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Māori leadership and equality 

Maori fought tirelessly for equality with Pakeha (European New Zealanders) throughout the 20th century. Apirana Ngata, Maui Pomare, T W Ratana, Te Puea Herangi, and Whina Cooper were among those leading the charge. Discrimination was still widespread at New Zealand’s 1940 centenary but gradually decreased as the century progressed.

‘I do not know of any year the Maori people have approached with so much misgiving as this centennial year … what does the Maori see? Lands gone, the power of chiefs humbled in the dust, Maori culture scattered and broken.’
Sir Apirana Ngata, Maori leader and Member of Parliament, 1940

Poverty & discrimination

At the beginning of the 20th century, Maori were devastated by the effects of land confiscations, disease, and poverty. Through the first half of the century, they also suffered discrimination in areas such as health, welfare, housing, military service, and sport.

This inequality existed despite the fact that the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, guaranteed Maori the right of citizenship alongside Pakeha (European New Zealanders).

1940 New Zealand centennial

In 1940, New Zealand commemorated its centenary. This event marked 100 years since the British Crown and Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi. However, the official emphasis was on celebrating a century of British government and European progress here.

Pakeha boasted ‘the best race relations in the world’ at the time, and the 1939–40 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition portrayed a picture of unity. But in reality, Maori suffered official and unofficial discrimination, and the centennial exhibition largely trivialised their culture.

At the centennial celebrations in Waitangi, Member of Parliament Sir Apirana Ngata reminded Pakeha and Maori of their Treaty obligations. He also spoke passionately for Maori culture to be celebrated as distinct from Pakeha.

Maori rangatira (leaders)

Ngata was among various rangatira (leaders) who emerged in the first half of the 20th century to head the fight for equality. Some of the other rangatira are listed below. They were a new kind of leader, grounded in their iwi (tribe) but with a vision for all Maori. Equality with Pakeha was their common goal.

  • Apirana Ngata (Ngati Porou) campaigned for land reform and promoted the Maori language and culture.
  • Maui Pomare (Ngati Mutunga, Ngati Toa Rangatira) was New Zealand’s first Maori doctor and Minister of Health. He worked tirelessly for Maori health and the return of confiscated Maori land.
  • Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana (Ngati Apa, Nga Rauru) established the Ratana religious and political movement. He formed an alliance with Labour Prime Minister Michael Savage to address inequalities facing Maori.
  • Te Kirihaehae Te Puea Herangi (Waikato) formed a community at Turangawaewae in Ngaruawahia and was a leading figure in the Kingitanga (Maori King movement).
  • Whina Cooper (Te Rarawa) was a leader in areas including land reform and women’s welfare. She also headed the 1975 Maori land march from the Far North to Parliament.

As these leaders fought for equality, official discrimination gradually decreased. Unofficial discrimination, however, could not be fixed with the stroke of a pen.

© Copyright Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand.