• Indigenous peoples in Aotearoa

    Indigenous peoples in Aotearoa

    Māori are the Indigenous Peoples of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Although New Zealand has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the rights of the Māori population remain unfulfilled.

The Indigenous World 2022: Aotearoa (New Zealand)

Māori, the Indigenous people of Aotearoa, represent 16.5% of the 4.7 million population. The gap between Māori and non-Māori is pervasive: Māori life expectancy is 7 to 7.4 years less than non-Māori; the median income for Māori is 71% that of Pākehā (New Zealand Europeans); 25.5% of Māori leave upper secondary school with no qualifications and over 50% of the prison population is Māori.[1]

Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) was signed between the British Crown and Māori in 1840. There is a Māori-language version (Te Tiriti), which most Māori signed, and an English-language version. Te Tiriti granted a right of governance to the British over their subjects, promised that Māori would retain tino rangatiratanga (self-determination or full authority) over their lands, resources and other treasures and conferred the rights of British citizens on Māori. Te Tiriti has, however, limited legal status; accordingly, protection of Māori rights is largely dependent upon political will and ad hoc recognition of Te Tiriti.

Aotearoa endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010 (UNDRIP). Aotearoa has not ratified ILO Convention 169.

Wāhine pillars despite marginalisation

Wāhine Māori (Māori women) are the pillars of te ao Māori (Māori society) and contribute in many positive ways to their communities, to Aotearoa and on the world stage. They have led key national movements such as the creation of kōhanga reo (Māori language preschools) and kura kaupapa Māori (Māori language primary schools), which have revitalised te reo Māori (the Māori language), as well as movements to prevent the loss of further Māori land. Wāhine Māori are often at the centre of their whānau (extended families) and many community initiatives.[2] A number of them head the representative organisations of their iwi (nations). They are recognised internationally for their leadership in fields as diverse as academia, business, environmental advocacy, justice and Indigenous rights.[3] They increasingly hold decision-making roles in the public sector.[4] They are now well represented in government. Following the 2020 general election, 12 (10%) Members of Parliament self-identify as wāhine Māori,[5] which is higher than the proportion of wāhine Māori (8.5%) in the population. Two out of 20 cabinet members are wāhine Māori. Wāhine Māori also co-lead two of the five parties represented in Parliament: the Green Party and Te Paati Māori. In recent years, the representation of wāhine Māori in local government has improved.[6]

Yet, these notable achievements occur against a backdrop of significant ongoing marginalisation rooted in colonialism. As Ripeka Evans has observed:

the colonial frame in which the colonising culture … looked to men as leaders and chiefs — this caused the negation of wāhine Māori mana motuhake and rangatiratanga (authority, autonomy and self-determination) over their whenua (land), taonga (treasures), mātauranga (knowledge), hearts, bodies, minds and beliefs.[7]

This has resulted in marked inequities for wāhine Māori that continue into the present day and the underrepresentation of wāhine Māori in positions of leadership for much of New Zealand’s history, despite the successes noted above.

Some current statistics on the position of wāhine Māori paint a stark picture. Wāhine Māori are one of the most incarcerated women in the world, making up 63% of the female prison population in Aotearoa.[8] Wāhine Māori experience high rates of violence: up to 80% of wāhine Māori will experience family violence in their lifetime and they are “three times more likely to be killed by a partner than non-Māori” women.[9] The life expectancy of wāhine Māori is 77.1 years, compared with 84.4 years for non-Māori women,[10] with wāhine Māori facing multiple barriers to accessing adequate healthcare.[11] The unemployment rate for wāhine Māori is 12%, dramatically higher than the national unemployment rate of 4.9%.[12] Wāhine Māori are significantly underpaid for their work: the wāhine Māori gender pay gap is 7.7% with Māori men, and 15.1% with all men in Aotearoa.[13] Unpaid roles in households and the community continue to go unrecognised and under-valued. Wāhine Māori experience high rates of discrimination and bias, including in the workplace.[14] In many instances, these disparities continue despite a raft of government and other initiatives.

In response to longstanding concerns regarding the position of wāhine Māori, the Waitangi Tribunal began its Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry hearings in 2021.[15] The inquiry will consider claims alleging prejudice to wāhine Māori as a result of breaches of Te Tiriti by the Crown. Three contextual hearings were completed in 2021.

COVID-19 impact worsens for Māori

The COVID-19 pandemic once again dominated in 2021. Aotearoa continues to record comparatively fewer deaths from COVID-19 and its economy is expected to bounce back from the 2021 Delta COVID-19 outbreak that, for example, saw Aotearoa’s largest city, Auckland, in lockdown for 107 days from August to December 2021.

