The Maori of Aotearoa (comprehensive text)

The Land of the Long White Cloud
A thousand years ago, around the time that Leif Eiriksson was setting sail for America, another brave navigator was setting out on an equally daring voyage on the other side of the globe. According to legend his name was Kupe and he left his Polynesian island in pursuit of a giant octopus. After many weeks drifting south he saw white clouds massed on the horizon – a sure sign of land. So he called it Aotearoa – the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Going ashore, Kupe found a landscape that was stunningly beautiful and full of the sounds of strange birds. It was also totally without human habitation. The coastal waters were rich in fish, but there were no large mammals for hunting, only huge flightless birds called moas - like ostriches, but far bigger, standing 3.7 metres tall.

The land Kupe found is present-day New Zealand, and a look at the map will tell you that it is one of the most isolated land masses in the world. Although Kupe’s journey is a legend, there is an element of truth in it. Historians believe that the ancestors of today’s Maori came from north-west in the Pacific Ocean, perhaps from Tahiti. Certainly some did come as early as Kupe’s journey, but they were few in number (although enough to hunt the moas to extinction). Large-scale settlement probably did not take place until the 12th and 13th century. This means that, except for Antarctica, New Zealand was the last landmass on earth to be settled by human beings.


Tribal life
Maori society grew to become strongly tribal and based on a rigid hierarchy. At the top of each tribe, or iwi, was the chief. Below him were the local chiefs of the hapu or sub-tribes, which in turn were made up of whanau or family groups. At the bottom were slaves, taken in war from other tribes. For the Maori were very much a warrior culture. Young men were trained in the martial arts and cannibalism was widespread. Eating your enemy was seen as the ultimate victory and a way of increasing your own strength.

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At the centre of community life was the marae, a sacred open area in front of the communal meeting house. This is where strangers were received, according to strict rituals, and where the living and their dead ancestors met. It was a place for both welcoming friends and confronting enemies. Today the rituals of the marae are a favourite tourist attraction, but there is a seriousness about them that still impresses visitors.


First contacts with Europeans
When Europeans first made an appearance, they got more than they bargained for. Dutchman Abel Tasman arrived in 1642. It was he who gave the two islands their present name, after his native Zeeland in Holland. When he sent some of his crew ashore, they got into a skirmish with a Maori welcoming committee – who killed and ate them. Tasman sailed off and, understandably, never returned. Over a century later, 1769, the famous explorer Captain Cook found the natives no less warlike, although he learnt to respect them. “I have always found them” he said, “of a brave, noble, open and benevolent disposition, but they are a people who will never put up with an insult if they have the opportunity to resent it.”


The Coming of the Pakeha
European colonization was late in coming to New Zealand, not least because of the fearsome reputation of the Maori population. The first settlers, who came in the early 1800s, were mainly sealers and whalers and their settlements were only temporary. But their impact on the Maori was dramatic. For one thing they brought with them European diseases that the Maori had little resistance to. They also introduced firearms – with terrible consequences. Tribal warfare had been a fact of life in the Land of the Long White Cloud for generations, but a certain balance of power existed before the arrival of Europeans. Firearms changed all that, and in the so-called “Musket Wars” several weaker tribes were virtually wiped out or driven from their territory. Some estimates suggest that as much as a quarter of the Maori population was wiped out during this period.

Meanwhile settler communities were growing. They were rough places, inhabited by a motley bunch of sealers, adventurers, deserters and escaped convicts. Prostitution flourished - law and order did not. Missionaries returned to Britain with shocking stories of dissolution and lawlessness. At the same time there were rumours of French interest in a New Zealand colony. British authorities felt time had come to intervene. In 1840 a British Consul, William Hobson, was sent to New Zealand and the country was officially proclaimed a Crown colony.


The Treaty of Waitangi
But what of the Maori? With Europeans numbering no more than 2000, the native population of around 100,000 could not be ignored. Maori chiefs from all over the country were invited to the Consul’s residence in Waitangi to agree on a treaty that in many ways is the foundation of modern New Zealand. In this treaty the Maori chiefs that signed the paper (and half of them refused) accepted British sovereignty in return for a guarantee that they would keep their land. However, if the Maori wished to sell land, it could only be sold to the Crown. Maori and European citizens would enjoy the same rights. Consul Hobson even spoke Maori for the occasion. “He iwi kotahi tatou,” he said. “We are all one people now.”

