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Ngā take Māori – government policy and Māori

by Mark Derby

Even before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, British officials aimed to manage dealings between Māori and non-Māori. Later, a series of laws and other measures imposed colonial authority on Māori, especially to enable Europeans to buy Māori land. In the later 20th century the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to investigate breaches of the treaty, and Māori headed a number of government agencies concerned with Māori.

Māori affairs up to 1840

Preserving order

For some decades before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, British officials regarded New Zealand as an informal part of the British Empire. Official interventions were limited to preserving order so that British trade and industry could develop. Māori also wished to take advantage of the new skills, goods and opportunities offered by visiting whalers, traders and missionaries. Outbreaks of violence between the races threatened these trading relations and were regretted by both sides.

The first flag

One of the first actions by British Resident James Busby towards his objective of Māori self-government was to provide the chiefs with a national flag. In 1834 a group of northern chiefs selected the design of a red cross on a white background with four stars in the corner. New Zealand’s flag until 1840, it came to be known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, and enabled Māori to sail to other countries without risking arrest as pirates.

James Busby, British Resident

In 1832 the British Colonial Office acted to protect its trade interests in New Zealand by appointing a British Resident, James Busby. He was instructed to establish a settled government of Māori, by Māori, similar to the kingdom that was later founded in Tonga with British encouragement.

On Busby’s arrival in May 1833, Māori chiefs welcomed him as a kaiwhakarite – an intermediary between the races. Some chiefs had already travelled to Australia and elsewhere and were anxious that Māori avoid the fate of indigenous people in other Pacific countries. They adopted a constitution proposing a government and judicial system giving equal authority to Māori and non-Māori. However, Busby had no powers to enforce such a system, and increasing numbers of immigrants rejected it.

Hobson’s instructions

In the late 1830s British colonial authorities decided to acquire New Zealand as a colony. In 1839 Captain William Hobson sailed to New Zealand to take possession of the country on behalf of the British Crown. His instructions, issued by Lord Normanby, Britain’s secretary of state for the colonies, provide a guide to British attitudes towards the Māori people at the time.

The main purpose of Hobson’s mission, said Normanby, was to establish ‘a settled form of civil Government’, with the full agreement of Māori. This would protect the Māori people from lawless Europeans and other harmful effects of unorganised European settlement. This government would buy ‘waste lands’ from Māori, and resell this land to settlers. Only land not needed by Māori for their own purposes would be bought by the Crown, and they would receive a ‘fair and equal’ price. Schools would be provided for Māori, and many of their traditional customs would be protected. An official would be appointed ‘to watch over the interests of the aborigines [Māori] as their protector’.1

Treaty of Waitangi

Hobson and his advisers drew up the Treaty of Waitangi to obtain the voluntary transfer of sovereignty by Māori. The treaty was first signed on 6 February 1840. Its Māori-language version promised Māori some degree of control over their resources and customs. However, the English-language version indicated that the Crown’s sovereignty would not be shared. These differing understandings eventually led to warfare and a long process of reinterpretation and compensation.

    • Quoted in Alexander Mackay, A compendium of official documents relative to native affairs in the South Island. Vol. 1, Wellington: the Government of New Zealand, 1872–73, p. 15. Back

A new colony, 1840s to 1850s

Protector of aborigines

Two months after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson appointed a protector of aborigines. The first protector was George Clarke, an Anglican missionary. Clarke set up the first government organisation to protect Māori interests and implement the promises of the treaty. Its original powers included protecting Māori from the harmful influences of colonists, advising the governor on Māori issues, and purchasing Māori land. At that time only the Crown could buy land from Māori, a contentious policy known as ‘Crown pre-emption’. Clarke found that being a land agent for the government placed him in a compromised position and aroused Māori suspicion. Eventually, the governor relieved him of this duty.

Clarke built up his office and became chief protector of aborigines, supervising five regional protectors. He believed that legal cases involving Māori should be heard by native courts. Cases involving only Māori would be heard by chiefs and an all-Māori jury. A magistrate and mixed-race jury would hear cases involving Europeans as well. This plan was rejected.

