Story: Māori–Pākehā relations

Page 6. Māori renaissance

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From the late 19th century, Pākehā included Māori traditions, customs and images in displays of New Zealand’s distinctive national identity. Cultural and trade exhibitions featured Māori performers and art forms from the 1880s, and Māori traditional life was a key attraction at the country’s main tourist destination, Rotorua. From the 1900s, Māori carving became accepted as a symbol of New Zealand. Important foreign visitors received a formal Māori welcome.

Māori population recovers

Some European representations of Māori, such as C. F. Goldie’s portraits or Elsdon Best’s writings, showed a nostalgia for a noble race that was presumed to have vanished or to be dying out. However, the Māori population increased twelvefold during the 20th century, and in 2018 Māori were 16.5% of the total New Zealand population. This remarkable recovery strengthened Māori demands for more equal treatment by state agencies. From the late 1960s Māori activists such as the young, urban-based Ngā Tamatoa movement, as well as more traditional Māori groups such as the Kīngitanga, called for the right to live as Māori within New Zealand society. The Pākehā anti-racist movement supported these calls.


British historian Simon Schama was struck by the relations between Māori and non-Māori when he visited New Zealand in 2010. ‘Maori, and the descendants of intermarriages that go back deep into the 19th century, are to be found in every leading walk of life in the country. Of course there have been serious problems of unequal social opportunity, of street gangs. But if there is anywhere in the post-colonial world where two cultural worlds truly live an engaged life alongside each other, it’s in New Zealand.’1


From the 1970s, New Zealand made a steadily stronger commitment to biculturalism – the idea that the Māori and Pākehā cultures could exist on equal terms. Major policy changes to reflect biculturalism were made by government departments and other state agencies. One of the most noticeable changes was made by the education system in response to declining use of the Māori language, which was in danger of disappearing by the 1970s. In response, initiatives such as kōhanga reo (Māori-language pre-schools), kura (schools) and wānanga (universities) were set up to revive the language.

Waitangi Tribunal

Perhaps the most lasting and influential change was made by the Waitangi Tribunal, set up in 1975 to investigate recent (and from 1985, historical) breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. Some historians believe that its research, and the settlements to Māori that resulted from claims, changed the face of New Zealand by setting a framework for the present and future relationship between the two treaty partners.

The new world

Many New Zealanders learned about a Māori world largely invisible to them through the works of Māori writers such as Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace. Early short stories by both writers appeared in the 1970s in Te Ao Hou (the new world), a magazine published by the Department of Maori Affairs.

Changing attitudes to relations between Māori and Pākehā were evident among the public as well as within official agencies. The 1974 funeral of Prime Minister Norman Kirk included traditional Māori mourning ceremonies. The Māori land march of 1975, led by the formidable Te Rarawa elder Whina Cooper, brought Māori political issues to the centre of national life, where they have remained. In 1984 Te Māori, a major exhibition of traditional Māori arts and culture, toured museums in several large US cities, gaining more overseas attention than any previous New Zealand exhibition.

The 1980s onwards

Since the 1980s, changes in the relationship between Māori and Pākehā have been major and irreversible. Māori have become highly visible in all aspects of New Zealand life, and open about, and proud of, their cultural identity. The Māori language is increasingly learned and used by non-Māori as well as Māori. Although Māori are still under-represented in professions and over-represented in prisons, specialist media such as Māori Television (set up in 2004, renamed Whakaata Māori in 2022) and successful individuals such as singer Anika Moa and netball player and coach Noeline Taurua have transformed the image of Māori in the minds of non-Māori.

  1. S. Schama, ‘Behold, Newstralia’, BBC News Magazine 9 April 2010, (last accessed 15 June 2010). Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Māori–Pākehā relations - Māori renaissance', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011