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Te Māori i te ohanga – Māori in the economy

by Basil Keane

Māori tribes’ lively participation in the economy fell away as fertile land was alienated in the 19th century. After a century or more of existing on the margins, the restoration of land and assets saw Māori businesses begin to grow – they were valued at more than $10 billion in the early 2000s.

The Māori economy


Māori lived in villages (kāinga) located close to important resource areas, particularly coastal stretches with good fish stocks and shellfish beds, fresh water, north-facing slopes for horticulture and forest for hunting birds. From the 1500s onward (defensive fortifications) sprang up.


The economic activities of Māori were whānau- and hapū-based. The whānau was directed by a kaumātua (elder) while the hapū was directed by a rangatira. Economic activities subject to religious ritual and restrictions required a ritual expert, the tohunga ahurewa (high priest).

Polynesian crops

Māori grew a number of plants that had been brought by the first arrivals, including the kūmara (sweet potato), taro and hue (bottle gourd). Because of different climatic conditions the kūmara could not be grown year-round in New Zealand as it could in the tropics. The hue was eaten as a small fruit, and the skins were dried and used to hold water and food.

Indigenous plants such as the karaka and tī kouka (cabbage tree) were also cultivated. Karaka berries were cooked and eaten, and the roots and stems of the tī were harvested and cooked. In some areas patches of land were deliberately burnt off to encourage the growth of aruhe (fern root).

Moving on


Crops or other food sources could fail and sometimes people had to move. Tribes passed on whakapapa and knew the land they could claim a connection to. The importance of maintaining these links is summed up in the proverb ‘Mate kāinga tahi ora kāinga rua’ – if one home fails a second one will flourish.


Big game

The first Polynesian settlers quickly spread across the country. They based themselves in areas with good access to significant food resources. Initially, access to moa and seals were important. After moa died out and seal numbers plummeted, settlers moved to warm areas and the effort put into fishing and catching smaller birds increased.


Māori fished in a variety of ways. Line fishing, trolling and net fishing were all practised. Snapper caught in the north and barracouta in the south were important foods. Some communities caught huge numbers of eels during eel migrations, and eels were an important food for all tribes.


The most important bird species for food became kererū, kākā, kiwi and weka. They were speared in trees, or snared in various ways.

Kiore and kurī

The Polynesian ancestors of Māori brought kiore (Pacific rats) and kurī (dogs) with them. As well as being used for hunting, kurī were cooked and eaten. Kiore were also hunted for food. They were particularly numerous during beech masts – years when the fruit of beech trees was plentiful.

Food preservation

A number of foods were dried for preservation, including fish. Māori also preserved animals in their own fat. Tītī (muttonbirds) in the South Island were preserved in pōhā (kelp flaps). In the north, kiore and birds were preserved in hue.

Stone resources

All main useful rock types were discovered soon after settlement: northern obsidians; fine-grained basalt at Tahanga; argillite in Nelson–Marlborough, Riverton and Bluff; silcretes in Otago and pounamu on the West Coast. Stone was traded throughout the country.


Trade took the form of gift exchange. The giving of a gift created an obligation to reciprocate with an equal or better gift. Inland tribes often traded foods with coastal tribes, and an inter-island trade between the South and North islands was important.

Early trade with Pākehā

Early trade

In initial exchanges between Māori and Pākehā trade worked on two levels. The first was an extension to Pākehā explorers of the traditional practice of the ritualised gift exchange, where one gift incurred a requirement to reciprocate. Eruera Maihi Patuone said that in an encounter between his father, Tapua, and those on board the Endeavour in the Bay of Islands in 1769, his father threw fish to the ‘tupua’ (foreigner) as an offering. When Tapua went on board he received a red garment and corned meat.

The other type of exchange was bartering. Goods of a relatively similar value (in the eyes of both parties) were exchanged at the same time. For example, once Māori realised the value of nails as chisels they started to request them in return for goods they had – soon they began requesting longer nails as they were better for chiselling. Māori bartering skills developed with increased contact with Pākehā. Early visitors often commented on Māori bargaining skills – whether in terms of praise or resentment.

Acquiring goods for potatoes and pigs.