The Treaty of Waitangi is a unique document, not least because it takes the rights of the native population so seriously. It was clear to the Crown authorities that the Maori could not be pushed around in the way the British were accustomed to doing with native populations. They were both too many and too self-assured for that. Even so, the Treaty could not prevent disputes and, finally, warfare in the years to come. One problem was language. The Treaty was translated into Maori by a British missionary, but on a number of points the translation was misleading. The Maori had a very different understanding of land ownership to the Europeans. Land itself was not as important as the mana – prestige or power – that land ownership gave. The Maori had imagined that they were kindly making room for the Pakeha, as they called the Europeans, in a predominantly Maori New Zealand.  As new settlers flooded in, some Maori began to understand that before long the situation would be the other way around.


Conflict and Decline
Many settlers were angry with the government for what they saw as a soft approach to Maori demands. They demanded a tougher line. Disputes between the two peoples became more frequent and often led to unrest. Unrest led to open conflict and, finally, to war. ”The Maori Wars” is a Pakeha term for the period that followed. Interestingly, the Maori term is Te Riri Pakeha – “The White Man’s Anger”.  It was not an organized campaign on either side but a period of bloodshed that would take generations to heal. The Maori proved a formidable opponent on the battlefield, skilled in military strategy and capable of building sophisticated defences. At the Battle of Gate Pa (pa is the Maori word for a fortification) in 1864, 1,700 elite and heavily armed British troops were defeated by a far smaller Maori army, who even succeeded in capturing their enemies’ weapons.

But it could not last. The wars dragged on all through the 1860s as new waves of settlers arrived. When fighting finally died out the Maori were a demoralized people. Tribes who rebelled were punished by having their land confiscated. Many of the structures of Maori society had been destroyed. By the end of the century, things looked dark indeed. The Maori population had sunk to 42,000 and seemed doomed to disappear, like so many indigenous people before them.


A New Century
The fact that this did not happen is thanks largely to a new generation of Maori leaders. One figure that stands out is Apirana Ngata. Born and raised in a Maori-speaking environment, Ngata was typical of his generation in that he learned to play by Pakeha rules. He acquired a Pakeha education, studying politics at Auckland University and becoming the first ever Maori to get a degree. He joined the Liberal party and quickly gained a reputation as a public speaker. In 1909 he became a member of the Cabinet – another first for the Maori – and he used his influence to further the Maori cause. His work for preserving and advancing Maori culture made him an inspirational figure for his own people. He also won popularity among Pakehas for his initiative in setting up Maori battalions in the New Zealand armed forces. (Maori soldiers served with distinction in both world wars.) 


The Maori Renaissance
After the Second World War the Maori world changed quickly. Many younger Maori left their tribal communities and moved to the towns. Here, separated from their tribal communities and often attending western schools, there was a real danger that they would lose their Maori identity. In fact, although the old tribal structures did lose their power, the urban Maori became the driving force in what has been called the Maori Renaissance. 


The 1960s were a period of protest in New Zealand as in many other parts the western world. Young Maori activists felt that Ngata’s generation had been too eager to please the Pakeha, and they began asking awkward questions about the colonial period in general and the Treaty of Waitangi in particular In 1975 Maori from all over the country marched on the capital, Wellington, to protest about the continuing loss of Maori land.

For many Pakeha the protests of the 60s and 70s were a shock. They had imagined that race relations in New Zealand were relatively harmonious. After all, they said, Maori were being included in all aspects of New Zealand life – sport, politics and culture. What was there to complain about? For these Pakeha, the Treaty of Waitangi was something they had heard of in a history lesson, and they were surprised to discover that the Maori still felt it was a binding document.

In response to protests the New Zealand government set up the Waitangi Tribunal. Its job was to investigate all new laws to see if they violated the Treaty, and it soon became a forum for frustrations and anger that had not been heard for many years. Development projects that threatened places of spiritual or economic importance for the Maori were hotly debated, and, for the first time since colonization, the Taha Maori – the Maori view of things – was heard in New Zealand media.

Maori culture and language was also on the offensive. Language courses gave young urban Maori a chance to master the native language that many had forgotten. In the 1980s kohanga reo (“language nests”) were sprung up all over the country – nursery schools offering a Maori-speaking environment. In 1987 Maori was made an official language of New Zealand, alongside English and in 2004 the first ever Maori-language television channel started broadcasting.

At the start of the 21st century the Maori Renaissance continues as Taha Maori seems to play an ever more active role in the cultural and political life of New Zealand. Statistics show that people of Maori or part-Maori origin will soon account for a third of New Zealand’s population and, by the end of the century, may well be the majority people.