Understanding the Maori Identity



When I was a child, a visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi in the Bay of Islands was an experience that I would never forget. The beautiful architecture and stunning performances engraved a picture of joyous harmony into my mind, and I left Auckland with the impression that the Māori were proud and embraced in their own society. Ten years later, upon further research, I realized that I could not be more wrong.

My rose-tinted vision of the Māori identity in New Zealand was shattered as I perused through articles pointing to disparities in health, education, media and even jail time. Even after writing this paper, it still astounds me how my experience at the Grounds covered up my perception of the difficulties local Māori face in society.

Therefore, this paper serves to provide advocacy for the indigenous Māori peoples in New Zealand, pointing out the impact of ethnic suppression. This paper also aims to draw more attention to the issue, calling for action to assist Auckland in forming better policies that improve Māori representation. 


The Māori identity is a widely debated topic that can be primarily defined as a conflict between the traditional Māori and the white Pākehā. Durie (1994) states that communities have chosen to identify as culturally Māori, bicultural, or marginalized. In spite of these definitions, the government still faces difficulties in understanding the Māori culture so as to create better support systems for these historically repressed indigenous peoples. The Māori currently rank low in health (New Zealand Ministry of Health, 2003), high in criminal offending (Cram, Pihama, Karehana, & McCreanor, 1999; New Zealand Department of Corrections, 2005), and low in education (Hohepa & Jenkins, 2004). Therefore, to reduce inequalities in such areas, policymakers need to understand the cultural factors behind these three societal sectors, as well as how the three different communities function as a larger whole. 

Understanding stakeholders

The Māori

Much of Māori history is grounded in warfare, but the roots of the downfall of the marginalized people are embedded in the Musket Wars, where the introduction of European technology caused vicious in-fighting between rival kin groups. In the concluding years of the war, warfare gave way to economic rivalry. Due to the widespread bloodshed, the Musket Wars were a central factor in the British colonization of New Zealand in 1840 (New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2015). The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1940, has gradually grown in influence following the formation of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975. Later, a policy of ‘biculturalism’ adopted in the 1970s provided the Māori with the legally recognized right to self-determination as a people, and equality with Pākehā in society (Awatere, 1984; Chadwick, 1998; Hazlehurst, 1993; Poata-Smith, 1997a, 1997b, 2004). Various pieces of legislation in New Zealand now oblige government officials to ensure that Māori rights to cultural, social and economic equality are promoted through the work of state institutions (Houkaman & Sibley, 2010).

The New Zealand Government

Historically, the government has had little interaction or discussion with the Māori before implementing policies. The government established both the Waitangi Tribunal and the Fiscal Envelope with little or tokenistic consultation with Māori. An approach like this can result in recurring accusations of unfairness because one party clearly has more power when equality is needed for fair and enduring settlements (Mulholland, M., 2018).


The combination of social stigma against the Māori has culminated in several social impacts, beginning with the adoption of Māori children in Māori- Pākehā or Pākehā marriages. Out of the numerous impacts of social stigma, this impact is the most significant because it alienates an entire generation of Māori children from their ethnic heritage. According to A Question of Adoption, in 1965, the Department of Social Welfare admitted that ‘adoption of Māori children is a big and constant headache’. Socially, Māori children ranked at the bottom of the adoption ladder, and worse, to Pākehā social workers, any legal placement with strangers organized via Social Welfare appeared preferable to allowing the baby to go to Māori kin (Else, 1991).

However, it has been proved that Māori culture is important for Māori well-being. It could be that enculturation trumps feelings of connectedness with other Māori people in terms of driving positive health outcomes. Alternatively, perhaps Māori who have close relationships with their whanau and marae will also tend to have greater access to social support and economic resources, which should lead to higher levels of educational achievement (Houkaman & Sibley, 2010). Māori who feel comfortable speaking Te Reo are more likely to feel comfortable with interventions that incorporate Māori cultural concepts, supporting the analysis of health interventions that report high participation rates and acceptability within Māori communities (Beasely et al., 1993; Broughton, 1995; Edwards, McManus & McCreanor, Tipene Leach & Abel, 2004). 

Current Frameworks Under Discussion

There are four current models and frameworks that explain the Māori identity: The Royal Commission on Social Policy (1988), Rose Pere’s (1988) six elements of Māori identity, the Te Hoe Nuku Roa assessment of Māori identity (Durie, 1995) as well as the Multi-Dimensional Model of Māori Identity and Cultural Engagement (MMM-ICE) (Houkaman & Sibley, 2010).

