In 2006 Māori comprised approximately 15% (565,329 people) of New Zealand’s population. This figure was forecast to reach 16.6% (750,000) in 2021.
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:
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 (who died in early 2013), and writers Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the area 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.
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.
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 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, of course, the musket. This was the period of the wars between antagonistic tribes.
In the 1830s Christian missionary work, first begun in 1814, began to affect Māori. Schools and mission stations were established in an attempt to bring the Christian message. Some tribes became involved in trade with Europeans, exchanging potatoes, pigs, timber and flax for muskets.
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.
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 traded with markets in Australia.
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. However, in southern Taranaki, based at Parihaka, there were two equally exceptional leaders, Tohu and Te Whiti, who opposed the Europeans in 1881 through passive resistance.
In both the north of the South Island and the far north 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 transferring land titles from tribes and putting them into individual names.
During the early years 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 smaller 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 Āpirana Ngata, Sir Māui Pōmare, Te Puea Hērangi, Sir Peter Buck and others. The Young Māori Party was formed in the late 1890s, serving as a vehicle for the invigoration of the culture and of political influence.
The dynamic and inspirational leader Āpirana 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:
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.
Following the Second World War, many Māori elected to move 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 educated in western institutions.
Āpirana Ngata died in 1950, and a new breed of leaders emerged in the context of the rapidly urbanised Māori communities.
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, thousands of Māori from all over the country walked the length of the North Island, from Te Hāpua down 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 or 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 enterprises such as television and radio, 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.
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. Some historians have praised 19th-century pā design as innovative and effective. The creation of ocean-going craft to cross vast distances is almost iconic in world history.
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. Even the contemporary restructuring of the Māori world – in the establishment of new institutions and organisations, the prosecution of claims before the Waitangi Tribunal, and the achievement of a degree of political representation and influence – demonstrates an ability to change, transform and grow.
The Māori Land Court was set up in the 19th century to rule on matters relating to Māori land. This site contains information on the history and activities of the court, relevant acts and regulations, and decisions.
This site contains information on Māori culture, society and history, databases of marae and kapa haka groups, and links to other sites with Māori content.
Māori Television was founded under the Māori Television Service Act 2003 to support the revitalisation of the Māori language and culture. The site gives background details, and schedules of and information about programmes.
The New Zealand Archaeological Association promotes research into the archaeology of New Zealand and maintains a national site-recording scheme. This website contains information about the association’s activities, a little information about pre-European Māori settlement, information and images of archaeological sites, teacher resources, and feature articles.
This site, which promotes New Zealand as an international tourism destination, has brief information about New Zealand people, history, culture, society and environment; together with key facts about the country.
The New Zealand Wars website is managed by Dr Danny Keenan of the History Programme at Massey University. It contains detailed information and materials on the 19th-century New Zealand wars.
NZHistory.net.nz is produced by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and provides information and exhibitions on New Zealand history. The site contains an extensive gallery of historical exhibitions including many on topics relevant to Māori, and links to other New Zealand history sites.
Statistics New Zealand, a government department, is responsible for gathering and publishing official statistics about New Zealand. This site includes detailed statistics on Māori from the latest population census.
The Kōhanga Reo National Trust supports a nationwide movement to teach the Māori language to preschool children. This site describes the history, philosophy, curriculum and management of the movement.
Te Puni Kōkiri is the New Zealand government’s principal adviser on Māori issues, and is responsible for some major Māori development programmes. This site describes the work of Te Puni Kōkiri and gives information on the current status of Māori in New Zealand, politics and governance, business and community activities. It includes resources, links and a newsletter.
Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) was set up under the Māori Language Act 1987 to protect and promote the use of the language. This official site describes the work of Te Taura Whiri, gives a history of the Māori language and issues, and has numerous resources and links.
This government-sponsored education site contains copies of the treaty text, a timeline, a history of the treaty and links.
The Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission/Te Ohu Kai Moana was established to allocate fisheries assets to tribes around the country in accordance with the Treaty of Waitangi (Fisheries Claims) Settlement Act 1992. The site gives a history of the claim process, information on the work of the commission, and recent news and reports.
The Waitangi Tribunal was established by the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975. Its job is to make recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to Crown breaches of the treaty. The site gives information on the tribunal, details of claims and copies of reports, and publishes an online newsletter.