Story: Ngā whakataunga tiriti – Treaty of Waitangi settlement process

Governments breached te Tiriti o Waitangi almost from the time it was signed in 1840. In the late 20th century many of these breaches were finally acknowledged. Finding the means to redress injustices has involved careful negotiation.

Story by Richard S. Hill
Main image: Signing the Ngāti Whātua settlement, 2010

Story summary

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Te Tiriti o Waitangi, signed between Māori and the British Crown in 1840, promised Māori could continue to own their lands, forests and fisheries for as long as they wished. However, tribes lost many resources through:

  • government purchase of Māori land for low prices that left Māori with inadequate land reserves
  • confiscation of land following the New Zealand wars
  • the consequences of Native Land Court operations.

Māori sought compensation for these and many other breaches of the treaty.

Early settlements

In the early 20th century two commissions of inquiry into the treatment of Māori found the Crown had acted unfairly. In the mid-20th century some compensation was finally paid to Taranaki, Ngāi Tahu and Waikato–Maniapoto. However, these were tiny sums of money compared to the value of what had been taken from the tribes.

After Māori moved to urban areas stronger protests about treaty breaches began, part of a Māori political and cultural renaissance.

Tribunal and negotiations

The Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 to hear claims about Crown breaches of the treaty. From 1985 the tribunal could hear claims relating to breaches dating back to 1840, and it issued reports on these claims.

In 1989 a Treaty of Waitangi policy unit was set up in the Department of Justice to advise the government on treaty policy, and negotiations began with claimants on their historical claims.

The first treaty claim settlement, concerning the Waitomo Caves, was signed in 1989.

In 1992 the Sealord agreement settled claims over commercial fisheries – it was worth $170 million. Another large settlement involving a number of tribes was the ‘Treelords’ deal in 2008, which included almost $200 million of forest land.

Some tribes found the time and expense of treaty claims too much, and decided to bypass the tribunal and negotiate directly with the government. The Waikato–Tainui confederation of tribes, the first to do this, agreed to a settlement worth $170 million in 1995.

The Ngāi Tahu tribe negotiated with the government after a claim to the tribunal was heard. They received a settlement worth $170 million in 1998.

Some settlements included formal apologies from the Crown, and some involved cultural redress such as the restoration of Māori place names – for example, Aoraki/Mt Cook.

By 2010, 26 final settlements had been written into law.

Settlement process

As the settlement process speeded up, treaty claims developed a distinct process. The Crown sought to:

  • identify treaty breaches
  • identify those affected by them
  • find their spokespeople
  • negotiate a deed of settlement which outlined the settlement, often including land, money and an apology.

Some people were critical of the treaty settlement process, calling it a ‘gravy train’ which unfairly benefited a few. In 1994 the government tried to cap the total value of settlements at $1 billion, but Māori strongly opposed this.

By the early 2000s most people accepted the idea of treaty settlements. The process was seen as an example to the world of how to resolve historic grievances.

How to cite this page:

Richard S. Hill, 'Ngā whakataunga tiriti – Treaty of Waitangi settlement process', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Richard S. Hill, published 20 June 2012, updated 1 April 2023