Māori rights

George Clarke lost his position as protector of aborigines in 1846, after George Grey became governor of New Zealand. In a final message to the governor, Clarke reminded him that New Zealand had been an independent country prior to 1840, and that the Treaty of Waitangi was subsequently regarded by Māori as their ‘Magna Charta’. He advised Grey that Māori should be given ‘the common rights and privileges of British subjects … and that they should be led, not forced, into the observance of British law.’1

Protectorate abolished

Relations with some northern Māori became violent in 1845 and the British Colonial Office appointed a new governor, George Grey. Grey believed that retaining the chiefs’ traditional authority would hamper the process of colonisation. In 1846 he abolished the position of protector of aborigines and personally assumed responsibility for dealing with Māori chiefs. In this capacity he oversaw the government purchase of much of the South Island in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The position of native secretary was created to assist Grey in this work, but at first this was a purely administrative role with no political or economic authority.

Māori voting rights

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 gave the vote to adult males who owned or leased property of a certain value. Communally held Māori land was not recognised, so almost all Māori were effectively denied the vote.  Section 71 of the act enabled the creation of separate districts within which Māori could govern themselves to a considerable extent. However, this provision was never implemented.

Media for Māori

Government agencies have produced a number of periodicals to communicate with Māori about their policies. For four years, starting in 1842, Protector of Aborigines George Clarke published the monthly Māori-language newspaper Te Karere o Nui Tireni (The Messenger of New Zealand). In 1861, after war broke out between Māori and the government, the Native Department produced Te Waka Maori. It was published until 1876. Between 1952 and 1976 the Maori Affairs Department published the bilingual quarterly magazine Te Ao Hou, ‘to provide interesting and informative reading for Maori homes … like a marae on paper, where all questions of interest to the Maori can be discussed.’2


Since they lacked the ability to exercise political power through the electoral system, Māori set up their own unofficial rūnanga (tribal councils) in which chiefs and elders could hear disputes and administer their own people. Francis Fenton, a temporary native secretary who later became resident magistrate in the Waikato, encouraged the government to grant official status to these rūnanga. He believed this would make Māori more willing to sell their remaining lands and less likely to rebel against the government. Legislation was passed in 1858 to set up ‘native districts’ headed by rūnanga – but little effort was made to implement these new laws.

Chief land purchase commissioner

Donald McLean, a migrant from the Scottish Highlands who spoke fluent Māori, had been appointed a protector of aborigines under George Clarke in 1844. From 1853 he held the newly created post of chief land purchase commissioner, and from 1856 he also took over Francis Fenton’s position as native secretary. McLean oversaw the purchase of huge tracts of Māori land. The undertakings made in Lord Normanby’s 1839 instructions and in the Treaty of Waitangi, to preserve lands and other resources needed by Māori, were not honoured by these land deals. The government also made little effort to uphold the authority of the chiefs in their own regions.


Conflict and compromise, 1860s to 1920s

The Kīngitanga

In 1858 Māori formed a large intertribal movement headed by a Māori king. The Kīngitanga (King movement) aimed to foster unity between tribes and give Māori greater authority in national affairs. One of its main goals was an end to sales of tribal land. However, Governor Thomas Gore Browne was determined to force land sales in spite of opposition from the chiefs. From 1860 this policy led to war between Māori and the government, first in Taranaki and then in other parts of the North Island.

Sewell’s criticisms

Henry Sewell, a Canterbury lawyer and politician in the 1850s and 1860s, believed the government often failed to meet its responsibilities to Māori. He supported former Native Secretary Francis Fenton’s rūnanga policy and felt the Kīngitanga should be officially recognised, as an example of Māori claiming authority that the colonial government should have provided to them.

District rūnanga

To end conflict with the Kīngitanga, George Grey was brought back for a second term as governor. In 1861 he proposed a ‘plan for native government’, the first government system to give tribes significant administrative and legal authority in their own districts. It set up 20 Māori districts, each headed by a Pākehā civil commissioner who presided over Pākehā resident magistrates and Māori district rūnanga. Each rūnanga selected its own assessors (native magistrates). However, few district rūnanga were successfully established. The Taranaki, Waikato and Maniapoto districts remained suspicious of the government’s intentions, and in 1863 war broke out again.

