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Although New Zealand today is widely regarded internationally as having good relations with its indigenous Māori peoples compared to the indigenous relations of other settler societies, and multiculturalism is considered as a significant positive to its cultural identity and growing diverse communities, Māori--like most Indigenous peoples throughout the world--have struggled with land rights issues since first colonisation by Pakeha settlers. The Māori protest movement is a broad indigenous rights movement in New Zealand. While this movement has existed since Europeans first colonised New Zealand its modern mandate emerged in the early 1970s and has focused on issues such as the Treaty of Waitangi, Māori land rights, the Māori language and culture, and racism. It has generally been allied with the left wing although it differs from the mainstream left in a number of ways. Most members of the movement have been Māori but it has attracted some support from Pākehā New Zealanders and internationally, particularly from other indigenous peoples. Notable successes of the movement include establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, the return of some Māori land, and the Māori language being made an official language of New Zealand.



There is a long history of Māori resistance to Pākehā (New Zealand European) domination. From the 1840s to the 1870s various Māori iwi (tribes) fought against Pākehā encroachment, in the New Zealand Land Wars. They also used petitions, court cases, deputations to the British monarch and New Zealand and British governments, passive resistance and boycotts. Much of this resistance was based around religious movements such as Pai Marire and Ringatu. Prophets such as Rua Kenana and Te Whiti are sometimes seen as early Māori activists. The Māori King movement was also an important focus of resistance, especially in the Taranaki and Waikato regions. Some Māori also worked within Pākehā systems such as the New Zealand Parliament in order to resist land loss and cultural imperialism.

From World War II, but especially from the 1950s, Māori moved from rural areas to the cities in large numbers. Most Pākehā believed that New Zealand had ideal race relations and although relations were good compared to many other settler societies, the apparent harmony existed mostly because the mostly urban Pākehā and mostly rural Māori rarely came into contact. Māori urbanisation brough Pākehā prejudice and the gaps between Māori and Pākehā into the open. In addition, many Māori had difficulty coping with what was essentially an alien society. Some turned to alcohol or crime, and many felt lost and alone. Several new groups, most prominently the Māori Women's Welfare League and the New Zealand Māori Council emerged to help urban Māori and provide a unified voice for Māori. These groups were conservative by later standards but did criticise the government on numerous occasions.

The first significant Māori involvement in conventional protest came during controversy over the exclusion of Māori players from the 1960 All Blacks rugby tour of South Africa. However the protests tended to be organised by Pākehā.

The Māori Affairs Amendment Act

In the mid 1960s the National government proposed to make Maori land more ‘economic’ by encouraging its transfer to a Pākehā system of land ownership. The Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967, as it became, generally allowed greater interference in Māori landholding, and was widely seen amongst Maori as yet another Pākehā land grab. The plans were strongly opposed by virtually every Maori group and organisation. Despite this, the Act was passed with only minor modifications.

The Act is generally seen as the catalyst for the Maori protest movement, and the evidence certainly points to this. However the movement can also be seen as part of a wider civil rights movement which emerged across the world in the 1960s.

Waitangi Day protests

The first act of the Māori protest movement was arguably the boycott of Waitangi Day by a handful of Māori elders in 1968 in protest over the Māori Affairs Amendment Act. A small protest was also held at parliament, and was received by Labour MP Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan. Although both were reported in the newspapers they made little impact. In 1971 the ceremonies were disrupted by the protest group Ngā Tamatoa (The Young Warriors) who chanted and performed haka during speeches, and attempted to destroy the flag. Protest has been a feature of Waitangi Day ever since.

Māori language and culture activism

One of the early goals of the Māori protest movement was the promotion of Māori language (te reo Māori) and culture. Both of these had been generally ignored by the education system and Pākehā society in general, and schoolchildren were actively discouraged from speaking Māori in school (although, contrary to popular belief, there was never a ban on this, rather individual schools took it upon themselves to punish students who spoke Māori). Until Māori became largely urbanised after World War II, this did not seriously damage the language since most Māori spoke it in their communities. However urbanisation produced a generation of Māori who mostly grew up in non-Māori environments and were therefore less exposed to the language. In addition, many parents felt that it was much more important for their children to be fluent in English and made no attempts to pass on the language. As a result, many leaders of Māori protest were not fluent in Māori and felt that this was a major cultural loss. In the face of official indifference and sometimes hostility, Nga Tamatoa and other groups initiated a number of schemes for the promotion of the language. These included Māori Language Day, which later became Māori Language Week; a programme which trained fluent speakers as teachers; and kohanga reo: Māori language pre-schools. Later there were campaigns for a Māori share of the airwaves. These eventually resulted in the iwi radio stations and a Māori Television channel, all of which actively promote the language. In 1987 Te Reo was made an official language of New Zealand, with the passing of the Māori Language Act. Activists also campaigned to change the names of landmarks such as mountains back to their original Māori names, and to end the mispronunciation of Māori words, especially by newsreaders and other broadcasters.

