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by  Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal

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.

People and culture today


In 2018 Māori comprised approximately 16.5% (775,836 people) of New Zealand’s population. 


In the 2000s the Māori people were more diverse and dispersed than at any other time in their history. Some continued to live in their traditional tribal areas. Most, however, lived elsewhere, usually in urban centres. In 2006, 84% of Māori were living in urban areas, and only 16% in rural areas. Many Māori lived overseas, with over 70,000 in Australia and up to 10,000 in Britain.


The Māori language is an official language of New Zealand, and in recent years has undergone a revival. However, it is still threatened and, according to the 2006 census results, was spoken by only one in four Māori. Approximately 25,000 non-Māori could speak the language.


Māori culture is going through enormous change, with the establishment of new institutions and organisations. These include:

  • the creation of Māori educational institutions where teaching and learning is conducted substantially in the Māori language. In 2001 there were over 500 kōhanga reo (language nests), teaching over 10,000 preschool children; over 50 kura kaupapa Māori (teaching schoolchildren in full Māori-language immersion programmes); and three whare wānanga (tertiary institutes).
  • the rearrangement and strengthening of tribal structures and councils
  • the recapitalisation of tribally owned assets
  • the establishment of over 20 Māori radio stations and two television channels
  • Māori political representation, with 29 MPs of Māori background in Parliament in 2018.

Prominent people

In the early 2000s a number of Māori individuals were regarded as major national figures or had international reputations in their chosen fields. Among them were the opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, film director Lee Tamahori, child actor Keisha Castle-Hughes, golfer Michael Campbell, artist Ralph Hotere, and writers Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera.

Pre-European society


The Māori people of Aotearoa (New Zealand) are descendants of Polynesian peoples who had arrived by 1300 AD. While there is considerable debate about the precise date and the number of vessels, it is now believed that during the late 1200s a number of ocean-going waka (canoes) made their way from east Polynesia, to land at various points on the coast of New Zealand. Again there is much discussion about precisely where these ancestors came from. Some argue that they made their way from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands group; others say they left from Raiatea, in the Society Islands. Similarity of place names and languages suggests a link between the people of these islands and New Zealand.

Arrival in New Zealand

According to oral tradition, some canoes landed on the East Coast of the North Island. Whangaparāoa, at the very eastern tip of the Bay of Plenty, is often referred to as the landing place of numerous canoes, including the famous Tainui and Te Arawa. Another canoe, Mataatua, made its landfall at the mouth of the Whakatāne River.

Most canoes explored the coasts, reconnoitring the land and seeking safe haven. The Tainui, for example, is said to have travelled along the Bay of Plenty coastline before journeying through the Hauraki Gulf and into the Waitematā Harbour. It then travelled up the Tāmaki River. When they could go no further, the crew set about dragging the canoe over the Tāmaki isthmus (at about Ōtāhuhu) before sailing again in the Manukau Harbour. Following that, they travelled southward to Mōkau, in King Country, before returning northward to make final landfall at a place called Rangiāhua on the Kāwhia Harbour.

Early settlements

Māori oral tradition tells of explorers who made long journeys, such as Tamatea-pōkai-whenua, who travelled from the far north to the deepest south. Certainly by the end of the 14th century the entire country had been explored. However, it seems likely that many remained close to their initial settlements. Tainui peoples, for example, are said to have remained near Kāwhia Harbour for six or seven generations. During this time, they came to experience a new climate (much colder than they were used to) and new species of flora (such as flax) and fauna (such as the tūī and other birds). These early settlements were often at harbours or the mouths of rivers – close to the sea, with good access to fishing and shellfish grounds. There was extensive hunting of seals and the large flightless bird, the moa.

‘Look arounds’

Among the strange new creatures that Māori discovered in the new land were fur seals, then very common on the coasts of both islands. The Māori named them kekeno – ‘look arounds’ – which, as visitors to a seal colony will agree, is an exact description of what seals do.

The move inland

Increasingly Māori developed horticulture. With careful techniques, often involving the use of stone walls, and fire embers to warm soils, they succeeded in establishing several plants, especially the kūmara (sweet potato). They also turned inland, and over several generations encountered the great forests. Māori culture moved from being largely maritime to one which, in certain places, was dominated by trees and bird life.

Traditional culture

Pre-European Māori culture was oral, and based on small autonomous sub-tribes living in valleys, harbours and other localities. Tribal histories are rich with stories of armed conflict, and New Zealand’s many sculpted hills and ridges – the relics of fortifications – are evidence of the importance of warfare in traditional Māori society.