Potatoes were grown at Thames by 1801 and traded in the Bay of Islands by 1805. By 1810 potatoes were being grown and traded in the Foveaux Strait area by Māori – they may have been brought down by Ngāi Tahu from gardens in Queen Charlotte Sound. Potatoes were cultivated so extensively that by 1803 whaling ships were able to purchase them by the tonne.

Pigs were also important. Norfolk Island governor Philip Gidley King's gifts to Te Pahi of around 60 pigs in the late 1700s were probably the first used for breeding, in the north at least.


From the beginning of the 1800s to 1840 whaling was the most significant industry in New Zealand for Europeans. Whalers created a huge market for potatoes grown by Northland Māori, and Māori also supplied the whalers with pigs. Soon Māori began working in the industry. Shore-based whaling was established around 1827–28. Māori continued whaling even after it was no longer profitable.

Early in the 19th century the expansion of whaling in the South Pacific created a huge market for potatoes grown by Northland Māori.

Becoming sailors

Many Māori took the opportunity to become sailors, often at the instigation of their chiefs. When they returned to the tribe, often after years of being away, they would usually provide gifts for relatives and chiefs.

Early flax trade

A trade in flax began with Australia in the 1820s and peaked in the early 1830s. Trading stations were set up on the coasts of Northland, Waikato, Taranaki, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, the East Coast, Southland, both sides of Cook Strait and Banks Peninsula.

Flax worked and traded by Māori was measured by the ton (roughly a tonne) and half-ton.

Musket wars

In the 1820s and 1830s the negative aspects of the new economy became obvious. Māori had entered into an arms race based on the acquisition of muskets. Tribes had begun to focus heavily on creating a surplus of produce to purchase muskets. Often the work involved in accumulating goods to purchase muskets left tribes unable to grow sufficient food for themselves. Additionally, the wars between tribes unsettled tribal boundaries.


Despite tribes becoming involved in a new trading economy with Pākehā, they did not fundamentally change the way they organised the work of whānau and hapū.

The most significant change was the mass production of certain goods such as flax, potatoes, and timber for trading.

Māori enterprise, 1840 to 1860

The period between 1840 and 1860 has been described as the golden age of Māori enterprise. Māori were the key producers and suppliers of agricultural produce to the towns that began to spring up. They invested in agricultural implements, flour mills and coastal vessels, and produced, processed and transported produce to markets.


In the early 1840s the founding of Auckland, Wellington, Whanganui, New Plymouth and Nelson created large markets for food produced by tribal groups.

In the early days of the Wellington settlement, Māori dominated the provision of potatoes and wheat to settlers, and played a key role in the supply of pigs. In Nelson the settlers were entirely dependent on Māori for supplies. By the mid-1830s Ngāi Tahu were bringing potatoes from Taieri and Moeraki by whaleboat to be sold at Ōtākou, near Dunedin.


Wheat took longer than other crops to be adopted by Māori. Unlike potatoes, which only required minor adaptations to the method for growing kūmara (sweet potato), wheat was different to any crop Māori had previously grown.

Ruatara, a northern rangatira, was eager to satisfy demand for wheat in Sydney, and sowed and harvested the first crop in New Zealand in 1813. It was not until he was able to get and use a wheat grinder that he was able to demonstrate the value of wheat to his people. Ruatara's successor, Hongi Hika, had a wheat plantation a couple of years later. Wheat proved a reliable food crop that could be stored for consumption or export.

Flour mills

Flour mills were a heavy capital investment for tribes. In the 1840s and 1850s mills were built through Waikato, Taranaki, Whanganui, Rotorua and Wairarapa. In Waikato around 50 were built during this period. By 1856 Māori flour mills could no longer compete with steam-driven mills in Auckland and Napier. A number of tribes found themselves in debt with a capital asset of no value.

Māori shipping

From the 1840s a number of tribes began buying vessels to transport produce to European towns. Tribes from the Bay of Islands, Hauraki, Bay of Plenty, East Coast and Poverty Bay all purchased ships. Most were of 10 to 20 tons and were suited to shorter trips. In 1858 in Auckland Province, 51 ships were registered and 36 vessels were licensed to Māori. Due to shipwrecks, the expense of repair and losses during the wars of the 1860s, few survived by the mid-1860s.

