Story: Māori

Māori are the tangata whenua – the people of the land. In over 700 years of settlement, they have shown an extraordinary ability to adapt first to a new environment and then to the arrival of European immigrants and culture.

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal
Main image: Members of the 28th (Māori) Battalion performing a haka in Egypt, 1941

Story Summary

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Early settlement

Ancestors of Māori arrived on canoes from Pacific islands before 1300 AD. Settling first on the coast, they hunted seals and moas. Then they also began to grow food, and some moved to the forests. They lived in small tribal groups, with a rich culture of spoken stories, and strong traditions of warfare. Their ancestors, and the gods of the natural world, were very important.

Europeans arrive

The arrival of Europeans from the early 1800s had a major effect on these early communities. Among the newcomers were missionaries, and many Māori became Christians. They learnt to read and began trading, especially in pigs and potatoes.

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi established British law and government, but it could not prevent warfare in the 1840s and 1860s as Māori sought to defend their lands and local authority. After the wars Māori lost land through confiscation and sale, mostly to British settlers.


In the first half of the 20th century important leaders such as Āpirana Ngata and Te Puea Hērangi worked to make life better for Māori and to revive the culture. There was a new interest in the language, and in arts such as carving and weaving.

After the Second World War many Māori moved to the cities in search of jobs. In the 1970s and 1980s groups protested about their rights to land, and helped promote the language and culture. Important events were a march down the North Island to Parliament in 1975, setting up the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to look at land claims, and protesters occupying Bastion Point in Auckland in 1977–78.

Māori today

In 2004 there were over 500,000 Māori people, mostly living in cities. There were kōhanga reo (preschool language nests) and schools using the Māori language, a Māori television station and 20 radio stations, 16 Māori members of Parliament, and many creative projects in film, music and art.

Find more detailed information about Māori New Zealanders.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 September 2019)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 Feb 2005