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Kotahitanga – unity movements

by Basil Keane

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.

The first Kotahitanga movements, 1834 to 1840

Kotahitanga means unity. Kotahitanga movements are Māori political movements that aim to unify Māori on a pan-tribal basis.

Kotahitanga movements were diverse; some were regional, while others were nationalist. Some attempted to unite tribes in a federation, others sought to switch loyalty from the tribe to the movement itself. Other movements aimed to unite Māori in pan-Māori organisations with no reference to their tribal origin. Some had a religious element at their core, reflecting the fact that traditional Māori society had a religious element. Some movements have been entirely independent of the government, while others have been state sponsored.

The 1834 flag

An early example of a kotahitanga movement dates back to the search for a national flag for New Zealand. Before 1840, when New Zealand became part of the British Empire, ships that were built in New Zealand were not entitled to fly the British flag. One New Zealand ship called the Sir George Murray, part-owned by northern chiefs Patuone and Taonui, was impounded, with Patuone on board, for not having a flag or register. To solve this issue, the British Resident (a representative of the British government) James Busby organised a meeting with northern chiefs to select a flag for use by ships from New Zealand. On 20 March 1834 the flag, known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, was adopted by 25 northern rangatira at Waitangi. The flag and informal Māori registers were recognised by Britain.

The Declaration of Independence

A year after a national flag was chosen, Busby organised a meeting at Waitangi for a number of northern chiefs. On 28 October 1835 they signed a Declaration of Independence, Te Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene, in which they declared their sovereignty (rangatiratanga) and a sovereign state (whenua rangatira). Initially it was northern chiefs who signed, but over the next few years other chiefs signed, including Waikato chief Te Wherowhero and Hawke’s Bay chief Te Hāpuku. The united tribes were supposed to meet each year in a congress. However, this did not happen.

He iwi kotahi tātou – We are one people

At the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Lieutenant-Governor Hobson said, ‘He iwi kotahi tātou’ (We are now one people) as he shook the hand of each signatory to the treaty. This idea of unity between Māori and Pākehā was occasionally expressed in Māori writings as ‘kotahitanga’. A Ngāti Whātua letter to the governor in 1860 spoke of ‘ko te kotahitanga o enei iwi e rua’ (the union of the two races).1 However, the usual use of the term referred to unity among Māori people.

The Treaty of Waitangi, 1840

The Treaty of Waitangi is often referred to as New Zealand’s founding document. It was a treaty between Queen Victoria as head of state and the various Māori chiefs. One of the reasons for organising a treaty to negotiate the transfer of sovereignty was because the united tribes had declared their independence in 1835. The treaty specifically refers to the earlier declaration when it noted that those who signed the treaty were ‘The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the separate and independent Chiefs’. The English version of the treaty purported to transfer sovereignty from Māori to Britain, while the Māori versions transferred ‘kāwanatanga’. In English Māori retained ownership of their properties, while in Māori they retained ‘te tino rangatiratanga’. Problematically, ‘rangatiratanga’ had been referred to in the Declaration of Independence as meaning ‘independence’. There has been much debate since about the true meaning of rangatiratanga, but historically Māori came to see the treaty as a basis for independence and a justification of independent kotahitanga movements.

    • The Maori Messenger – Te Karere Māori 7, No. 18 (30 November 1860), p. 26. Back

Kotahitanga movements around the 1860s


The formation of the Kīngitanga, or Māori King movement, began in the 1850s. Tāmihana Te Rauparaha and Hēnare Mātene Te Whiwhi promoted the idea of a Māori monarch. Te Whiwhi believed a Māori monarchy would be vital to protect Māori land. Māori sought to bring bargaining power together and so aimed to put together a united movement with a king as its head. As the King movement began it was branded a ‘land league’ because it tried to halt land sales.

In 1856 a meeting was held at Pūkawa, on the western side of Lake Taupō, and a decision was made to appoint Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero as king. A flagstaff was erected and iwi from the North and South islands located ropes representing their mountains and pegged them into the ground. King Pōtatau was crowned in 1858.

Mountain won’t move

When it was suggested that the ariki (paramount chief) of the East Coast, Te Kani-ā-Takirau, might become king he refused. He said, ‘Kua kingi ano au i oku tipuna’ (through my ancestors I am already a king). He also noted, ‘Ehara taku maunga i te maunga haere’ (my mountain does not move).