In March 2003 the New Zealand Archaeological Association had records of 6,852 sites in New Zealand as pā – fortified places used in the event of war. The great majority of these were in or north of Whanganui and Hawke’s Bay.

Cannibalism was a feature, as was polygamy. Technology was limited to tools made of naturally occurring materials such as pounamu (the South Island’s greenstone) and tūhua (obsidian); flax was used for weaving and other purposes. There was extensive trade in these goods, usually in the form of gift exchange. Read more about Māori use of stone and other material for fishing, gardening and carving.

Communal relationships

The values of the society arose from its communal nature. Individuals were seen as the repository or the voice of the group. There was a tapestry of intricate genealogical relationships, and the notion that what affects a part also affects the whole was strongly upheld. Similarly there was a belief that humans were part of nature – the forests, seas and waterways. People saw themselves in a sacred relationship with the natural world, and the exploitation of natural resources was conducted under strict regimes of tapu (sacredness) and mana (spiritual authority) administered by tohunga (priests).

By the time of European arrival, Māori had settled the land, and every corner came within the interest and influence of a particular tribal or sub-tribal grouping.

The arrival of Europeans

Goblins from the sea

With the arrival of the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642 and subsequently the British explorer James Cook in 1769, the European world made its entry into tribal New Zealand.

Tasman journeyed up the west coast of the country but did not go ashore. Cook did, however, and his time in New Zealand is well documented and recorded. The Māori response to his arrival is less well known, except for fragments of stories recorded in 19th-century literature. Perhaps the best known example is that attributed to Te Horetā Te Taniwha of Ngāti Whanaunga (of the Coromandel Peninsula). The story is said to have been told while Horetā was an old man. Here he recalls the conclusion of his elders that the Europeans must be some kind of goblin, because they rowed their boats backwards:

We stayed at Whitianga and their ship arrived. Our elders saw their ship and said that it was a god and that the crew were goblins. The ship anchored and a boat started to row to shore. Our elders then said, ‘Indeed they are goblins as they have eyes in the backs of their heads. That is why they row with their backs to the shore.’ 1

The early period

The period from approximately 1800, when Europeans began to settle, to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, is distinguished by major upheaval in the Māori world. Conflict between rivals grew, fuelled by the introduction of new technology – notably new modes of transport, literacy, and the musket. This was a period of war between antagonistic tribes.

In the 1830s Christian missionary work, begun in 1814, began to affect Māori. Schools and mission stations were established in an attempt to spread the Christian message. Some tribes became involved in trade with Europeans, exchanging potatoes, pigs, timber and flax for muskets.

The Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840, a treaty was signed by representatives of Queen Victoria of England and more than 500 Māori chiefs representing numerous tribes throughout the country. The effect of the Treaty of Waitangi was to bring intertribal conflict to an end, and to provide a constitutional basis for the establishment of British law and government in New Zealand. The English version of the treaty stated that sovereignty was ceded to the Queen of England. However, the Māori version said that the treaty guaranteed ‘tino rangatiratanga’ or chieftainship of New Zealand to Māori. The debate continues today.

New tribal economies

The period between 1840 and 1860 saw the rise of a new economy within tribal societies. Many tribes took to growing crops and selling their produce to markets such as the new towns of Auckland and Wellington. Some even supplied markets in Australia.

Leaders in war and peace

During the New Zealand Wars there were some remarkable and ingenious Māori military leaders, including Kawiti of Ngāpuhi, Te Kooti of Rongowhakaata, Tītokowaru of Ngāti Ruanui and Rewi Maniapoto of Ngāti Maniapoto. In southern Taranaki, based at Parihaka, two equally exceptional leaders, Tohu Kākahi and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, opposed the Europeans from the late 1870s through passive resistance.


In both the north of the South Island and the far north and south of the North Island, the mid-1840s saw violence break out between Māori and Pākehā as Māori sought to hold on to their land and local authority. In the 1860s the conflict became more severe as Pākehā settlers, mostly British, hoped to gain land for a growing population. While at times Māori exhibited a remarkable inventiveness and tenacity in the wars, they eventually lost millions of acres of land. This was partly the result of confiscation, and partly the influence of new government institutions such as the Native Land Court. This was set up to facilitate the sale of land by assigning land titles to named individuals.

    • Quoted in John White, Ancient history of the Maori. Vol. 5. Wellington: Government Printer, 1888, p. 105. › Back

Decline and revival

At the beginning of the 20th century, Māori society and culture reached its lowest ebb. Introduced diseases had helped reduce the estimated numbers of Māori to under 50,000 – the lowest ever – in a total population of over 800,000. With a small population and dwindling resources, Māori influence upon the affairs of the nation was drastically reduced.

