Māori had an oral culture. Their introduction to written language began with missionaries teaching them to read and write in Māori. The earliest writings by Māori are by students of Pākehā missionaries. In the 19th century Māori wrote numerous letters – either themselves, or using missionaries or other Māori as scribes.
Letters intended to influence government officials were common. During the northern war against the Crown, Ngāpuhi leader Hōne Heke Pōkai wrote to Governor Robert FitzRoy, asking, ‘What has become of the kind policy of England? Is Her kindness in her cannon, and in her rockets?’1
In 1847, long before he became Māori king, Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero sent a letter to Queen Victoria: ‘Madam, listen news is going about here, that your Ministers are talking of taking away the land of the native[s] without cause, which makes our hearts dark.’2 In a famous 1868 letter, Ngā Ruahine chief and war leader Riwha Tītokowaru announced that he was reinstituting cannibalism. He wrote, ‘I shall not die; I shall not die. When death itself is dead I shall be alive.’3 Hundreds of letters by Māori can be found in the Sir Donald McLean papers (in the National Library) and the Grey collection (Auckland Libraries).
Māori newspapers offered Māori the rare opportunity to publish non-fiction writing in the mid-19th century. Initially letters were written to government-sponsored and -edited Māori-language papers. Following the 1860 conference of chiefs at Kohimarama, a large number of letters were printed in the Maori Messenger – Te Karere Maori from iwi around the country. The letters covered a broad range of topics, including land, the war, sovereignty and the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement).
Later letters written to Māori-language newspapers owned and edited by Māori largely reached a Māori audience. Editorials gave Māori perspectives.
Wiremu Pātara Te Tuhi was the editor of Te Hokioi e Rere atu na, a Kīngitanga newspaper. He was able to give the views of the Kīngitanga prior to the outbreak of the war in Waikato. Te Wananga, the newspaper of the Hawke’s Bay-based repudiation movement, was produced under Hēnare Tomoana and Karaitiana Takamoana. They often had bitter exchanges with the government-run paper Te Waka Maori o Niu Tirani.
Ihāia Hūtana was editor of Huia Tangata Kotahi, and Pūrākau Maika oversaw Te Puke ki Hikurangi, both official newspapers of the Kotahitanga parliament. Each gave their political views. Te Whatahoro, editor of Te Tiupiri, often editorialised about the appropriate role and function of the Kotahitanga.
In the mid-19th century Māori began to write down their traditions and tribal histories. One of the best-known of these writers is Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke, who has been described as New Zealand’s earliest professional historian. The prolific Te Rangikāheke produced 21 manuscripts of which he was the sole author, and contributed to 17 more – nearly 800 pages in total. His writings were the basis of most of the prose material in George Grey’s Ko nga moteatea, me nga hakirara o nga Maori (1853) and around a quarter of Ko nga mahinga a nga tupuna Maori (1854) and its translation, Polynesian mythology (1855).
From the mid-19th century, author John White paid Māori to write down their traditions in te reo Māori (the Māori language). Many writers took advantage of this offer, and various histories from around the country were recorded. Writers included Hoani Meihana Te Rangiotū, Te Whatahoro Jury and Hāmiora Pio. Much of the information given was subject to negotiations and conditions. In other cases, writers refused to supply information, or their whānau or iwi refused for them.
Many Māori also wrote for the Journal of the Polynesian Society, established in 1892. Some of the first Māori contributors to the journal included Hare Hongi, also known as Henry Stowell (Ngāpuhi), Hoani Tunuiārangi (Ngāti Kahungunu), Timi Waata Rimini, Tutu Tamari, Te Kāhui Kararehe (Taranaki), Hoani Nahe and Takaanui Tarakawa (Te Arawa).
Tribal histories were often written by Pākehā. However, some iwi histories were authored by Māori, generally members of that tribe.
In early 1900, as a result of concerns about loss of traditional knowledge, a committee was formed to oversee tribal traditions in Wairarapa. Te Komiti Tūpai o Tānenuiarangi considered a number of documents and confirmed them as tribal history.
In 1944 Tiaki Mitchell wrote about Ngāti Kahungunu in his book Takitimu. In the same year Āpirana Ngata’s Rauru-nui-a-toi lectures and Ngati Kahungunu origins was published. A limited edition was reprinted in 1972. Pei Te Hurinui Jones’s Māori-language history of Tainui was published posthumously in 1995.