Kīngitanga and war

The reign of Pōtatau was short – he died on 25 June 1860. His son Tūkārotu succeeded him. In August of 1864 he was given the name Tāwhiao by prophet Te Ua Haumēne. The Kīngitanga was soon embroiled in war, as the government saw it as a threat. Following the war Waikato lost 1.2 million acres (485,622 hectares) of land through confiscation, and Tāwhiao and his people went into exile behind the aukati (boundary line) into Ngāti Maniapoto territory, which became known as the King Country. King Tāwhiao symbolically laid down his arms in 1881. He said, ‘This is the end of war in this kingdom.’ These words were later seen by Te Puea Hērangi, a Kīngitanga leader and a granddaughter of Tāwhiao, as a justification for Waikato men not taking part in the First World War.

1860 Kohimarama conference

In July 1860 Governor Thomas Gore Browne held a conference at Kohimarama, Auckland, to justify the government’s war in Taranaki. It was attended by rangatira from a large number of iwi throughout New Zealand. There were a number of propositions put forward and those attending, by a significant majority, condemned Taranaki iwi for the war, and were critical of the Kīngitanga. Iwi who just a few short years had supported the Kīngitanga at Pūkawa now failed to do so. The conference brought together a number of iwi in a decision-making body, under the aegis of the government.

This conference was later interpreted as embodying the requirements of the 1835 Declaration of Independence, which noted that an annual congress would happen each year. It became referred to as Te Tiriti o Kohimarama (the Treaty of Kohimarama) or Te Kawenata o Kohimarama (the Covenant of Kohimarama).

Grey’s Māori councils

Following on from the conference, Governor George Grey, who had taken over from Gore Browne, organised a new system for rūnanga (Māori councils). Māori districts were to be divided into ‘hundreds’ (in England a ‘hundred’ was the name for the subdivision of a county). The system would have civil commissioners who would work with chiefs. There were also magistrates who would work with wardens and karere (messengers). It was a complicated system and, due to wars between Māori and the government in the 1860s, it never took hold.

Te Ua Haumēne

Kotahitanga movements were not necessarily solely political in nature. The teachings of a number of Māori prophets called for the unification of Māori.

Te Ua Haumēne formed the religion known as Pai Mārire, which means good and peaceful, in the 1860s. His adherents became known as Hauhau, and various missionaries moved around the country preaching his gospel. This was significant in that the teachings and followers reached across the North Island. His teachings also influenced other kotahitanga leaders including King Tāwhiao, Te Kooti, who would later found the Ringatū faith, and Te Whiti and Tohu.

Parliamentary unity movements, 1870 to 1900

Repudiation movement

The repudiation movement was led from Hawke’s Bay and rejected land sales it considered unjust. It met from 1871 and developed within Ngāti Kahungunu in Hawke’s Bay. Hēnare Matua of Ngāti Kahungunu was a leader of the movement and he was supported by two politicians: Henry Robert Russell and John Sheehan. Karaitiana Takamoana was another leader. The Māori language newspaper Te Wananga was an organ of the movement.

Northern kotahitanga movements (Waitangi and Kohimarama)

During the 1870s and 1880s there were two different Kotahitanga parliamentary movements. In 1879 the first Māori parliament was held at Ōrākei in Auckland, in the house called Kohimarama after the 1860 Kohimarama meeting of chiefs. It was organised by Paora Tūhaere, who called it to talk about the Covenant of Kohimarama as well as the Treaty of Waitangi. The final Kohimarama parliament was in 1889.

Another parliament was held at Waitangi between 1881 and 1890. In 1881 a large meeting house, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, was opened at Waitangi to host the parliaments.

The Kotahitanga Parliament

In 1892 the various movements came together at Waitangi as the Paremata Māori, or Māori Parliament. A structure was agreed to, including national elections. The parliament was to have a lower house (Whare o Raro) and upper house (Whare Ariki). The first premier (pirimia) was Hāmiora Mangakāhia, while the first speaker (pīka) was Hēnare Tomoana. The focus of the parliament was legal validation from the New Zealand Parliament and retention of Māori land. It had its final meeting in 1902 at Waiōmatatini on the East Coast.

Minister of Pākehā affairs

The Kauhanganui, or parliament of the King movement, had a lower house, like the New Zealand Parliament, while its upper house (like the Kotahitanga Parliament) probably took its name ‘Whare Ariki’ (house of nobles) from the British House of Lords. While the New Zealand government had a minister of native affairs, the Kauhanganui had a minister of Pākehā affairs.