Māori schools

In 1865 a new native minister, Andrew Russell, began to dismantle the rūnanga system. He believed that ‘the object of the Government must be to identify the Natives with ourselves, to become one people’.1 His under-secretary, William Rolleston, set up a colonywide system of schools for Māori. These taught in English and lasted well into the 20th century. They gave some Māori an opportunity to engage effectively with non-Māori society.

Reviving the rūnanga

Once the Native Land Court began operating in 1865, the Native Department ceased to be the government’s land purchasing office – but its main activity remained the negotiation of sales of Māori land. By 1870 some tribes no longer owned enough land to sustain their people, and others had withdrawn to remote regions where they had little contact with Europeans. Over the following decade, the government under Julius Vogel attempted to engage with Māori to advance its ambitious public works programme.

Donald McLean was native minister from 1869 until his death in 1876. He revived Grey’s rūnanga system, based on resident magistrates and native assessors who worked closely with Māori in their districts, ‘leading them to cleanliness and order and gently weaning them from their communistic practices’.2 However, the rūnanga already formed by Māori themselves were not recognised by the government, despite many requests from chiefs. This meant that Māori were still unable to control or prevent further loss of their land.

Poor treatment

In 1890 the government set up a three-person commission to investigate and advise on the effects of official policies on Māori. One of its members was the Māori MP James Carroll, who disagreed with many recommendations of the other two members. He wrote, ‘Scarcely is there a portion of the North Island where the Natives have had experience of the Native Office but they remember it with feelings of regret. Everywhere one hears complaints of its deceitful practices, overreaching, unfulfilled promises, and treachery, in all of which the Natives are the helpless victims.’3

Abolishing the Native Department

In the 1880s the government returned to a ‘one people’ policy, making fewer special provisions for Māori. The only area of the Native Department’s work to expand was its activity of buying Māori land. In 1892 the department was abolished altogether and responsibility for Māori affairs was shared between the Justice Department and the Native Land Court. The health and education departments also had substantial Māori programmes.

Māori councils

The Maori Councils Act 1900 set up Māori councils and marae committees in almost every Māori district in the country. These councils gave Māori powers comparable to those of local governments. At a 1901 hui in Rotorua to welcome the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, 6,000 Māori lived in a model village run on Māori Council lines. The fortnight-long hui passed without sickness, disorder or drunkenness. However, lack of central funding greatly limited the councils’ effectiveness.

Native difficulty

Canterbury MP William Rolleston was strongly critical of the 1892 decision to dissolve the Native Department. He said in Parliament, ‘We are given to understand that the Native difficulty is at an end and that there is no necessity for any special department… But I venture to say that the Native difficulty is beginning now – a Native difficulty that requires very intelligent dealing, and demands a special knowledge that, perhaps, was not wanted to the same extent before.’4

Re-opening the Native Department

In 1906, as the MP for Waiapu (later renamed Gisborne), James Carroll of Ngāti Kahungunu re-established the Native Department. In the decade to 1922, a further million acres of Māori land was bought by the government, and an even larger area alienated by other means. However, Young Māori Party leaders such as Apirana Ngata began to replace land sales with a variety of consolidation, leasing and development schemes to make remaining areas of Māori land more profitable.

Commissions on Māori land issues

In 1890 a commission headed by Auckland lawyer William Rees investigated the validity of Māori land sales and found that the Native Land Court was responsible for ‘the difficulties, the frauds, and the sufferings’ of Māori landowners.5 In 1920 a commission of inquiry into the 1848 sale of much of the South Island eventually resulted in compensation payments. In 1928 another commission, headed by Supreme Court Judge William Sim, found that the confiscation of Taranaki and Waikato land after the wars of the 1860s was unjust, and annual payments of compensation began.

