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Māori land rights 

Maori are tangata whenua – the original people of Aotearoa New Zealand. They have fought for their land rights since Europeans began settling here in the early 19th century. Yet by the mid 20th century, Maori retained virtually no land, and the struggle for redress intensified. The Waitangi Tribunal began investigating land claims in 1985, settling some by the century’s end.

‘Te toto o te tangata he kai. Te oranga o te tangata he whenua.’
‘The lifeblood of a person is derived from food. The livelihood of a people depends on land.’
Whakatauki (proverb)

The Maori fight for land rights in the 20th century took place against a backdrop of 19th century land dispossession by the British Crown.

Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840, Maori chiefs and the Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document. In the Maori translation, the Crown gained ‘kawanatanga katoa’ (complete governorship), while Maori retained ‘tino rangatiratanga’ (chiefs’ rights and authority) over their lands and possessions.

Maori believed that the Treaty protected their land rights. But over the next 100 years, the Crown acquired vast areas of Maori land through raupatu (confiscation) and purchases, as well as for public works.

Laws of the land

The Crown created various laws in the 1860s to allow it to take land. The New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 allowed it to confiscate the land of North Island iwi deemed to have rebelled against the Crown. The Public Works Act 1864 let it take land for roads, railways, and other public works.

The Native Land Court, established in 1865 (and renamed the Maori Land Court in 1954), encouraged Maori to sell land to private buyers. But the Crown remained the biggest purchaser. It on-sold most of its Maori land, often for a profit.

By 1939, almost 100 years after the Treaty was signed, Maori retained just 1 percent of the South Island and 9 percent of the North Island. Land losses continued as the 20th century progressed, again supported by legislation.

1953 Maori Affairs Act

The 1953 Maori Affairs Act and its 1967 amendment allowed the Crown to take Maori-owned land that it considered ‘uneconomic’.

Many Maori saw this as the final land grab. They intensified their fight for land and Treaty rights, through official channels and protest.

1975 Maori land march

The 1975 Maori land march was a pivotal event in the protest movement. Respected Maori leader Whina Cooper led this march from the Far North to Wellington. There she presented the Memorial of Rights to Prime Minister Bill Rowling. It called for ‘not one more acre’ of Maori land to be taken, and was signed by 200 Maori elders. An accompanying petition had more than 60,000 signatures.

The march catapulted Maori concerns about land into the public arena at a crucial time. The 5,000 marchers arrived in Wellington just before Parliament passed the landmark Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, creating the Waitangi Tribunal.

Waitangi Tribunal & claim settlements

In 1985, the Waitangi Tribunal began investigating Maori claims of historic Treaty breaches by the Crown. By the century’s end, various claims had been settled. The two largest land claims, of North Island iwi (tribe) Waikato–Tainui and South Island iwi Ngai Tahu, were settled for around $170 million each.

The 1995 Waikato–Tainui settlement involved a cash payment and the return of land confiscated by the Crown in the second half of the 19th century. The Crown also made a formal apology. 

The Ngai Tahu claim concerned 3.4 million acres (1.4 million hectares) of South Island land sold to the Crown. The Tribunal found that the Crown had committed ‘unconscionable theft’ in deliberately alienating Ngai Tahu from their land and leaving them impoverished. In 1997, the iwi received financial and cultural redress, as well as a Crown apology.

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