Ruka Broughton’s masters thesis (1979) was on Ngā Rauru, his iwi, while his writings on war leader Tītokowaru were published posthumously in 1993. Both were in Māori. Wiremu Wi Hongi and Pat Hohepa worked with Jeff Sissons to write about Ngāpuhi in The puriri trees are laughing (1987). Rongowhakaata Halbert’s history of the East Coast, Horouta, was published posthumously in 1999. Ranginui Walker’s Ōpōtiki-mai-tawhiti: capital of Whakatōhea (2007) was a history of Te Whakatōhea, while Tony Sole’s Ngāti Ruanui: a history was published in 2005. Te Maire Tau and Atholl Anderson edited Ngāi Tahu: a migration history (2008).
Some of the earliest academic writing by Māori can be found in the proceedings of conferences of Te Aute College Students’ Association (TACSA) from 1897. Association founder Āpirana Ngata contributed a number of papers along with other members; they were later known as the Young Māori Party. Ngata, though busy as a politician, continued to research and write about Māori culture and traditions.
Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) also made an early contribution to the TACSA conferences with a paper on Parihaka. He then published articles in Dominion Museum bulletins and the Journal of the Polynesian Society in the early 1900s. From the 1920s Buck became more involved in anthropology, publishing on Māori clothing and Cook Islands material culture. He then became a research fellow at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii and moved from amateur to professional anthropologist. He would later become the museum’s director. Buck’s best-known publication was Vikings of the sunrise (1938), which covered the traditions, ethnography and social structure of Polynesian groups.
In 1926 Mākereti (Maggie) Papakura enrolled in a BSc in anthropology at Oxford University in England, but died shortly before examination, in 1930. Her thesis, The old-time Maori, published in 1938 by the secretary of Oxford’s anthropology committee, was the first extensive anthropological work by a Māori scholar. It was reprinted in 1986, with an introduction by scholar Ngahuia Te Awekotuku.
In 1954 Maharaia Winiata gained a PhD from Edinburgh University, becoming the first Māori to receive a doctorate overseas. Winiata wrote articles for the Department of Māori Affairs magazine Te Ao Hou and the Journal of the Polynesian Society. His thesis was published after his death as The changing role of the leader in Maori society (1967).
Ngāpare Hopa was the first Māori woman to graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate, in 1977. In 1955 Bruce Biggs received a PhD in linguistics from the University of Indiana. Hugh Kawharu gained a doctorate at Oxford in 1962. Patu Hohepa gained his PhD in 1965 at Indiana University. Hirini Mead received his doctorate in 1968, as did Ranginui Walker in 1970. All went on to have successful academic careers and to write important works.
Bruce Biggs made an outstanding contribution to Māori linguistics, but is possibly best known for his book Let’s learn Māori (1969). Mason Durie published Whaiora: Māori health development in 1994. Hirini Mead wrote extensively on Māori art in Art of Māori carving (1961).
Te haurapa: an introduction to researching tribal histories and traditions by Te Ahukaramu Charles Royal (1992) was widely utilised by Māori researchers. In 1999 Linda Tuhiwai Smith published Decolonizing methodologies, about indigenous approaches to research. Her book became influential in Māori studies and indigenous studies, and in wānanga (Māori tertiary institutions).
Royal’s Te ngākau: he wānanga i te mātauranga (2009), written in te reo Māori, explores Māori knowledge. Poia Rewi and Rawinia Higgins published The value of the Māori language: Te hua o te reo Māori, a book on the state of the Māori language, in 2014.
By the 2000s there was a flowering of Māori involvement in academic research and writing. The Māori historians’ group Te Pouhere Kōrero was established in 1992. The Māori Association of Social Sciences was formed in 2006 and has held national hui every couple of years.
A number of universities established pro-vice-chancellor (Māori) positions to provide leadership for academic work by and for Māori. Incumbents have included Jim Peters at the University of Auckland and Piri Sciascia at Victoria University of Wellington. Linda Smith was the first Māori woman pro-vice-chancellor, at Waikato University. The three wānanga – Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, Awanuiārangi and Raukawa – are headed by Māori.