    • Quoted in G. V. Butterworth and H. R. Young, Maori Affairs. Wellington: Iwi Transition Agency; GP Books, 1990, p. 38. Back
    • Quoted in Maori Affairs, pp. 41–42. Back
    • Quoted in Maori Affairs, p. 52. Back
    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 78 (1892), p. 880. Back
    • Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1891, G-1, p. vii. Back

Depression, war and urbanisation, 1930s to 1960s

Expanding the Native Department

During the economic depression of the early 1930s, Native Minister Apirana Ngata headed an overhaul of the Native Department, which grew into a major economic-development agency. Ngata used state funding to develop large blocks of tribally owned land in some of the country’s poorest districts. To provide homes on the newly developed blocks, the department began a large-scale Māori housing programme.

Good work, poor accounting

East Coast leader Sir Apirana Ngata was native minister from 1928 to 1934. During the depression he created work for Māori clearing, grassing and stocking tribal land in many parts of the country. However, he and his supervisors were often careless about accounting for state funds. In 1934 a commission of inquiry found that he had ignored regulations and that some of his staff were corrupt. Ngata accepted full responsibility and resigned from cabinet. It was many years before the department shed its reputation for dishonesty and inefficiency.

First Labour government

Labour won power in 1935 with the support of the Rātana movement. This religious and political organisation had pressed for some years for greater Māori autonomy and recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi. However, Labour believed its programme of economic equality would benefit Māori best. It expanded Ngata’s land development and housing schemes, but accepted that public opinion still firmly favoured assimilation.

Second World War

A tribally based Maori War Effort Organisation (MWEO) headed by Paraire Paikea of Ngāti Whātua worked alongside the Native Department to recruit Māori troops and raise support for the war effort at home. The MWEO appears to have been the first institution of Māori self-government to receive public funding. At the end of the war it was absorbed into the Native Department, which helped to rehabilitate Māori ex-servicemen.

Jock McEwen

Jock McEwen was secretary of Māori affairs from 1963 to 1975. A Pākehā, he learned to speak Māori as a young man and began working for the Maori Affairs Department in 1935. McEwen went on to lead the department during the early years of the Māori cultural renaissance. He was also active in Wellington’s Māori community as a founding member of the Ngāti Pōneke Māori cultural club, a carving tutor at Wi Tako prison and a member of the committee revising the Williams Māori dictionary.

Maori Affairs Department

From 1946 Peter Fraser served as both prime minister and native minister. He legislated to change official use of the term ‘native’ to ‘Māori’, since Māori regarded the older term as demeaning and patronising. From 1948 to 1957 the department was headed by Tipi Rōpiha, the first Māori to hold this position. The amount of state compensation offered for 19th-century land confiscations was increased and Māori land development and housing schemes were extended. Perhaps most significantly, Māori urbanisation was recognised as irreversible. The department’s policy became to ease the path of Māori into urban life.

Hunn Report

The 1960 Hunn Report on the Department of Maori Affairs identified three types of Māori:

  • a minority who were completely detribalised, with very little or no Māoritanga
  • the majority, who were generally at home in either Māori or non-Māori society
  • a minority who were ‘complacently living a backward life in primitive conditions’.1

The report argued for planned migration to the cities and assistance with training, employment and accommodation. The result was to hasten Māori urbanisation and integration.

New Zealand Maori Council

The Maori Welfare Act 1962 created a four-tier permanent consultative body for Māori, with Māori committees, tribal executives, district councils and a national Maori Council.

Simplifying Māori land ownership

The Maori Affairs Act 1953 aimed to help Māori achieve equality through economic development, by removing tribal ownership, ‘a communal way of life, according to which land was owned by tribes’. Instead, Māori land was to be owned by ‘one person or by a comparatively small group of substantial owners with whom it is easy to deal’.2 Under the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967, Māori land owned by four or fewer people was reclassified as ‘European land’. These changes made it easier to alienate remaining areas of tribal land, and Māori were outraged by them. A new generation who had been raised and educated in the cities realised they were in danger of losing one of the foundations of their Māoritanga.


Māori renaissance, 1970s to 2000s

Waitangi Tribunal

The Labour government elected in 1972 appointed Matiu Rata of Ngāti Kurī minister of Māori affairs. The responsibilities of the Maori Affairs Department were redefined to include:

  • retaining Māori land for its owners’ benefit
  • promoting the health, education and general wellbeing of Māori.