The Kīngitanga, or King movement, also had its own parliament. The Kauhanganui was established at Maungakawa around 1890. It had a council of ministers and 12 tribal representatives (the tekau-mā-rua). There was a lower house (Whare o Raro) and an upper house (Whare Ariki), and ministers. The head of the Kauhanganui was ultimately the Māori king. News of its activities were reported in the Kīngitanga newspaper, Te Paki o Matariki. A constitution was written in 1894 and the Kauhanganui met until the 1920s.

Māori councils

By the end of the 19th century a new, state-sponsored form of kotahitanga was emerging through the Māori councils and Māori land councils. These initiatives, known in Māori as Te Kotahitanga Hou, were led by Apirana Ngata (who also helped form the Te Aute College Students’ Association). Māori councils were elected by tribal members, but were overseen by the government. An annual meeting of the councils, much in the mould of the previous Kotahitanga meetings, was held from 1903.

Kotahitanga movements in the 20th and 21st centuries

Rātana and political parties

While known primarily for its religious focus, the Rātana movement had a significant political and social aspect. A thriving community based around prophet Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana’s teachings sprung up at Rātana , near Marton. The Rātana movement was a nationalist political movement which agitated for recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi and managed to win all four Māori seats. In 1924 Rātana planned to present to King George V a petition signed by 45,000 Māori (two-thirds of the Māori population) regarding breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. This did not happen, as the New Zealand government opposed it, but it did bring the treaty back into prominence.

Later Māori-centred political parties included Mana Motuhake, founded by Matiu Rata in 1979 and, later, the Māori Party, founded in 2004 and led by Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples.

The Māori War Effort Organisation

This group arose out of the formation of the 28th (Māori) Battalion. It had proved difficult to recruit Māori soldiers using the electoral roll, as there was no requirement for voter registration for the Māori electoral roll. Members of Parliament Paraire Paikea and Eruera Tirikātene developed a strategy to recruit Māori in 1942. A parliamentary committee was formed consisting of the four Māori members of Parliament and Rangi Māwhete of the Legislative Council (upper house). Twenty-one districts were established and 315 tribal committees were formed. The structure allowed tribal input and Māori organisation at a national level.

Māori Women’s Welfare League

The Māori Women’s Welfare League (Te Rōpū Wāhine Māori Toko i te Ora) had its first conference in 1951. Delegates came from women’s welfare committees established by Māori welfare officers under the direction of Te Rangiataahua (Rangi) Royal. Whina Cooper was the first president and Miraka (Mira) Petricevich (later Szászy) was the first secretary. The league’s activities became important as Māori went through a period of urbanisation in the mid-20th century. While the league’s activities were primarily focused on social issues, political lobbying was also significant.

New Zealand Māori Council

One of the criticisms of the New Zealand Māori Council was that the structure was controlled by the government. Despite this, from 1987 it had important success with a number of cases against the Crown, which won major concessions for Māori.

The New Zealand Māori Council

A modified version of the Māori War Effort Organisation was set up after the Second World War under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945. The structure consisted of tribal committees (later called Māori committees) overseen by executive committees which were organised within the Native Affairs Department. The tribal committees were elected once every three years. Any Māori adult within the boundaries of a tribal committee was entitled to vote.

Under the Maori Welfare Act 1962 the formation of district councils changed to be based on Māori Land Court areas, and the National Māori Council (Dominion Council) was made up of delegates from the district councils.

National Māori Congress

The National Māori Congress was founded at Tūrangawaewae marae, Ngāruawāhia, on 14 July 1990. It was similar to the New Zealand Māori council but was independent of government controls. It had representatives from 37 iwi, but was limited in its ability to speak on iwi matters. It would instead represent Māori views on issues relevant to all Māori.

Protest movements

During the 1970s and 1980s a number of protest movements arose with a Māori focus. Issues these movements protested about included Māori land rights, Māori language, anti-apartheid and anti-racism. These groups included the Waitangi Action Committee (WAC), Ngā Tamatoa, Māori People’s Liberation Movement of Aotearoa and the Māori Organisation on Human Rights (MOOHR). Ngā Tamatoa and the Te Reo Māori Society took a petition to Parliament in 1971 about the Māori language, and protests began on Waitangi Day. Most of these groups were pan-Māori organisations.

Urban authorities

As various trusts and incorporated societies worked to assist Māori in an urban environment, large urban authorities came into existence. Better known ones include Manukau Urban Māori Authority (MUMA) and Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust in West Auckland. These groups are pan-Māori organisations that provide health and social services to urban Māori regardless of tribal affiliation.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Kotahitanga – unity movements', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2021)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012