Many Māori cultural forms, such as carving, weaving and performing arts such as haka had gone into decline in the nineteenth century. From the early twentieth century Apirana Ngata and others had made efforts to revive them, for example setting up inter-tribal kapa haka competitions and getting state funding for meeting houses. Māori activists continued this tradition, but their primary focus was on stopping the abuse of Māori cultural forms. The best known example of this was the 'haka party' incident. A group of University of Auckland engineering students had for many years performed an offensive parody haka and paddled an imaginary waka around central Auckland as a capping stunt. Repeated requests to end the performance were ignored and eventually a group of Māori assaulted the students. Although the activists' actions were widely condemned by Pākehā, they were defended in court by Māori elders, and the students' stunt was not performed again. Most recent Māori protest in this sphere has been directed against non-New Zealand groups and businesses who use the Māori language and cultural forms - sometimes copyrighting them - without permission or understanding. Since it is internationally known, the haka of the All Blacks is particularly vulnerable to this treatment.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi has always been a major focus of Māori protest. It is often used to argue for particular aims, such as return of unjustly taken land, and the promotion of the Māori language.


The Treaty to the mid 20th century

The Treaty of Waitangi was an agreement, made in 1840, between the British Crown and various Māori chiefs. Although major differences between the Māori and English language versions of the Treaty make it difficult to ascertain exactly what was promised to who, the Treaty essentially gave the British the right to establish a governor in New Zealand, stated the rights of the chiefs to ownership of their lands and other properties, and gave Māori the rights of British citizens. Although the Treaty is generally seen as marking the beginning of the New Zealand nation, it was largely ignored for more than a century after its signing, and various legal judgements ruled it irrelevant to New Zealand law and government. Despite this, Māori frequently used it to argue that their rights were being denied.

Campaign for ratification

From about the mid nineteenth century, Māori campaigned for proper recognition of the Treaty, generally asking that it be ratified or otherwise made a part of New Zealand law. In the 1960s and the 1970s, Māori activists continued this campaign, sometimes making it a focus of their Waitangi Day protests. In 1974 the Treaty was given some recognition with the Treaty of Waitangi Act. This established the Waitangi Tribunal, which was given the task to investigating contemporary breaches of the Treaty. However since it was not able to investigate historical breaches, was underfunded, and generally unsympathetic to claimants, most Māori were disappointed by the Tribunal.

'The Treaty is a Fraud'

Possibly as a result to the failure of the Waitangi Tribunal to achieve much, many Māori activists in the early 1980s stopped asking for the Treaty to be honoured and instead argued that it was a fraudulent document. They argued that Māori had been tricked in 1840, that either they had never agreed to sign away their sovereignty or that Pākehā breaches of the Treaty had rendered it invalid. Since the Treaty was invalid, it was argued, the New Zealand government had no right to sovereignty over the country. This argument was broadly expressed in Donna Awatere's book Māori Sovereignty.

Activism and the Tribunal

In 1985 the Treaty of Waitangi Act was amended to allow the Tribunal to investigate historic breaches of the Treaty. It was also given more funding and its membership increased. In addition, the Treaty was mentioned in several pieces of legislation, and a number of court cases increased its importance. As a result, most Māori activists began to call once again for the Treaty to be honoured. Many protesters put their energies into Treaty claims and the management of settlements, but many also argued that the Tribunal was too underfunded and slow, and pointed out that because its recommendations were not binding the government could (and did) ignore it when it suited them. Some protesters continued to argue for Māori sovereignty, arguing that by negotiating with the Tribunal Māori were only perpetuating the illegal occupying government.


The longest-standing Māori grievances generally involve land. In the century after 1840 Māori lost possession of most of their land, although the amount lost varied significantly between iwi. In some cases the land was purchased legitimately from willing Māori sellers, but in many cases the transfer was legally and/or morally dubious. The best known cause of Māori land loss is the confiscation in the Waikato and Taranaki regions following the New Zealand Land Wars. Other causes included owners selling land without fully understanding the implications of the sale (especially in the early years of colonisation); groups selling land which did not belong to them; Pākehā traders enticing land owners into debt and then claiming the land as payment; the conducting of unrequested surveys which were then charged to the owners, and the unpaid bills from this used to justify taking the land; levying of unreasonable rates and confiscation following non-payment; the taking of land for public works; and simple fraud. Upon losing land, most iwi quickly embarked on campaigns to regain it but these were largely unsuccessful. Some iwi received token payments from the government but continued to agitate for the return of the land or, failing that, adequate compensation.