For Māori, however, rates of infection, hospitalisation and death from COVID-19 have dramatically worsened with the 2021 Delta outbreak. For the first 18 months of the arrival of COVID-19 in Aotearoa in 2020, Māori were the ethnic group with the lowest rates of infection. But since early October 2021 this has reversed, and they have been the ethnicity with the highest rates.[16] For example, Māori jumped from comprising 5.7% of all Delta cases in the country on 1 September 2021 to 48.3% by 5 December 2021.[17] Rawiri Taonui has identified that “a Māori person is 3.7 times more likely to catch Delta, 2.3 times more likely to suffer severe sickness and be hospitalised, and 3.1 times more likely to die from Delta”.[18]

Māori continue to bear the brunt of shortcomings in the government’s handling of the outbreak. In December, the Waitangi Tribunal found that the government had breached Te Tiriti for “political convenience” — including the guarantee of tino rangatiratanga and the principles of active protection, equity and protection — in its response to the pandemic.[19] The Tribunal’s recommendations included that the government urgently provide additional funding and other support to Māori providers and communities responding to the pandemic.

Māori demonstrated strong leadership throughout the year. This included spearheading vaccination efforts in their communities, which saw previously low Māori vaccination rates dramatically increase late in 2021.

Supreme Court advances rights

The Supreme Court, Aotearoa’s highest court, issued a decision advancing understanding of the principles of Te Tiriti and the place of tikanga (Māori law and custom) in state law. In Trans-Tasman Resources Limited v The Taranaki-Whanganui Conservation Board,[20] the Supreme Court upheld a decision to reject approval of Trans-Tasman Resources Limited’s application to mine for iron sands offshore in the South Taranaki Bight and remitted the application back to the decision-making body for reconsideration. It held that the approval of the application had not appropriately considered the effect of the proposal on affected iwi and their concerns in relation to the exercise of their kaitiakitanga (guardianship obligations) to protect the mauri (life force) of the marine environment.[21] The decision makes it clear that statutory provisions that provide specific direction to decision-makers regarding the principles of Te Tiriti “must be given a broad and generous construction”.[22] The Court also emphasised that the guarantee of tino rangatiratanga in Te Tiriti governed Māori customary interests rather than the more abstract Tiriti principles of partnership or active protection. Additionally, the Court affirmed that “Māori custom according to tikanga is... part of the values of the New Zealand common law”[23] but did not address more challenging questions regarding the status of tikanga in state law.

Crown failing Māori children

Three notable developments occurred regarding the disproportionate rates at which Māori children are taken into care and their experiences of abuse while in care (see The Indigenous World 2019 and 2020). First, the Waitangi Tribunal released a critical report on its urgent inquiry into Oranga Tamariki, the government department responsible for children in care.[24] The Tribunal found multiple breaches of Te Tiriti and its principles by the Crown, including of the guarantee of Māori rangatiratanga over their kāinga (homes and homelands) in Article 2. It recommended that Māori lead the transformation of care arrangements for Māori children, with the Crown’s support, through the establishment of an independent Māori transition authority.

Secondly, the government accepted some weaker recommendations for reform of Oranga Tamariki made by a Ministerial Advisory Board. The recommendations included that “collective Māori and community responsibility and authority must be strengthened and restored” in order that Māori may “lead prevention of harm to tamariki (children) and their whānau” and the establishment of a national Oranga Tamariki Governance Board.[25]

Finally, the Royal Commission into abuse in care’s interim redress report was released and accepted by the government.[26] The report recommended a new puretumu torowhānui, or holistic redress scheme be established to respond to abuse, founded on Māori values and to reflect Te Tiriti and the UNDRIP. It recommended that an independent, government-funded, Māori collective should lead the design of the scheme, together with survivors. The report left open the possibility of a separate scheme for Māori. 

Additional developments

Additional developments of note include: the release of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha’s, full report on her country mission to Aotearoa, which was critical of Māori experiences of inadequate housing and homelessness;[27] Cabinet approval of a two-stage process for the development of a plan to implement the UNDRIP;[28] critical Waitangi Tribunal reports, including on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership;[29] enactment of the Local Government (Rating of Whenua Māori) Amendment Act 2021, which makes improvements to the way Māori land is rated; the Local Electoral (Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Act 2021, which removed barriers to the creation of Māori wards in local government; plans to repeal and replace the Resource Management Act 1991, including to give better effect to Te Tiriti;[30] and the roll-out of a new Māori-informed model for the District Courts.[31]

Future outlook

2022 looks set to be marred by COVID-19, alongside exciting developments including progress on the UNDRIP action plan and a much-anticipated judgment from the Supreme Court on the place of tikanga in state law.

Fleur Te Aho (Ngāti Mutunga) is a Senior Lecturer in the Auckland Law School at the University of Auckland, email her at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 36th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2022 in full here


Notes and references 

 [1] Statistics New Zealand http://www.stats.govt.nz (these statistics are primarily drawn from the 2018 Census).

[2] Ministry for Women “Wāhine Māori” https://women.govt.nz/w%C4%81hine-m%C4%81ori.

[3] Tina Ngata “New Zealand’s Māori women have more to contend with than ordinary sexism” The Guardian (5 February 2021) https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2021/feb/05/new-zealand-wahine-maori-sexism.

