Issues of the Maori People

Joy Rakena




Who are the Maori people? For those who do not know, we are people of Polynesian extraction and are the indigenous race of New Zealand. Our oral history, however, tells of our arrival in a place called Aotearoa by canoes around about the 10th century A.D. Every one of us traces hers or his genealogy back to one of these canoes. Actually, the term "Maori" was initially employed by the Pakeha or white New Zealander to differentiate between us as two distinct people. We refer to each other by tribal name and descent thus I am Ngati Ruanui and my husband is Ngapuhi.

Our creation myth tells of the first mother Rangi and the first father Papa. They lay in close embrace with their children squashed between them in darkness. So, one day, the children decided to separate their parents. Rangi was pushed upwards and became the sky, Papa became the earth, and the children were able to walk upright and in the light. The Maori word for land is whenua, which is the same word that it used for placenta. So we say we come from and return to Papa or "mother" land.

Another myth tells of how Aotearoa came into existence. Maui, one of our superheroes, used his Grandmother's jawbone as a fishhook and his own blood as bait to catch this gigantic fish. His brothers, who were fishing from the same canoe, wanted a share of the catch and started cutting up the fish. It writhed, struggled, and caused the mountains, rivers, lakes and chasms to form. The North Island is shaped like a fish with the head pointing to the South Island, which is shaped like a boat with its anchor stone being Stewart Island. As part of us, a study of our myths and legends provides an understanding of our cultural values and traditions.


British Colonialism

In the early 17th century, Aotearoa was discovered by a Dutchman, Abel Tasman, who renamed the land Niew Zeeland, now anglicized to NEW ZEALAND In 1769, an




Englishman, Captain James Cook, rediscovered Aotearoa and was instrumental in charting it. White traders and Missionaries showed the first real interest in Aotearoa. The Traders seeking whales, flax, timber and human heads; the Missionaries to bring a "moral and civilizing Christian influence to bear on the heathen". In 1840, Britain, responding to pressures from the Church Missionary Society, moved to annex the country and start the process of colonization. British did not want to see the savagery displayed by settlers in Africa and America repeated in Aotearoa. The aim of the colonial office was "to establish and promote peaceful British settlement of New Zealand in the name of God and the Queen". Thus was drawn up a document known as the TREATY OF WAITANGI and the date historically fixed for its signing was 6 February 1840. In reality, only about 45 signatures were collected on that day. It was over a number of months that a further 467 names were added. Several important tribes refused to endorse the Treaty and other, later withdrew their support claiming they had been misled. The Treaty of Waitangi has never been ratified. There are several conflicting interpretations between the European and Maori versions. It remains a source of contention even today.

The British used the Treaty to establish sovereignty and impose a system of values and concepts, which were entirely alien. There followed 143 years of British Imperial and colonial administration which, at times, was in direct conflict with white obligations under the Treaty, such as the alienation of our land and the subjection of our people. Less than 200 years ago, we were 100% of the population with 100% ownership of the land.




Statistics taken from the last Census of Population and Dwellings in 1981 show:











Land Holdings



Parliamentary Representation






No Educational Qualifications



Prison Population



Social Welfare Homes



Media Time




The Fight Back

In the years immediately following the treaty, as more and more white settlers arrived and some began encroaching on the land, our people took steps to try to stem the flood, and were eventually forced to fight. The white settler Government was quick to respond with overwhelming firepower and the use of laws they had introduced based on their western cultural value system. So began our peoples' resistance to White Imperialist rule. Over the years, the following movements came into being as part of that resistance.


The Kingitanga

Came about as an attempt to create a dual system of Government. It came into being in 1858 with the election of Potatau as the first Moon King. Because this movement was a direct threat to White rule, the Governor and his troops invaded the area and confiscated 1 million acres of land.


The Land Wars

Known in white history of New Zealand as the "Maori Wars". The confrontation with white settlers continued through the next 20 years, during which time, British troops were used to "protect" white settlers against various tribes.




