Maori woman

The Māori: A Silenced Heart of New Zealand

Maori woman looking in the distance in the forest.

When you think of people from New Zealand, what do you picture? White people? Perhaps semi-British, semi-Australian sounding people? Perhaps a famous person from a movie you have seen or love? That is exactly what I used to picture in my mind. And due to colonialism and globalization, that’s almost exactly what many people see in their minds as well! There have been many western influencers who have played a part in the development of this small, far-away country.

Countries such as Australia, Ireland, America, and France have all played their role in how this country has developed and changed. The main cultural impact on the modern face of New Zealand, came from Great Britain. However, none of these large colonial countries were the first to settle in the lands of New Zealand. So, who were the first people in New Zealand? What large aspect of New Zealand history and culture are we missing when we maintain this perspective? The answer to both questions is the Māori people.

Who are the Māori?

Maori rowing

The Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand with Polynesian roots. Polynesia is a large geographical area in the south Pacific Ocean, with many small island nations spread out over a vast region. The people of this area spread out to most of the islands by boats and kayaks over many generations. According to archeological discoveries, the Māori arrived on the islands of New Zealand around 1300 AD.

This makes the Māori a relatively young culture considering that in Mesopotamia. That is the place that most archeologists agree is the birthplace of modern civilization, where people were farming, raising cattle, and establishing written laws over 3,000 years before the first Māori landed in New Zealand! The richness of culture and the customs that they brought with them from the farthest reaches of Polynesia still live on in New Zealand today. The mix of cultures and people who have settled in the land carefully guard, preserve, and respect them.

Wealth in Culture

A major aspect of Māori life and culture is the Tikanga. One could describe this term as the basic code of Māori culture, practices, customs, laws, and rituals, passed down verbally from generation to generation. The Tikanga also includes the concepts of Manaakitanga and Kaitiakitanga. Manaakitanga centers around kindness. One could describe it as the practice of creating and maintaining a respectful and hospitable atmosphere. Kaitiakitanga is the Māori perspective that nature is sacred and one should do everything to protect it, and the delicate balance that it requires in order to thrive.

Spirituality and religion are valuable to the Māori. The basic maori systems of belief and religion come from the belief in mythical gods of nature. These belief systems are centered around two basic principles: Tapu and Mana. Tapu is the presence or essence of energy or power. Mana are the objects or places that the people are holy . However, early on in the colonization of New Zealand, Christianity almost completely wiped out this type of religion and practices in the Māori culture.

Another significant part of the Māori culture is their language, Te Reo Māori, which stems from its Polynesian roots and it shares many commonalities with other Polynesian languages. It is one of several official languages of New Zealand. Before colonialism, this was actually not a written language. It consists of 5 vowels and 10 consonants. In languages like these, one word with little to no change can have multiple meanings. This language is used in the ceremonial Māori dance called the Haka.



Māori legends indicate that the haka came from the gods of summer and sun. All Māori can perform this symbolic dance. The essence of each performance differs depending on the setting. A Māori tribe could use haka as a display of respect, peace, pride or even a challenge. Almost all school children learn the Haka in New Zealand. White people and Māori, men and women alike, dance it in its traditional form, in many events such as sports events, cultural events, and even events of historical significance more associated with post-colonial times. Such is the degree to which the people of New Zealand care about preserving the roots of the original settlers of the islands.

The Māori are well known for their traditional tattoos called ta moko. The ta moko are extremely detailed and intricate. These tattoos are representations of ancestry and social status. The most common place for traditional ta moko is the face. They also had to do with the process of entering maturity. There were rites and rituals involved in this momentous occasion. Before the early 20th century, this tattooing was a very drawn out and excruciating process. Tattooing used a tool called the Uhi. This was a bone chisel with an extremely sharp edge. When it was over, the Māori would use the leaves of a karaka tree as a balm to decrease the swelling. Thankfully, this technique became outdated long ago.

These attributes and traditions of the Māori are only a few examples of the people’s rich culture. So why do we tend to imagine people of New Zealand to be so different from its original settlers? Despite their first claims to the island and the heavy impact of Māori culture on New Zealand’s society, today, they make up merely slightly over 15% of its population. How could that be if they once covered the majority of the island? One could answer this question with two terms: colonialism and globalization.


As mentioned earlier, a variety of westerners infiltrated and influenced the island country of New Zealand, Great Britain being the most impactful. Globalization severely affected some of the main parts of the Māori. Some examples include land ownership, native language use, religious tradition, the health and size of the population, and an overall sense of cultural identity. Just as the British did to the Native Americans, they have impressed upon the Māori their own traditions and values, driving out the indigenous culture.

European influence began in 1769, when James Cook arrived in New Zealand originally for scientific research. However, Great Britain was always looking to expand trade and territory. From then on, the Māori people were never the same. From 1860 to 1939, the amount of land that the Māori occupied decreased heavily. Their territory went from being the dominant presence of New Zealand to hardly occupying any of the country at all.