In 2002 a Māori centre of research excellence, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, was formed at the University of Auckland. It plays a significant role in Māori research and writing.
A significant body of waiata was collected, translated and annotated as part of the four-book series Ngā mōteatea. This was an extensive enterprise which took place over decades. It began with Āpirana Ngata, who sought to collect traditional waiata with a view to keeping them alive and to their eventual revival. He also hoped they would become part of a curriculum of Māori language and culture at universities in the future. Parts one and two of Ngā mōteatea were published in the late 1920s. Part three appeared in 1970 following Pei Te Hurinui Jones’s input, and part four was published in Māori in 1990 following Tamati Reedy’s editing. Under Hirini Moko Mead of Ngāti Awa, part four was translated and published in English in 2007.
The intention of the committee revising the Bible was to produce a standard work in the Māori language and to ‘put back into the Maori Bible something of the sweet musical tone and cadence, rhythm and poetry of the Maori language’.1
The Māori-language version of the Bible, Te paipera tapu, was largely the work of Pākehā translators. In the mid-20th century the decision was made to revise it. The committee consisted largely of Māori. It was headed by John Laughton, and other members were Frederick Bennett (Bishop of Aotearoa), Eru Te Tuhi, Āpirana Ngata, William Bird, Te Hihi Kaa and Wiremu Panapa. The revision was completed by 1949 and published in 1952.
The Williams dictionary was truly a family affair. The first five editions were the work of missionary William Williams, his son William Leonard Williams and one of William Leonard’s sons, Herbert William Williams. In 1948, inspired somewhat by the decision to revise the Māori-language version of the Bible, Āpirana Ngata instigated the selection of a revision committee for the dictionary. However, before the committee could progress the project significantly, Ngata and fellow member William Cooper died.
Other members were later added by Āpirana Ngata’s son, W. T. Ngata, who was then committee secretary. Their revision was completed in 1957. In 1970 the seventh edition was published.
Later other important dictionaries were put together. The English–Māori dictionary, commonly known as the Ngata dictionary, involved years of research by Hōri Mahue Ngata and was published in 1993. In 2008 a monolingual Māori-language dictionary, He pātaka kupu – te kai a te rangatira, was published under the auspices of the Māori Language Commission.
Pei Te Hurinui Jones was an accomplished translator, translating Shakespeare’s The merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Othello and Edward FitzGerald’s The rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám into Māori. In the 2000s Te Haumihiata Mason translated Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’) and Troilus and Cressida. Both were performed at the Globe Theatre in London.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s social activism was on the rise around the world. Māori activism in New Zealand focused on urbanisation, land alienation, loss of language and culture, and racism. International and local thought and writing was influential, and soon Māori were writing their own works in support of radical movements.
In 1975 Te ao hurihuri, a book of Māori perspectives edited by Pākehā historian Michael King, was published. It was unique in that all of the authors were Māori. The subject matter was broad, including a foreword on learning and tapu by Te Uira Manihera, Ngoi Pēwhairangi and John Rangihau, as well as essays on language and marae protocol by Tīmoti Karetu, Māori perspectives on death by Harry Dansey and understanding oral traditions by Ranginui Walker.
In the early 1980s a series of articles on Māori sovereignty by Donna Awatere appeared in the feminist magazine Broadsheet. In 1984 Māori sovereignty was published as a book. Te Ringa Mangu (Dun) Mihaka and Diane Patricia Prince’s book Whakapohane appeared the same year. It was about Mihaka’s experiences after performing the traditional insult of whakapohane (baring his buttocks) to the visiting Prince and Princess of Wales, and his ensuing trial in the criminal justice system.
In 1989 Hugh Kawharu edited a book on Māori and Pākehā perspectives of the treaty. Māori contributors included Kawharu, Waerete Norman, Tipene O’Regan, Ranginui Walker, Mason Durie and Bruce Biggs.
In 1990, 150 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Ranginui Walker’s seminal book Ka whawhai tonu mātou: struggle without end was published. A Māori narrative of New Zealand, it countered New Zealand histories which put Māori at the margins and in the footnotes, instead placing them at the forefront of the story.