Market crash

In 1855–56 the price in Australia for wheat and potatoes dropped by at least half. By 1859 wheat exports to Australia had ended. Many tribal agricultural enterprises also suffered as soils were exhausted.

Trade came to a halt for many iwi in 1863 and 1864 due to the New Zealand wars, fought between imperial and colonial forces and Māori tribes. A number of Māori-controlled ports were blockaded by government forces. In the 1860s the Māori economy went into headlong decline.

The alienation of Māori land

Economic importance of land

The importance of land to Māori was summed up in the proverb: ‘Te toto o te tangata he kai. Te oranga o te tangata he whenua.’ (The lifeblood of a person is derived from food; the livelihood of a people depends on land.)

The loss of land meant the loss of a key economic resource for Māori. Land purchases were first entered into with the idea that Māori would benefit from Pākehā settling nearby. Māori were eager to have access to markets, and new goods and technologies that Europeans would bring.

Much of the success that Māori had in supplying early settlers and the towns they set up was based on Māori control of significant areas of land, which was communally managed to produce food. But land transfer usually gave settlers the best arable lands closest to towns and cities. The 19th century became a period of massive transfer of land from Māori ownership to government and Pākehā ownership. This had a severe impact on Māori tribal structures, and on tribal economies.

South Island

By the 1860s ownership of almost the entire South Island had been transferred from Māori to the government or European settlers. Between 1844 and 1863 the Crown bought millions of hectares of land from Ngāi Tahu in a series of nine purchases. In the 1848 Canterbury purchase alone the Crown purchased nearly 10 million hectares.

By the late 1890s the government had begun to investigate the amount of land available to Ngāi Tahu and found that only 10% of the tribe had sufficient land to provide a living. A number of landless Māori throughout the South Island were given some land. Ngāi Tahu and other South Island tribes had not had an opportunity to benefit from European settlement.

Land confiscation

By the 1860s Māori were beginning to see the effects of land loss. In the Wairarapa, Wellington and Manawatū, for example, many tribes had sold most of their land. As tribes sought to strengthen their hold on land, the government sought to acquire more land. Tensions around sovereignty, mana and land led to the New Zealand wars. As a result of these wars, around 1.5 million hectares of land were confiscated from tribes in Taranaki, Waikato, Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty. At the time it represented about 15% of land in Māori customary ownership. Much was returned, but not always to the original owners.

Land tenure changes

From 1865 the Native Land Court introduced a new system of land title based on individual ownership. It failed to recognise tribal ownership of land, and tribal control of economic interests was undermined.

Title to land was shared by members of tribes. Collective owners could not obtain capital to invest in land.

Much land was sold to pay for the expenses involved in the land court hearings, including court costs, accommodation during the court hearings and surveying.

Rural economy – 1870s onwards

Whānau and hapū

Tribally based economies were increasingly undermined through land loss. The boom of the mid-1800s gave way to a different economy. While Māori often continued to work in whānau or hapū groups it was no longer as part of a tribal enterprise. They worked for wages for the government, Pākehā entrepreneurs or farmers. The Māori economy soon developed into one of subsistence living.

Rural labour

By the 1870s Māori men were increasingly working for wages for someone else, which in many cases paid better than farming for themselves. From the 1880s Māori became shearers, beginning in Hawke’s Bay and then throughout the country. Shearing was carried out by whānau and hapū.

Kauri gum digging was done on both a hapū and individual basis. Whitebaiting was carried out by Māori in the North and South islands, both as a source of food and additional income when sold to Pākehā. In the South Island tītī (muttonbirds) were harvested and sold by Ngāi Tahu families. Many Māori were sharecroppers on land owned by Pākehā farmers.


By the 1900s a number of Māori were involved in sheep farming on the East Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa. At the beginning of the 1900s the government was providing land and finance to Pākehā smallholders. At the same time it was purchasing large tracts of land from Māori. Between 1891 and 1911 around 1.5 million hectares of land were purchased by the Liberal government.

Land development

It was not until the late 1920s that Native Minister Apirana Ngata was able to secure government money to help Māori develop their land. By 1939 land development was a significant source of work, employing 5,000 Māori.

