Story: Kotahitanga – unity movements

Kotahitanga means unity, and Kotahitanga movements aim to unify Māori on non-tribal grounds. Some have been religious, while others focused on political power, protest or social issues.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: The masthead of Te Paki o Matariki newspaper

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Kotahitanga means unity in Māori. Traditionally, Māori society was based around tribal affiliations. Kotahitanga movements are Māori political movements that try to unify Māori on a non-tribal basis.

Early kotahitanga movements

In 1834 northern chiefs chose a flag for New Zealand, known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. A year later another group of chiefs, mainly from the north of the North Island, signed a Declaration of Independence, declaring an independent state.

Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840 a large number of chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi. This made Queen Victoria the head of state in New Zealand. There were versions in both English and in Māori, but the two versions have some differences in meaning. This has led to debate about what independence Māori kept under the treaty.


In 1858 the chiefs of some iwi (tribes) came together to select a king, which they believed was needed to protect Māori land. Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero became the first king, and was followed by his son Tāwhiao. The government saw the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) as a threat, and fought them. King Tāwhiao and his followers were exiled into what is now known as the King Country.

The government and kotahitanga

In 1860 the governor of New Zealand, Thomas Gore Browne, organised a conference at Kohimarama in Auckland. Chiefs from iwi all around the country attended.

In the 1860s the next governor, George Grey, organised a new system of rūnanga or Māori councils, which aimed to work like a form of local government. The scheme never took hold.

Religious kotahitanga movements

Some kotahitanga movements aimed to unify Māori through religion rather than tribal affiliation. These include Pai Mārire, which was founded by prophet Te Ua Haumēne in the 1860s, and the Rātana church, which was founded by Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana in the 1920s.

Māori parliaments

A number of Kotahitanga movements were directly political and some set up parliaments. These included:

  • Māori parliaments at Waitangi and Kohimarama in the 1870s and 1880s
  • The Kotahitanga Parliament, which met between 1892 and 1902
  • Kauhanganui, the parliament of the Māori King movement, which met from around 1890 to 1920.

Kotahitanga movements in the 20th and 21st centuries

The Māori War Effort Organisation was formed to recruit soldiers to fight in the Second World War as part of the Māori Battalion.

The New Zealand Māori Council is a national organisation, organised by the government.

The Māori Women’s Welfare League, which was set up in 1951, focused on social issues, but has also been involved in politics.

The National Māori Congress was set up in 1990. It is similar to the New Zealand Māori Council, but is independent of government.

Urban authorities are organisations that provide health and social services to support Māori who live in cities, away from their tribal area.

In the 1970s and 1980s there were a number of Māori groups who protested against racism and in favour of Māori rights. They included Ngā Tamatoa and the Waitangi Action Committee.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Kotahitanga – unity movements', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 June 2012