The return of lost land was a major focus of Māori activists, and generally united the older, more conservative generation with the younger 'protest' generation. Some of the best-known episodes of Māori protest centred on land, including:

Bastion Point

Bastion Point in Auckland was originally part of a large area of land owned by Ngati Whatua. Between 1840 and 1960 nearly all of this was lost, leaving Ngati Whatua with only the Point. In the 1970s the third National government proposed taking the land and developing it. Bastion Point was subsequently occupied in a protest which lasted from January 1977 to May 1978. The protesters were removed by the army and police, but there continued to be conflict over the land. When the Waitangi Tribunal was given the power to investigate historical grievances, this the Orakei claim covering the Bastion Point area was one of the first cases for investigation. The Tribunal found that Ngati Whatua had been unjustly deprived of their ancestral land hence Bastion Point was returned to their ownership with compensation paid to the tribe by the Crown.

Raglan Golf Course

During the Second World War, land in the Raglan area was taken from its Māori owners for use as an airstrip. Following the end of the war, the land was not returned but instead leased to the Raglan Golf Club, who turned it into a golf course. This was particularly painful for the original owners as it contained burial grounds, one of which was turned into a bunker. A group of protesters led by Eva Rickard and assisted by Angeline Greensill occupied the land and also used legal means to have the land returned, a goal which was eventually achieved.

1975 Land March

In 1975 a large group (around 5000) of Māori and other New Zealanders, led by then 79-year-old Whina Cooper, walked the length of the North Island to Wellington to protest against Māori land loss. Although the government at the time, the third Labour government had done more to address Māori grievances than nearly any prior government, protesters felt that much more needed to be done. Following the march, the protesters were divided over what to do next. Some, including Tame Iti remained in Wellington to occupy parliament grounds. A 1975 documentary from director Geoff Stevens includes interviews with many of those on the march: Eva Rickard, Tama Poata and Whina Cooper.[1]

Foreshore and Seabed

The foreshore and seabed hikoi outside parliament.

In 2003 the Court of Appeal ruled that Māori could seek customary title to areas of the New Zealand foreshore and seabed, overturning assumptions that such land automatically belonged to the Crown. The ruling alarmed many Pākehā, and the Labour government proposed legislation removing the right to seek ownership of the foreshore and seabed. This angered many Māori who saw it as confiscation of land. Labour Party MP Tariana Turia was so incensed by the legislation that she eventually left the party and formed the Māori Party. In May 2004 a hikoi (march) from Northland to Wellington, modelled on the 1975 land march but in vehicles, was held, attracting thousands of participants. Despite this, the legislation was passed later that year.

Sporting contact with South Africa

Early activism over the issue of sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa

New Zealand has a long history of sporting contact with South Africa, especially through rugby union. Until the 1970s this resulted in discrimination against Māori players, since the apartheid political system in South Africa for most of the twentieth century did not allow people of different races to play sport together, and therefore South African officials requested that Māori players not be included in sides which toured their country. Despite some of New Zealand's best players being Māori, this was agreed to, and Māori were excluded from tours of South Africa. Some Māori always objected to this, but it did not became a major issue until 1960, when there were several public protests at Māori exclusion from that year's tour. The protest group Halt All Racist Tours was formed in 1969. Although this was an issue in which Māori were central, and Māori were involved in the protests, the anti-tour movement was dominated by Pākehā.

In 1973 a proposed Springbok (South African rugby team) tour of New Zealand was cancelled. In 1976 the South African government relented and allowed a mixed-race All Black team to tour South Africa. However by this time international opinion had turned against any sporting contact with South Africa, and New Zealand faced significant international pressure to cut ties. Despite this, in 1981 the Springboks toured New Zealand, sparking mass protests and civil disobedience. Although Pākehā continued to dominate the movement, Māori were prominent within it, and in Auckland formed the patu squad in order to remain autonomous within the wider movement.

During and after the Tour, many Māori protesters questioned Pākehā protesters' commitment to racial equality, accusing them of focussing on racism in other countries while ignoring it within New Zealand. The majority of Pākehā protesters were not heavily involved in protest after the Tour ended, but a significant minority, including several anti-Tour groups, turned their attention to New Zealand race issues, particularly Pākehā prejudice and the Treaty of Waitangi.

Leaders of Māori protest


  1. ^ This documentary can be viewed on NZ On Screen (requires Adobe Flash).


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