The most objectionable provisions of the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967 – which had allowed Māori land to be steadily alienated – were repealed. Marae and community centres received increased subsidies, and new urban marae were built. Most significantly, the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to hear claims by Māori of breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, and to recommend compensation when breaches were proved.

Kōhanga Reo and mātua whāngai

In 1977 Kara Puketapu (Te Āti Awa) became the second Māori to serve as secretary of Māori affairs. Puketapu empathised with the needs of urban Māori and introduced important initiatives such as kōhanga reo (a national network of Māori-language preschool centres) and matua whāngai (an attempt to reduce Māori youth offending by involving the wider family).

Fighting for recognition

By the 1980s Māori were insisting on a much greater degree of control over the government institutions that affected their lives. Māori Affairs Secretary Dr Tamati Reedy said in 1986, ‘Throughout nearly 150 years of contact of the Maori people with successive governments, there has been no proper recognition accorded to iwi, as legitimate structures to negotiate with or to take responsibility for Maori people’s development.’1

Māori heading Māori institutions

By 1980 Māori held a number of leading positions in the administration of the government where it had a direct bearing on Māori. The chair of the Waitangi Tribunal and chief judge of the Māori Land Court (Eddie Durie), the minister of Māori affairs (Ben Couch) and the secretary of Māori affairs (Kara Puketapu) were all Māori.

Honouring the treaty

The 1984 Labour government was the first in New Zealand’s history to commit to honouring the Treaty of Waitangi. It greatly extended the powers and resources of the Waitangi Tribunal, and all government departments were instructed to take the principles of the treaty into account in new legislation. The government also transferred some government funding spent on Māori to the control of tribally based Māori organisations.

Restructuring the state

The major changes to the entire public service from the mid-1980s affected Māori more severely than non-Māori. Large state employers such as the railways, forests and Post Office were restructured and many Māori became unemployed. With the aim of building economic independence for Māori, treaty settlements and court decisions transferred significant resources back to Māori in compensation for treaty breaches.

‘Hawaiian loans affair’

In late 1986 MP Winston Peters alleged in Parliament that Māori Affairs Secretary Dr Tamati Reedy proposed to borrow $300 million from overseas financiers to fund Māori business development. The loan had not been authorised by the minister of finance and although the deal did not proceed, the allegations led to the Department of Maori Affairs being abolished, and replaced by Te Puni Kōkiri in 1992.

Te Puni Kōkiri

In 1989 the department was replaced by two interim bodies – the Iwi Transition Agency and the Ministry of Maori Affairs. Te Puni Kōkiri (TPK), the Ministry of Māori Development, replaced both these agencies in 1992. TPK has since been a policy agency advising government and monitoring Māori services by other government agencies.

Tino rangatiratanga

Some have said that the restructure of government structures for dealing with Māori is a positive response to Māori calls for ‘tino rangatiratanga’. The Waitangi Tribunal has defined this term as Māori having ‘rights to manage their own policy, resources and affairs within minimum parameters necessary for the operation of the state’.2 However, others believe that reducing the involvement of government in Māori issues has further marginalised Māori within New Zealand society.

Closing the Gaps

In the 1999 general election, the Labour Party campaigned successfully on a strategy of ‘Closing the Gaps’ between Māori and non-Māori. In 2004 National Party leader Don Brash attacked Closing the Gaps as a race-based policy that would create a racially divided New Zealand. The strategy was later adapted towards reducing social inequities in general, rather than specifically for Māori. Te Puni Kōkiri has since adopted a ‘Māori Potential Approach’, to support Māori to develop their collective resources and skills

    • Quoted in G. V. Butterworth and H. R. Young, Maori Affairs. Wellington: Iwi Transition Agency; GP Books, 1990. Back
    • Waitangi Tribunal, Taranaki report: kaupapa tuatahi (Wai 143). Wellington: GP Publications, 1996, p. 4. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Ngā take Māori – government policy and Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2021)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 Jun 2012