Te Tai – Treaty Settlement Stories

Story: Te Mana o te Reo Māori

Matiu Rata


A practical politician who established the Waitangi Tribunal and laid the foundations for the revitalisation of te reo Māori.
Matiu Rata waving
Matiu Rata posing for a newspaper photographer in the 1970s. Evening Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library; Reference: 1/4-021374-F

Matiu Rata (Ngāti Kuri) was born in the far north and as a trade unionist and Rātana adherent was attracted to the Labour Party. In 1963, at the age of 29, he was elected as the Labour MP for Northern Māori. Rata was Minister of Māori Affairs in the government led by Norman Kirk from 1972. He later left the Labour Party to found Mana Motuhake. After failing to win re-election to Parliament, he led the Muriwhenua claimants before the Waitangi Tribunal.

Matiu Rata made an indirect but hugely significant contribution to the revitalisation of his first language by establishing the Waitangi Tribunal. He had sought greater powers than the limited role it was initially assigned, but saw its potential to grow in strength. His optimism was well-founded and the Tribunal became the ‘instrument of mutuality’ Rata had envisaged, influencing the course of Māori–Crown relations and facilitating the healing of wounds that had seemed likely to continue to fester.

One such issue was the status of te reo Māori, the subject of the WAI11 claim which gave rise to the Māori Language Act 1987 and the broadcasting, educational and cultural recognition that followed.