Before the settlement of Whanganui was founded in 1840, the population was entirely Māori. The European population grew rapidly after nearby fighting ended in 1869, and as other parts of the region were settled. By 1886 the region had 15,000 non-Māori. There were about 1,770 Māori, half the number 15 years earlier.
By 1926 the regional population was just over 57,000, while the Māori population had doubled to nearly 4,000.
Between 1926 and 1945 the region’s population fell, unlike other areas of New Zealand. The number of Māori rose slightly, to nearly 4,500.
After 1945 the population grew again, especially in Whanganui city. Many Māori moved into the city, and 52% lived in an urban area by 1966, compared with virtually none in 1900. In the 2013 census, 24.8% of people in the region claimed Māori identity – much higher than the national average of 14.9%.
In the 2013 census, 82% of Māori in the region lived in an urban area. Over half (56.8%) were in Whanganui city – a similar proportion to Pākehā.
The Rātana movement began after its founder, Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, had visions in 1918 which led him to become a spiritual leader and healer. Through the 1920s many Māori and some Pākehā flocked to Rātana’s home on a farm outside Whanganui, and a settlement had been established there by the end of the decade. In the 2000s, the Rātana Church still had strong support among Māori, and remained a political force.
Treaty claim and Pākaitore
The Whanganui River Māori Trust Board was set up in 1988, as part of a long history of litigation and struggle for recognition of rights and interests to the Whanganui River. It lodged a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal in 1993, asking that the riverbed be returned to the Whanganui people. Part of the claim focused on the diversion of waters of the Whanganui River and its tributaries to the Tongariro power scheme from the 1970s. The board also challenged the management of Whanganui National Park, which had been established in 1986.
For 79 days between February and May 1995, Whanganui Māori and supporters occupied Pākaitore (also known as Moutoa Gardens), beside the river in Whanganui city, to show their frustration over the lack of progress towards a settlement of Whanganui River claim issues. This occupation was resolved peaceably, and a tripartite agreement with government and local government was subsequently signed.
The Waitangi Tribunal released its report on the Whanganui River claim in 1999. It found that under Article Two of the Treaty the river was a taonga (treasure) possessed by the tribes; ownership in legal terms was not needed to express the nature of Māori interests in the river. Negotiations to settle the claim began at the end of 2002, and the Pākaitore Trust was set up to own and manage the courthouse in Moutoa Gardens.
In 2017, the Whanganui River was recognised in New Zealand law as a living being with legal personhood.