Story: Te tango whenua – Māori land alienation

Page 9. 20th-century developments

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The rate of Māori land acquisition began to slow markedly after Gordon Coates replaced W. H. Herries as native minister in 1921. Coates had grown up with Māori in Northland and was generally sympathetic to Māori complaints that they had insufficient remaining land. He worked closely with Apirana Ngata, member of Parliament for Eastern Māori (even though Ngata was in opposition until 1928).

From 1920 the government began to focus more on overcoming the problems of multiple ownership of Māori land. Large-scale acquisition of Māori land by the government was at an end. In 1928 Ngata became native minister, and in 1929 legislation was passed that provided for government loans to assist with Māori land development. Numerous development schemes were begun in the 1930s, although not all were successful.

Public works

Māori land was often taken for public works in preference to other land. Māori were less able to put political pressure on local and central government. Also, various provisions meant that in many cases no compensation was payable for Māori land. Even when compensation was required, the land was often undeveloped and had a relatively low valuation. It was not until the 1970s that compensation improved due to a change in public opinion and pressure from Māori leaders.


What proved to be a highly problematic type of land alienation, known as conversion, came about as a solution to the problem of multiple ownership of land. Under the Maori Affairs Act 1953, Māori owners whose shares in land were worth less than £25 were forced to sell them to the Maori Trustee, who would sell to a preferred class of alienees (usually Māori who had greater shares in the same land).

In the 1960s, the Hunn and Prichard–Waetford reports suggested that this process be intensified. Despite opposition from prominent Māori this was implemented in a 1967 amendment to the Maori Affairs Act. Land interests less than $50 were compulsorily purchased, and it was easier for the Maori Trustee to sell this land to the Crown. This amendment was unpopular and ignored the importance of Māori land as tūrangawaewae (a place to stand, or home), regardless of economics.

The practice was abolished by the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1974, led by Minister of Māori Affairs Matiu Rata. The preamble of the Te Ture Whenua Maori/Maori Land Act 1993 read, ‘[I]t is desirable to recognise that land is a taonga tuku iho [treasure handed down] of special significance to Maori people and, for that reason, to promote the retention of that land in the hands of its owners, their whanau, and their hapu, and to protect wahi tapu [sacred places].’

The Waitangi Tribunal

The Waitangi Tribunal was originally set up in 1975 to look at breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. However, it could not consider historical claims, so its use was limited in addressing tribal grievances about alienated land. In the same year, a hīkoi, or land march, was undertaken from the far north to Wellington to highlight land grievances. Additionally, a number of Māori began occupying land which had been taken from them to highlight these grievances. Most well-known are the occupations at Bastion Point (Takaparawhā) and Raglan (Whāingaroa).

In 1985 the Waitangi Tribunal was empowered to consider historical grievances back to 1840.

Treaty of Waitangi settlements

There have been a number of historical claims to the Waitangi Tribunal relating to land alienation. Settlements have included land as part of the compensation package in different ways, including:

  • return of land, often areas that are culturally significant to iwi (tribes), such as wāhi tapu (sacred sites), including urupā (burial grounds) and sites
  • access to land areas as nohoanga (camping grounds) for cultural purposes
  • negotiation of protocols relating to Crown-owned land that has special significance to iwi
  • the right to purchase certain land from the Crown at market value over a set period.
How to cite this page:

Richard Boast, 'Te tango whenua – Māori land alienation - 20th-century developments', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Richard Boast, published 24 Nov 2008, updated 1 Jul 2015