Few Māori have written as opinion columnists for mainstream publications. Most well-known for this was Ranginui Walker, who produced (often controversial) columns for the New Zealand Listener and Metro magazine in the 1980s. Later Māori columnists included Rawiri Taonui, who won best New Zealand columnist on Māori issues in 2007 and 2008. Other columnists have included Tahu Pōtiki (Ngāi Tahu), Malcolm Mulholland (Ngāti Kahungunu) and Peter Moeahu.
There have been few Māori writers of biography. At the centennial in 1940, Guy Scholefield, the author of the 1940 Dictionary of New Zealand biography, commented that he hoped that ‘while the material is still accessible from the old men and women and the tohungas, scholars of the Maori race will devote their attention to a comprehensive Maori biography’.1
In 1949, with the aid of the New Zealand Literary Fund, Rēweti Kōhere published The story of a Maori chief, a biography of his grandfather, Mōkena Kōhere. In 1951 he published The autobiography of a Maori. Both books were in English. In 1961 Pei Te Hurinui Jones published Puhiwahine: Māori poetess. However, most Māori biographies were written by Pākehā.
In 1976 Amiria: the life story of a Māori woman appeared, attributed to Amiria Manutahi Stirling, as told to Anne Salmond. Eruera: the teachings of a Māori elder (1980) was similarly attributed to Eruera Stirling as told to Salmond. Composer Ngoi Pēwhairangi compiled biographical material about her mentor (and aunt) Tuini Ngāwai, published in 1985 as Tuini: her life and her songs in 1985. Buddy Mikaere’s biography of the prophet Te Maiharoa, Te Maiharoa and the promised land, was published in 1988.
In 1998 Benjamin Nathan, also known as Peneamine Natana-Patuawa, published Tino rangatiratanga: a political autobiography, a memoir focused on his role in attacking and damaging the America’s Cup.
The Dictionary of New Zealand biography (DNZB) published in the 1990s included a significant number of biographies written by Māori, usually relatives of the subjects. There was often close consultation with whānau. The biography of Ngāti Porou war hero Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu was written by Whai Ngata. Rewi Maniapoto’s biography was written by Mānuka Hēnare, while Pou Temara produced the biography of Tūhoe composer Mihi-ki-te-kapua.
Many recent biographies were written by a close relative of the subject. In 1995 Bradford Haami published Dr Golan Maaka: Maori doctor, a book about his tipuna (ancestor). Awatere: a soldier’s story, by Arapeta Awatere, was edited for publication by his granddaughter, Hinemoa Ruataupare Awatere, and published in 2003.
Ranginui Walker’s biography of Sir Āpirana Ngata appeared in 2001. In 2007 Paul Diamond’s book on Maggie Papakura, Mākereti: taking Māori to the world, was published. In 2008 Tania Ka’ai’s Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi: A remarkable life followed the biography she had written for the DNZB. In the same year, Ranginui Walker published Pakariki Harrison, the story of a master carver. Joe Pere’s book on his tipuna, the politician Wiremu Pere, appeared in 2010.
Curnow, Jenifer, Ngapare Hopa and Jane McRae, eds. Rere atu, taku manu! Discovering history, language and politics in the Māori-language newspapers. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002.
Della Valle, Paola. From silence to voice: the rise of Māori literature. Auckland: Libro International, 2010.
Orbell, Margaret. Letters to the mountain: Māori letters to the editor, 1898–1905: He reta ki te maunga. Auckland: Reed Books, 2002.
Ngata, Āpirana Turupa. Ngā mōteatea: he maramara rere nō ngā waka maha. 4 vols. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004–7.
Paterson, Lachy. Colonial discourses: niupepa Māori 1855–1863. Otago: Otago University Press, 2006.
The Polynesian Society’s website includes issues of the Journal dating back to 1892.
A bibliography of writing by Māori in English. The website's search function allows you to browse by category, including non-fiction works.
Information about Māori newspapers by Nicola Frean, from the 1997 book Book and print in New Zealand, on the site of the Electronic Text Collection at Victoria University of Wellington.
A Māori centre of research excellence established in 2002.
Lachlan Paterson’s 2004 PhD thesis from the University of Otago (PDF, 29 MB).
Digitised copies of Māori newspapers, with English abstracts for some titles.