Media Partners | Contributors | Advertise | Contact | Log in | Monday 8 August 2022

Why the Māori struggle for equality is far from resolved in New Zealand


Share This Article:

It’s an age-old story, weighted in the yellowed pages of many a history book- that asymmetric relation of coloniser and colonised. An ignorant tourist, exploring New Zealand through rose-tinted glasses, I assumed those days of inequality and oppression were a long-distant memory for the indigenous Māori people.

But below the surface, the undercurrents of unease still linger.

I shifted from one foot to the other, pulling at the sleeves of my jumper. In front of me the tribe drew up in a long boat, in their traditional Māori dress orngā taonga tuku iho. It was difficult to hide my apprehension. There was an element of imperialism about it - the European tourist visiting the indigenous tourist attraction.

Tamaki, located in Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island, is a Pre-European Māori village open to tourist groups for evening and overnight experiences. As we arrived we were greeted as any other visiting tribe would’ve been - first challenged with a haka, then offered a token of peace, and welcomed onto the tribal land. It seemed clear from the Māori chiefs that the purpose of Tamaki was to raise the profile of their culture, that this was a mutually beneficial exchange. 

Māori performing the haka

Crossing the boundary, I stepped back through Aotearoa’s (the Māori term for New Zealand) history into a vast woodland lit with fire torches, humming with the soft lull of traditional song. At each hut spread about the forest, we were taught about tā moko (permanent body and face markings), haka (ceremonial war dance), tī rākau (traditional stick games), with the evening culminating in a hāngi feast, cooked beneath the earth.

I was welcomed with overwhelming warmth by the Māori at Tamaki. Their pride for their culture was humbling, as was their eagerness and generosity in sharing it with a group of international visitors. This indigenous pride seemed to me a sentiment that resounded across New Zealand too.

Wandering around Rotorua, I would see Māori perusing the shelves of supermarkets, proudly bearing their traditional tā moko face markings. Along the high streets I would catch the soft lilt of Māori, an official language of New Zealand, and a compulsory part of the education system. Māori was engrained in the landscape, in the lexicon, in the rituals of everyday life. To an ignorant tourist there seemed little cultural friction. 

Wharenui- Māori meeting house

It read like a different narrative to those across the water. The historic trauma and subjugation of Native American peoples has been long documented, and the BBC’s 2015 ‘Red River Women’ feature brought to light an unprecedented spate of murders and assaults against First Nations people in Canada.

While New Zealand was colonised by the British in 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the legislation promised the Māori the same rights as British subjects and guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions. It’s worth noting however, that the Māori version of the treaty is not an exact translation of the English, creating a somewhat contentious void in meaning. 

Of course the road was far from smooth. From 1975-1984 the Maori Land Rights Movement protested the acquisition of Māori land by Pākehā (European-descended New Zealanders), and in 1975, the Waitangi Tribunal was established to investigate breaches of the Waitangi Treaty by the crown.

But that’s in the past right? It’s all tucked away neatly in the dust jacket of a history book.

Well no. Not really. Look close enough at the smooth surface of this diverse country, and you can glimpse something of the fraying edges.

A gaping absence is evident when it comes to political representation. While four Māori parliamentary seats were introduced in 1867, it took until 2011, almost 150 years later, for representation to increase to seven seats, despite Māori making up nearly 15% of the country’s population. 

Māori unrest with the government has long been vocal. Numerous protests occurred this year over the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, in particular the government’s lack of consultation with the Māori.

The bill aimed to create a new single market, similar to that of the EU, between Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru.

The issue? The TPP promoted the notion that states should give priority to commercial interests and subordinate social interests. It was seen as detrimental to the resolution of the crown’s transgressions of the Waitangi Treaty and the injustices imposed upon the Māori. Nevertheless, without the full consult of its people, the government signed the bill in February.

 Māori protests 

As I delved deeper, the chasm between Māori and Pākehā seemed to grow. A study published by Victoria University of Wellington in 2014 examined indicators of inequality among Māori and Pacific people in comparison to their non-Māori counterparts. Life expectancy rates from 2010-12 showed Māori males could expect to live 7.4 years less than non-Māori males, and Māori females 7.2 years less than non-Māori females.

Unemployment rates from 2012 showed non-Māori at 5.5%, meanwhile Māori rates were at 14.8%, a 4.8% increase since 2003. Furthermore, the proportion of non-Māori people on income-tested benefits in 2013 was measured at 6.2%, 2% less than in 2001, while Māori figures came in at 20%, a 2.3% increase from 2001.

Most concerning perhaps are government statistics published in 2012, showing that over 50% of the prison population is Māori, a vast over-representation. Not only are inequalities glaringly obvious, but worryingly, the gap between Māori and non-Māori seems to be widening still.

It’s a multi-faceted problem no doubt, a complex intertwining of structural inequalities, lifestyle factors, access to healthcare, discrimination and other socioeconomic determinants, rooted ultimately in government failings to integrate the Māori culture into law. Fundamentally, it reveals the fractious foundations of the Treaty of Waitangi - that enshrined equality is still yet to be achieved by the Māori. 

The Beehive- New Zealand Parliament

I’m not a New Zealander. But I am painfully aware of my own colonial heritage as a Brit.

I’m ashamed of the grubby, grasping hands of the empire, and I think to learn from history is to work toward repairing the wounds suffered by indigenous populations. It’s important for the rest of the world to recognise the Māori fight for equality is ongoing, and that it’s not a struggle consigned to the past tense.

Articles: 29
Reads: 180883
© 2022 is a website of Studee Limited | 15 The Woolmarket, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, GL7 2PR, UK | registered in England No 6842641 VAT # 971692974