The Treaty of Waitangi
In the early 19th century Māori still lived according to a complex system of customary laws.
The British began trying to introduce their own laws to Māori with the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between rangatira (chiefs) and the British Crown.
Some of the laws that followed took aspects of Māori custom into account, but the British lawmakers saw this as a temporary step and anticipated a time when Māori would be fully integrated into their society.
Laws and land
Māori did not see land as a commodity to be bought and sold by individuals, but as something over which groups could hold communal rights of guardianship, occupation and use. These rights were gained by various means including discovery, conquest and gift. They were maintained by continual occupation over generations.
Colonial legislation clashed with and overrode that system. New laws declared that the government had the right to take any land that was not needed by Māori, and that Māori could sell or lease land only to the Crown.
The government backed up its laws with military force, and the New Zealand wars began. The government passed laws allowing it to confiscate the land of Māori believed to be ‘in rebellion’.
A century of law-making
Native Land Courts were set up to investigate and decide on titles to Māori land. The court hearings were often time-consuming and expensive.
Right into the 20th century, the government made laws that impeded Māori land ownership.
Beginning to make amends
In the 1970s a wave of Māori protest actions drew public attention to land-related grievances. The Waitangi Tribunal was formed in 1975 to investigate breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Since then, Māori have made further gains. In the 1990s environmental legislation began to take account of Māori historical, spiritual and cultural concerns. The importance of the Māori relationship to land was acknowledged in Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993.