[4] Jan Tinetti and others “Government achieves more ethnic diversity, more women on public sector boards” (7 July 2021) Beehive https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/government-achieves-more-ethnic-diversity-more-women-public-sector-boards.

[5] Ministry for Women, above n 2.

[6] Local Government NZ “New survey shows local political aspirants increasingly younger, female and Māori” (14 October 2020) https://www.lgnz.co.nz/news-and-media/2020-media-releases/new-survey-shows-local-political-aspirants-increasingly-younger-female-and-maori-2/

[7] New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse “International Women’s Day and Mana Wāhine in Aotearoa” (8 March 2021) https://nzfvc.org.nz/news/international-women%E2%80%99s-day-and-mana-w%C4%81hine-aotearoa.

[8] Tobey Keddy “Māori in Prison: Where’s the Transformational Change?” (29 October 2020) Scoop https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL2010/S00155/maori-in-prison-wheres-the-transformational-change.htm.

[9] Leigh-Marama McLachlan “‘Every day I was beaten’ – Māori women three times more likely to be killed by partner” (2 March 2020) Radio New Zealand https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/te-manu-korihi/410738/every-day-i-was-beaten-maori-women-three-times-more-likely-to-be-killed-by-partner.

[10] Statistics New Zealand “National and subnational period life tables: 2017-2019” (20 April 2021) https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/national-and-subnational-period-life-tables-2017-2019#:~:text=Life%20expectancy%20for%20M%C4%81ori%20males,females%20(up%201.4%20years).

[11] Rebekah Graham and Bridgette Masters-Awatere “Experiences of Māori of Aotearoa New Zealand’s public health system: a systematic review of two decades of published qualitative research” (2020) 44(3) Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 193.

[12] Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment “Māori labour market trends” (2021) https://www.mbie.govt.nz/business-and-employment/employment-and-skills/labour-market-reports-data-and-analysis/other-labour-market-reports/maori-labour-market-trends/.

[13] Ministry for Women, above n 2.

[14] For example, The New Zealand Public Service Association “Wāhine Māori members call out racism” (2021) https://www.psa.org.nz/quick-menu/working-life/psa-working-life-journal/wahine-maori-members-call-out-racism/.

[15] Waitangi Tribunal “Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry” https://waitangitribunal.govt.nz/inquiries/kaupapa-inquiries/mana-wahine-kaupapa-inquiry/.

[16] Farah Hancock “Covid-19 data visualisations: NZ in numbers” (29 November 2021) https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/in-depth/450874/covid-19-data-visualisations-nz-in-numbers.

[17] Dr Rawiri Taonui “Another Māori death and highest cases since Covid-19 began” (23 November 2021) Waatea News https://waateanews.com/2021/11/23/dr-rawiri-taonui-another-maori-death-and-highest-cases-since-covid-19-began/; Hancock, above n 16.

[18] Taonui, above n 17.

[19] Waitangi Tribunal Haumaru: The Covid-19 Priority Report (Wai 2575, 2021).

[20] [2021] NZSC 127.

[21] Sarah Down and David Williams “Ngā whakahaere rauemi – Trans-Tasman Resources: A cautious step forward for Māori rights” Māori Law Review (October 2021).

[22] [2021] NZSC 127 at [151].

[23] [2021] NZSC 127 at [167]. See Down and Williams, above n 22.

[24] Waitangi Tribunal He Pāharakeke, He Rito Whakakīkinga Whāruarua: Oranga Tamariki Urgent Inquiry (Wai 2915, 2021).

[25] Oranga Tamariki Ministerial Advisory Board Hipokingia ki te Kahu Aroha, Hipokingia ki te Katoa (2021) at 9, 11; Katie Scotcher and Māni Dunlop “Government releases Oranga Tamariki advisory board findings: ‘You will see change’” Radio New Zealand (29 September 2021) https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/452533/government-releases-oranga-tamariki-advisory-board-findings-you-will-see-change.

[26] Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care He Purapura Ora, he Māra Tipu: From Redress to Puretumu Torowhānui: Volumes One and Two (2021); Chris Hipkins and Jan Tinetti “Survivors of abuse in state and faith-based care will have access to new independent redress process” (15 December 2021) https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/survivors-abuse-state-and-faith-based-care-will-have-access-new-independent-redress-process.

[27] UN Human Rights Council Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Leilani Farha: Visit to New Zealand, UN Doc A/HRC/47/43/Add.1 (2021).

[28] Te Puni Kōkiri “UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” https://www.tpk.govt.nz/en/whakamahia/un-declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.

[29] Waitangi Tribunal Report on Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (Wai 2522, 2021).

[30] Ministry for the Environment “Overview of the resource management reforms” (2021) https://environment.govt.nz/what-government-is-doing/key-initiatives/resource-management-system-reform/overview/.

[31] Chief District Court Judge “Transformative Te Ao Mārama model announced for District Court” (11 November 2020) https://www.districtcourts.govt.nz/media-information/media-releases/11-november-2020-transformative-te-ao-marama-model-announced-for-district-court/.



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Indigenous World

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