While it was hoped that the development schemes would see the Māori workforce becoming farmers, there were a number of fundamental problems. By the mid-20th century farming was becoming more mechanised and required less labour than previously. Most of the best agricultural land had been purchased or confiscated by the government. Māori often held poor or rugged land.

The Māori population was growing significantly, and there was not enough land left for Māori to farm. In 1960 there were 2,116 Māori farms, and around 0.75 million hectares of land under Māori incorporations and trusts, but there were simply not enough farms or work to go around.


Rural workforce

Māori were a rural people right up until the Second World War. Up until the 1900s, 95% of Māori lived in rural communities. In the 1926 census more than 10,000 Māori worked in primary production. Additional to this were the 7,000 labourers, mostly involved in rural occupations. Until the middle of the 20th century, the Māori workforce was a rural workforce.


At the beginning of the 20th century a small but important group of Māori professionals emerged. This group, led by Apirana Ngata, were mostly graduates of Te Aute College.

Despite this promising start Māori educational development was hindered. There was a view held by a number of officials that Māori should only be taught manual skills. The Department of Education pressured Te Aute College to move its focus from academic achievement to agricultural training. In 1931 T. B. Strong, director of education, argued that Māori schools should train Māori boys to be farmers, and Māori girls to be farmers’ wives.

Limited education meant few Māori professionals worked in towns and cities. There were small clusters of Māori in certain professions such as nursing, the clergy and teaching. In 1945 there were a handful of managers, a single Māori lawyer, two law clerks (male and female), four doctors and two dentists.

Second World War

During the 1930s, only 10% of the Māori population was urban. Within a few decades the number would rise to over 80%. This massive shift was sparked by the Second World War. The Manpower Act 1944 was used to direct young Māori ineligible for the military to work in essential industries, often located in cities. Young Māori women moved to work in factories in towns. The NativeAffairs Department appointed six Māori welfare officers to assist young women away from home. The 1945 census noted that the increase in the number of Māori in manufacturing was due to the war.

Rural to urban movement

After the war some members of the Māori Battalion moved to the cities to take advantage of skills learned in the army. They generally found employment in the Māori Affairs Department or in teaching.

Limited education meant that Māori in both rural and urban areas found employment in areas such as freezing works, road maintenance, factories, transport, building trades, fishing, forestry, mining and labouring occupations.

Changing industries

Within a few decades the high proportion of Māori employed in agriculture changed significantly. In 1951 nearly 40% of Māori males were involved in agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing compared to around 20% of European males. By 1971 the percentage of Māori engaged in agriculture was around 13%, little different from non-Māori at nearly 12%.

There was a big increase in the number of Māori employed in manufacturing. In 1936 around 2,000 Māori males and less than 100 Māori females were involved in manufacturing. By 1971 a third of Māori workers were involved in manufacturing.

In 1951 over half of Māori women worked in services. By 1971 it was down to a quarter.

Government reforms, 1980s


In the 1960s unskilled, semi-skilled and rural workers were often employed in government-controlled industries. Māori workers were disproportionately over-represented in government-owned forests, railways, road works, electricity networks and the Post Office.

These industries were all restructured in the 1980s and 1990s, with widespread redundancies. Private industries with major Māori workforces were also restructured, including manufacturing and freezing works. Māori unemployment rocketed – it reached a high of 25% in 1992, at a time when the general unemployment rate was 10%.

Hui Taumata

In 1984 the Hui Taumata – Māori economic development summit conference was held. The hui recommended the Māori Economic Development Commission be established, reporting to the minister of Māori Affairs. This was to improve Māori prosperity by accelerating Māori-led economic development.

Reorganising the workforce

In 1986, 39% of Māori were working in secondary industries, including manufacturing, construction, and electricity, gas and water sectors.

By 2003 this figure had dropped to 25%. Māori in the service sectors, including property and business, transport and storage, health and community, and education had risen to 65%. Māori in the primary industries (agriculture, forestry and fishing) had remained relatively steady at 10% in 1986 and 9% in 2003.

