Story: Kāwanatanga – Māori engagement with the state

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’.

Story by Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins
Main image: Māori settlement, Bay of Islands, about 1835

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A Māori declaration of Independence

The term kāwanatanga comes from the Māori word for governor – kāwana.

Māori first collectively asserted authority in New Zealand with the 1835 Declaration of Independence. Signed by a group of northern chiefs, this stated that sovereign power in New Zealand rested with chiefs, and that no other ‘kāwanatanga’ was permitted unless the chiefs agreed to it.

The declaration also asked for the British Crown’s protection against threats to New Zealand’s independence from other countries.

The Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840 chiefs around the country signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Almost all signed the Māori version, agreeing to give the British Crown permanent ‘kāwanatanga’ – possibly understood as the role of governor. Māori held the balance of power at that time, and saw the British governor in New Zealand as governing the European population of New Zealand, but not Māori.

However, where the Māori version of the treaty said ‘kāwanatanga’, the English version said ‘absolute sovereignty’, and colonial authorities were firm in their conviction that this was what had been agreed to.

Assimilation attempts

The government tried to assimilate Māori into colonial society, sometimes gently and sometimes forcefully. It also worked to obtain as much fertile land as possible from Māori. It saw Māori resistance to these efforts as treasonous threats to British sovereignty, and used legislation backed up by military might to make Māori comply. The ensuing period of conflict, the New Zealand wars, lasted decades.

Māori and Parliament

With the creation in 1867 of the Māori seats in Parliament, the government hoped to simultaneously placate Māori and limit their political involvement. However, Māori continued to engage with the government through Kīngitanga (the Māori King movement) and Kotahitanga (the Māori Parliament movement).

Changing times

From the Second World War, Māori migration from rural tribal communities to cities increased, bringing them into closer contact with Pākehā. This prompted renewed government efforts to assimilate Māori into Pākehā society.

In the 1970s Māori began protesting more publicly about their grievances and strongly reasserting their cultural identity.

In 1975 the government established the Waitangi Tribunal to address treaty breaches, and from the 1980s it made increasing efforts to promote a bicultural society. However, in the 21st century the government continued to face challenges to the scope and nature of its kāwanatanga, most obviously around issues such as laws affecting rights to the foreshore and seabed.

How to cite this page:

Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins, 'Kāwanatanga – Māori engagement with the state', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins, published 20 June 2012, updated 1 August 2016