However, this period also saw the rise of the most important Māori leaders of the 20th century, including Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Māui PōmareTe Puea Hērangi and Sir Peter Buck. The Young Māori Party, which originated in the late 1890s, served as a vehicle for the invigoration of the culture and of political influence.

Apirana Ngata

The dynamic and inspirational leader Apirana Ngata typified the energy of those determined to respond to the losses of the 19th century, and to bring about widespread rejuvenation of Māori people, society and culture.

The period between 1900 and 1950 is dominated by the work of Ngata and his group. Their numerous initiatives and enterprises included:

  • entry into Parliament (and at times membership of the cabinet)
  • the formation of the Pioneer and Maori Battalions which saw action in the world wars
  • the introduction of widespread health reforms under Buck and Pōmare
  • the reform of land tenure arrangements.

Ngata also led a remarkable renaissance in Māori knowledge and culture. With the assistance of Pei Te Hurinui Jones of Ngāti Maniapoto, he researched and wrote the monumental four-volume collection of traditional song poetry entitled Nga moteatea. He oversaw the building of carved meeting houses throughout the country, and was instrumental in the restoration of many others.

Urbanisation and renaissance

Following the Second World War, many Māori moved from their tribal and rural communities to find work in the bigger centres. While some Māori attempted to bring traditional institutions into the cities – by establishing urban marae for example, urbanisation brought major change to the Māori world. Older tribal structures lost influence, and urban-based Māori became involved in western institutions.

Apirana Ngata left Parliament in 1943 and died in 1950, and a new breed of leaders emerged in the context of the rapidly urbanised Māori communities.

The rise of modern protest

During the late 1960s there was a growing awareness of the impact of colonisation on Māori, and urban Māori protest movements such as Ngā Tamatoa (the young warriors) emerged. This and other groups of mainly urban Māori spearheaded protest, in the 1970s, about loss of land and culture. In 1975, led by Dame Whina Cooper, Māori from all over the country walked the length of the North Island, from Te Hāpua to the nation’s capital, Wellington. In a powerful and innovative way the land march embodied Māori protest over ongoing land alienation. Political activism continued at Waitangi, and in 1977–78 the Ngāti Whātua people occupied Bastion Point above Ōkahu Bay in Auckland. The tribe had been evicted from the bay in 1951, after continuing alienation of their land by the Crown from 1870.

The Waitangi Tribunal, designed to address perceived breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, was established in 1975. The tribunal became a forum for the expression of much Māori protest and anger over the impact of European colonisation. Its findings have led to settlements which have returned some assets to tribes.


The Māori renaissance since 1970 has been a remarkable phenomenon. Major claims regarding the historical dispossession of tribal estates have been brought before the Waitangi Tribunal; the management of tribal and Māori-owned assets has been rearranged; a Māori-language education system has been established; and Māori have started major industry initiatives including fishing, aquaculture and farming.

There is now a wide range of Māori-owned media, businesses and tourist ventures. Additionally, there is significant political representation, and an increasing number of individuals are gaining international reputations for their achievements. Today, Māori people can be found in a wide array of pursuits and activities throughout the country and the world.

The challenge of the 21st century

Numerous challenges lie before Māori. These include the incidence of certain diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancers. Although more Māori are becoming educated, literacy rates are still a cause for concern, housing is poor in certain areas of the country, and unemployment rates have been consistently higher than for Pākehā. The state of the Māori language and the application of Māori cultural knowledge in modern New Zealand life are still debated. Finally, there is the question of the identity of Māori as a distinct people in an increasingly diverse yet integrated society.

Māori now represent a major and influential dimension within New Zealand’s society and culture. While a great deal has been written about the negative effects of colonisation upon Māori, at times Māori have exhibited great inventiveness, ingenuity and resourcefulness, sometimes in very hostile circumstances. Historians have praised 19th-century design as innovative and effective. The Polynesians’ creation of ocean-going craft able to cross vast distances is an iconic event in world history.

The art of adaptation

Māori were very quick to draw on elements of European culture to enrich their art. In the 19th century, carvers rapidly replaced their stone tools with metal chisels, while women introduced dyed wool into their weaving. More recently carvers such as Cliff Whiting have carved in particle board, artists have used oils, glass and metal, and Māori have made the guitar central to their music.

For the last 200 years Māori have adapted western techniques and new media to the ongoing and highly creative development of their art. The contemporary restructuring of the Māori world – the establishment of new institutions and organisations, the prosecution of claims before the Waitangi Tribunal, and the achievement of increased political representation and influence – demonstrates a continuing ability to change, transform and grow.

How to cite this page: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 September 2021)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 Feb 2005