Loss of Māori Life

Maori funeral

The limited land ownership combined with the massive loss of life in the Musket Wars (which began with tribal spats but escaladed to the death of masses due to Europe’s introduction of the Muskets, killing 1/5 of the Māori population) contributed to the drastic decrease in the population. Europeans also carried over diseases that the natives had not built an immunity to. Examples include measles, influenza, bronchitis and tuberculosis, as well as other respiratory illnesses. These introduced detriments to the Māori’s health and caused a 40% drop in the population from before the colonization.

Other factors of globalization that contributed to the loss of the native people are marginalization and subpar living conditions that caused health issues among the native society. When Europeans took over, they took over territories and displaced the Māori. As more foreigners overran the island, the Māori had fewer options for settlement. This caused severe overcrowding in the areas that they did settle in, resulting in a lack of hygiene. Having these newcomers strip them of their land, the Māori lost valuable resources that provided them with their traditional food. Between malnutrition and poor hygiene, disease spread easily.

In the 1860s, the Māori resisted the confiscation of their land fervently. However, they did not have access to unlimited resources, the Europeans severely outnumbered them. As valiantly as they fought and protested (at times even nonviolently), the British still claimed victory over the majority of New Zealand’s land as well as raped, murdered and imprisoned many of the natives.

To see a visual representation of the loss of land click here.

Spirit Suppressed

The European settlers who overtook New Zealand sought to suppress the Māori culture and replace it in dominance with their own. A large part of this process was shifting religious views. The traditional religious essence of the native islanders was quite mystical. The British forced Christianity and Catholicism onto the indigenous people, persecuting those who did not conform. They would punish the Māori for practicing their original religious traditions. European culture overshadowed the basic principles and values that defined the Māori way of life.

By the late 19th century, most of the natives adopted Christianity as their main religion. The Europeans undoubtedly perceived this as a victory for their cause. However, this soon backfired. The Māori formed a prophetic religious force that applied itself to resisting the loss of their land. This resulted in the imprisonment of more of the Māori people. This particular movement is one example of their determination not to be overtaken easily and the consequences of their resistance.

Injustice system

In the beginning and throughout most of the 19th century, Māori imprisonment rates were extremely low. They made up less than 3% of the population in prison. The 1860s and the 1880s were the only spikes of that time period due to war and protesting. However, the 20th century brought a huge shift to this statistic. Within 36 years the rates reached 11% and by 1945 it was up to 21%. The 21% was particularly alarming given the fact that the Māori only made up approximately 6% of the total population of New Zealand at that time. This was not the worst of it.

The percentage of the prison population that belonged the indigenous people increased faster than the percentage of the total population. In 10 years, the prison population of Māori jumped to 40%, while the total population was only 10% Māori. These disproportionately high percentages persisted into the 21st century. In 2011, the Māori made up 15% of New Zealand’s population and 51% of the prison’s. The consistent marginalization of these people that leads to poverty and corruption of culture has only contributed to these numbers and what seems like an “injustice” system. 

Resisting Silence


 The indigenous people of New Zealand have been resistant to globalization. They are quite determined to maintain their sense of identity and culture and remain connected to the roots of their history. Still, the resolution of the Māori cause sparked the development of anti-globalization and global justice movements. In the 1960s, much like in the United States, anti-racism movements and civil rights protests rose up among the Māori. In the 70s and early 80s, a Māori women’s movement was developed as well. Throughout most of the 20th century, the Māori formed various movements and protests  for different aspects of overall human rights. Examples of some of the focuses of these political conflicts are wages, land ownership, social and civil injustices, and cultural nationalism. They refused to cease resisting the forced silence and suppressing, despite how inevitable disappearing through assimilation into the European culture seemed. 

To this day there is a power and identity struggle that rages between the dominant, mainstream European culture that has overtaken New Zealand and the traditional Māori culture. European culture persists in impressing a sense of inferiority on the Māori. Due to this, the Māori have begun to lose a their sense of identity. Most Māori even speak English rather than Te Reo. Native political leaders representing the Māori fight to keep this sense of identity among their people. 

The majority of those on the outside looking in assume that the Māori have integrated smoothly in the liberal society of New Zealand. The country displays its indigenous culture with pride, masking the inequality that lies beneath. Outsiders are unaware of the constant state of unrest between the minority and majority of the country. However, recent injustices suffered by the Māori and escalating aggression between both sides has caught the attention of some media outlets and raised some concerns. The United Nations has attempted to create peace through policy amendments; however, the disparities persist. Until there is equality and consideration among all people in New Zealand, there will always be enmity.


The Māori are a people that produce a rich culture and intriguing traditions in New Zealand’s society. There are so many aspects of their way of life that contribute to the overall atmosphere in the country. However, their history is brutal and full of suffering and struggles. Colonialism and globalization have suffocated the Māori identity and overrun their resources. Most would never know about the internal conflict in New Zealand. The celebratory front that they display for visitors and people outside of the country conveys the idea that the European and Māori cultures have meshed with little to no effort.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Today, the Māori still struggle with being marginalized and treated as less than their white counterparts. This struggle needs more attention from the citizens of New Zealand and should be addressed with care and equality. Then, perhaps, they can be a path to creating peace among the people.

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