Treaty settlements

In 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to look at breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi by the Crown. In 1985 it was given the mandate to look at historical claims. As a result of the tribunal’s findings a number of tribes received settlements from the government. These settlements helped to provide a capital base from which tribes were able to re-enter the economy. The two biggest settlements went to Ngāi Tahu and Tainui, who received $170 million each.


A combination of court cases and Waitangi Tribunal reports saw an interim and then final fisheries settlement. As part of the interim settlement Māori received a proportion of fishing quota in New Zealand’s quota management system, which had initially shut out Māori fishers. Māori also received shares in fishing companies, and cash. This was enacted in the Maori Fisheries Act 1989. In 1992 a final settlement saw Māori given $150 million to buy half of fisheries company Sealord, and a guarantee of a share of future new quota. By the early 2000s the value of Māori fisheries assets was estimated at $700 million.


As part of the economic reforms of the 1980s, the government planned to transfer assets, including forestry assets, to state-owned companies. Because a number of Crown lands with forests were subject to Treaty of Waitangi claims, the government agreed to hold rental monies in trust, with the interest on the rentals being used to fund research into tribal ownership. The Crown Forestry Rental Trust was set up in 1990. When the ownership of the land on which the forests stood was resolved, assets would be returned to iwi.

Māori economy in the early 2000s

A 2003 report by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research attempted a contemporary definition of the Māori economy:

The Māori economy, under the definition we use, includes all those businesses and transactions where ‘Māoriness’ matters. It includes the activities based on collectively-owned Māori assets, the businesses of the self employed who identify as Māori, commercial transactions involving Māori culture, services oriented to specific Māori needs, as well as the housing owned by Māori.


Agriculture, fishing and owner-occupied dwellings combined were worth 75% of the output of the Māori economy in 2007. Agriculture was estimated to be $700 million, or 7.4% of New Zealand’s agricultural output. Māori controlled around 37% of New Zealand’s fishing quota which generated $299 million in fishing revenue. Māori accounted for 7% of home ownership. The value of this was around $434 million. The estimated value of Māori exports in 2000 was $650 million.

Yet in June 2009 Māori unemployment was 10% compared to 5% for non-Māori.

Diverse businesses

Despite the significant presence in agriculture, fishing and home ownership, Māori employers and entrepreneurs were increasingly diversifying in the 2000s. Māori businesses focused on tourism, fashion and film appeared.

Self-employment and entrepreneurs

In 1981 the number of self-employed Māori was 6,700. By 2001 this had increased to 17,100. Self-employment grew more strongly among Māori than non-Māori during this period, although 10% of Māori and 22% of non-Māori were self-employed. Self-employment moved away from the agricultural sector towards the service sector.

Trusts and incorporations

The two key structures developed to manage Māori interests in land were ahuwhenua trusts and Māori incorporations. In 2008 there were 129 Māori incorporations and 5,201 ahuwhenua trusts which together administered around two-thirds of Māori land. One of the larger incorporations – the Wakatū Incorporation – was valued at around $250 million in the early 2000s. Wairarapa Moana Incorporation owned assets of almost $90 million in the early 2000s, mostly forestry and farming operations.

The total value of Māori trusts and incorporations was estimated to be over $3 billion in 2005/6.

Treaty settlements and assets

The total assets held between Ngāi Tahu and Tainui were over one billion dollars in 2008. Ngāi Tahu Holdings had $600 million worth of assets under management in 2008 and Tainui Group Holdings $496 million.

In 2008 a settlement signed with a collective of central North Island iwi made up of Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Whare, Ngāti Manawa, Ngāti Raukawa and the Affiliate Te Arawa Iwi and Hapū was dubbed the ‘Treelords’ deal. It involved $195.7 million of Crown forest land, $223 million in rentals that had accumulated on the land since 1989, and an annual income stream of $13 million.

By 2009 Te Ohu Kaimoana, who had managed tribal fisheries whilst allocation was determined, had transferred over $440 million worth of fisheries-settlement assets to iwi.

Māori-owned assets

Māori-owned commercial assets were estimated to be worth $16.5 billion in 2005/6, more than double the $7.5 billion of 2001. Māori businesses were valued at over $10 billion.

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Te Māori i te ohanga – Māori in the economy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 March 2010