise customary Māori ownership rights to land at Waitara in Taranaki. This action led to a renewed outbreak of war in 1860.

Governor George Grey’s unwillingness to accept a rival sovereignty in New Zealand led him to order a military invasion of the Waikato region, the centre of the Māori King movement, in 1863. A large military force was used again in 1881 to break up the Parihaka community in Taranaki, whose leaders, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, were committed to peaceful resistance against the colonial government.

When Māori in the Far North refused to pay a tax on dogs in the late 1890s and when Rua Kēnana and his followers at Maungapōhatu, in Te Urewera, opposed the war effort during the First World War, the government again resorted to the use of armed force to assert its kāwanatanga.

    • Te Karere Maori or the Maori Messenger 2, no. 3 (2 May 1862), p. 30. Translation by Paul Meredith. Back

Containing Māori opposition

Opposition to land sales

The first New Zealand Parliament, established in 1854, set about figuring out how to advance European settlement by acquiring tribally owned land at a low price. By 1860 the chief land purchase commissioner had completed the purchase of most of the South Island, but the North Island, with a much larger Māori population, was proving more difficult to acquire. There was a growing resistance among Māori to any further land alienation and an increasingly nationalist attitude. In the late 1850s this manifested itself in the Kīngitanga, the Māori King movement.

A last stronghold

After the New Zealand wars and the confiscation of their fertile lands in the Waikato, the Māori King Tāwhiao and his followers retreated across the Pūniu River to live among their Ngāti Maniapoto relatives. They established an aukati (boundary) along the confiscation line, forbidding Europeans to cross into what became known as ‘the King Country’. For the following 20 years this was a semi-independent region where the government was unable to enforce its laws. In the early 20th century Prime Minister Richard Seddon was eager to end the King movement’s claims to self-government in their own region. In 1903 Seddon convinced the third Māori king, Mahuta, to accept a seat on the Legislative Council. Mahuta remained on the council until 1910, but he had a limited role and was unable to progress Waikato’s compensation claim over the confiscation of its lands.

Co-opting chiefs

The colonial administration sought to co-opt ‘friendly’ (pro-government) chiefs by a variety of strategies. In 1860 Governor Thomas Gore Browne hosted a gathering of 200 loyalist chiefs at Kohimarama, Auckland, to denounce and isolate the King movement and endorse the government’s land dealings. When Grey returned to office in 1861, he implemented his own plan of ‘native government’ giving tribal councils, or rūnanga, a form of official recognition and limited autonomy. Together with the local resident magistrate, each rūnanga was empowered to pass by-laws within its community. By this and other means, tribal and pan-tribal expressions of Māori autonomy were countered with initiatives that granted limited rangatiratanga, but within the overall control of the government.

Native Land Court

As the settler population increased, the problem of transferring Māori land to European ownership became increasingly pressing for the government. To speed and simplify purchase, tribally owned lands needed to be converted into individually owned titles. The Native Land Court was established in 1865 with the promise that it would ‘greatly promote the peaceful settlement of the Colony and the advancement and civilisation of the Natives if their rights to land were ascertained, defined and declared and if the ownership of such lands … were assimilated as nearly as possible to the ownership of land according to English law.’1

The Native Land Court dominated the relationship between Māori and the state in the late 19th century. Some historians have suggested that the court was not an independent judicial body but an agent of government, where judges and government officials often worked closely to dismantle the Māori tradition of collective land ownership. The Native Land Court was the subject of numerous petitions to Parliament from aggrieved Māori communities.

Māori MPs

In 1867 four Māori seats were created in Parliament under the Maori Representation Act, initially on a temporary basis. The intention was, in part, to incorporate Māori into the colonial government and end the independent political and military ambitions of Māori chiefs. By confining the Māori vote to four seats, the government also limited Māori political representation and reduced the possibility that in certain districts a concentration of Māori voters might dominate general electorates. After 1876, when the Māori seats were made permanent, the government was able to point to them as evidence of the state’s equal treatment of Māori. However, the Māori MPs were generally marginalised within Parliament, and had the unenviable task of trying to sell unpopular government policy to fellow Māori.


Sharing kāwanatanga

Kotahitanga and Kīngitanga

Following the New Zealand wars, further large areas of Māori land were alienated by a range of processes including confiscation. Māori nationalist sentiment and attempts at greater autonomy were also maintained, almost always through non-violent means. In the 1890s a new Kotahitanga Māori Parliament attempted to form a union of tribes to advocate for Māori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) survived the New Zealand wars and later built a permanent base at Ngāruawāhia in Waikato.

Controlling custom

One of the powers of the Māori councils, formed in 1900, was to direct the conduct of tangihanga. In 1902 the Mangōnui District Māori Council, in the Far North, passed this by-law: ‘corpses shall be buried, if the death occurs between the 15th day of March and the 15th day of September (both days inclusive) in any year, within four days after death; and if the death occurs between the 16th day of September and the 14th day of March of the following year (both days inclusive), within three days after death, unless the Council shall otherwise direct, or unless it is otherwise provided for by any Act of the General Assembly.’1

Māori councils

In response to these and other pressures for increased Māori self-determination, Māori land councils and Māori councils were created by legislation in 1900. The purpose of the land councils was to appease the movement opposed to further sales of Māori land by administering leasehold agreements for the land. The Māori councils were empowered to oversee and regulate the health and welfare of their local communities. Neither of these initiatives proved effective or lasting.

Integration of Māori

The rapid migration of Māori to cities from the 1940s drove the Department of Māori Affairs (the renamed Native Affairs Department) to regard Māori housing and welfare as major concerns. The department also had ultimate responsibility for Māori wardens under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945. In this period Māori and Pākehā were coming into greater daily contact with each other, and the wardens had limited powers to maintain public order and ensure racial harmony. The 1960 Hunn Report recommended the integration of Māori within New Zealand society, and this became the basis for state policy on Māori throughout the 1960s. The New Zealand Māori Council was created in response to the government’s wish to deal with Māori as a single race, rather than as individual tribes.

Political protest and treaty rights

The 1970s were dominated by a renewed sense of Māori identity and Māori protest movements about past injustices. In 1975 the government established the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate alleged breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The tribunal’s findings led to significant gains for Māori within the framework of kāwanatanga. Māori became an official New Zealand language in 1987, and state-sponsored Māori-language educational institutions and media services such as tribal radio stations and Māori Television were formed to support revitalisation of the language. The tribunal’s reports and findings also resulted in negotiated settlements between the government and specific tribes, often including the transfer to Māori of substantial financial and other assets that provided greater economic independence and political influence.

A bicultural New Zealand

From the late 1980s the government promoted a bicultural New Zealand, with a public service more responsive to the needs of the Māori community. Tribal and other Māori organisations became social-service providers, particularly addressing the social and economic inequities experienced by Māori families. The Whānau Ora programme, for example, aimed to improve the wellbeing of Māori whānau through better coordination of government services, using Māori service providers.

The government’s lead Māori policy advisor, the Ministry of Māori Development – Te Puni Kōkiri, defined its goal as ‘Māori succeeding as Māori… without compromising what it means to be Māori.’2

Modern challenges to kāwanatanga

The government continued to face challenges to the scope and nature of its kāwanatanga. In 2004 it passed legislation which deemed the ownership of the foreshore and seabed to be held by the Crown. More than 30,000 Māori and their Pākehā supporters marched on Parliament to challenge the legislation, which was replaced in 2011 by the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act. This sparked further controversy.


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How to cite this page: Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins, 'Kāwanatanga – Māori engagement with the state', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 February 2019)

Story by Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 22 Aug 2016