Religious/Pacifist Movements

The Pai Marire religious movement led by Te Ua Haumene tried to combine religious fervor with armed insurrection.

Te Whitio Rongomai created a Pacifist movement in Parihaka, Taranaki, opposing the sale of Maori Land. In 1881, the State moved against Parihaka arresting the leaders, sacking the village and destroying its economic base by opening up the area to-white settlers. By the turn of the century, Aotearoa had witnessed and experienced, murder, disease, and cultural genocide that was leading our people close to extinction.



This religious / political movement begun by Wiremu Tahupotiki Ratana early this century has many adherents and is still one of the strongest movements in Maoridom.


NGA Tamatoa

Is the forerunner of today's Maori activist and resistance groups, members came from the educated young Maori who established Nga Tamatoa (the young warriors) as an expression of their dissatisfaction in the early '70s? Its members are often in the forefront of modern day protests against the Treaty of Waitangi; introduction of Maori Language in schools; racism in its many forms; Social work; Court Work and so on. Considered very radical at the time, in retrospect, Nga Tamatoa was only a catalyst for more aggressive action to come.


Issues Today

The issues we are confronted with today arise primarily from:

(a) Differing sets of cultural values between the white New Zealander and Maori, that is, the fact of racism.

(b) The legacy of colonial imperialism, in particular, the alienation of Maori land.




Racism (which may be defined as Prejudice plus power), is found in all our New Zealand institutions the Churches, Education, Government, Housing, Health Services, the Legal System and so on. The white majority has ensured that its values and social mores are legally entrenched in the laws of the land. An event that reflected New Zealand's racism in a special way recently was the 1981 South African Springbok Tour. Firstly, the New Zealand Rugby Union's invitation to tour, and secondly, the money and energy that the N.Z. Rugby Union, Government, Police and other bodies expended to ensure that the tour went ahead and the games were played, despite considerable opposition from churches and anti-apartheid groups. It is significant that the court trials for the last of the arrested protestors were held in September 1983, and that the Judge discharged them following evidence about injustice and oppression experienced by Blacks in South Africa, given by Bishop Desmond Tutu in person at the trials.

Land has been, and continues to be a focus for more and more protest action. With our differing concepts of land and, with the laws of New Zealand upholding a white economic perspective, we have been forced to employ other means of asserting our claims. These have included the Land march on Parliament in 1975; the occupation of Bastion Point 1977-78; the camping out in Reglan; the visitation of the combined Taranaki people to Parliament in 1983 over water rights at Motunui and many others.


Responses General

In response to these sorts of issues, some of our people have formed themselves into groups, which actively confront, and thereby attract the attention of news media and the white majority to their causes. Being white controlled and white oriented, the media often reports negatively about such protests. The "Activists" have been a dedicated few. They have been at odds with Officialdom and very often have not readily received the support of the rest




of our people. Especially since the Rugby tour of 1981, however, support is growing not only from sections of our own people, but also from a growing, number of discerning and politically aware white people.

A response currently in process tries to deal with the implications of a Bi-cultural New Zealand. Consequently, the issue of racism (and decolonizing of the mind) is a deliberate focus in the strategy for change in order to allow power to be shared. Significantly, this has been initiated by one of the early missionary churches "in response to what the Gospel says about the sharing of power".

An analysis of our history has shown that if our people want to change the present situation so that "Life in its fullness" is experienced by all and not just a few, we need to:

(a) persist with securing our own cultural identity;

(b) ensure that our hopes and aspirations and our vision for a just and equitable society are recognized and made an integral part of our total society;

(c) unite our forces and our groups in solidarity, and keep confronting the existing institutions of power with the reality of racism, until the necessary changes to facilitate a just and equitable society are made.

Inevitably, there will be a struggle, because those who hold it rarely give up real Power willingly.*




Taken from Praxis Nos. 3-4, 1983.