The Royal Commission on Social Policy

The Royal Commission on Social Policy (1988) bases its policies off a four-pillared approach to highlight the most significant aspects of Māori cultural identity (Nga Pou Mana). These comprise (1) whatnaungatanga (family cohesion), (2) taonga tuku iho (cultural inheritance), (3) te ao turoa (the environment), and (4) turangawaewae (security). The Commission called for the establishment of a Senate divided between Māori and non-Māori, as well as official biculturalism. Today, the establishment of a political Māori front has not been upheld, and there seems to be little to no support for a second House. However, the adoption of a Mixed Member Proportional electoral system has increased Māori seats from four in 1988 to seven in 2018 (Webcoordinator@msd.govt.nz, n.d). The Māori Language Act (1987) gave official language status to the Māori language. Later in 2016, the Act would recognize that the Māori language is the foundation of Māori culture and identity, with two separate initiatives to revitalize the Māori language (The Māori Language Act 2016, n.d.).

Rose Pere’s six elements of Māori identity

Māori educationalist, Rose Pere, illustrates the following six elements as part of the Māori identity.

  1. A relationship with the land (which provides a sense of belonging)
  2. Spirituality (which provides a sense of meaning, connection and purpose)
  3. Ancient ties (which provide ancestral-based wisdom and appropriate guidelines for living)
  4. Tikanga Māori (customs which carry values and cultural practices unique to Māori people)
  5. Kinship ties (which carry obligations to contribute to the well-being of the family and extended family)
  6. A sense of humanity (which involves a sense of belonging to a wider community)

Te Hoe Nuku Roa assessment of Māori identity

The Te Hoe Nuku Roa Māori Profiles, a longitudinal Māori household project with a focus on Māori development in cultural, social and economic terms, providing a model for the interaction between Māori knowledge and mainstream social science practices and demonstrates how Māori knowledge and the Western scientific tradition can be used together to resolve critical failings in previous research and advance the aspirations of Māori people (Forster, 2008).

Multi-Dimensional Model of Māori Identity and Cultural Engagement (MMM-ICE)

The MMM-ICE is intended to be an indigenous measure appropriate for Māori. The model goes beyond enculturation or knowledge of Māori cultural features and Māori cultural engagement to incorporate subjective feelings of being a group member, attitudes, group allegiances, as well as collective identification and role-related self-perceptions, political attitudes and beliefs (Houkaman & Sibley, 2010).

Drawing parallels between Auckland and Singapore

At the root of the problem, the Maori identity is a social issue that needs to be solved before the fracture between such communities grow even wider and threatens other sectors of society, such as the financial or political sectors. Even though there are more Maori in important seats in Parliament, there is a lack of respect for this culture on the ground amongst the people. 

An example of a society that has managed to promote not only racial tolerance but racial harmony, is Singapore. The Singaporean population is ethnically and racially diverse, and most Singaporeans embrace different cultural heritages. Instead of pushing each other away due to their inherent differences, they choose to embrace each other’s unique traits to develop a unified Singaporean identity. 

Auckland’s social climate now is a prime example of the impacts of communal suppression. Had our founding fathers not taken steps to improve relations between racial groups, the Chinese population would dominate far more positions in Parliament and business—not to mention increasing hostility between groups in our everyday lives. 

As citizens of a racially harmonious and accepting society, Singaporeans have the moral responsibility to assist New Zealand in developing ways to create a better environment that betters the plight of the modern-day Maori. Rather than feeling pity or sympathizing with them, more should be done to let others know of the impact racial suppression has on the minority group. Prominent media outlets, such as Channel NewsAsia as well as The Straits Times, need to intensify the coverage on minority groups like the Maori, drawing awareness to such groups and inciting social change. 


The issue of the Māori identity being at risk is a problem that some Singaporeans may face. Although the largest Chinese population is rather content with the preservation of their culture and language, other minority groups such as the Minangkabau, Tai, and Javanese people face difficulty reconciling the traditions taught to them with daily life today. The parallels drawn between New Zealand and Singapore are the suppression of the indigenous people, as well as the initial efforts put forward by the governments in trying to address this issue. However, while Singapore has been largely successful and has taken a pro-active step with a Malay President, the impacts of New Zealand’s imposed policies are still fairly limited. 

This paper serves to argue that policymakers should consult the expertise of Māori leaders and people in order to understand their needs and concerns to diminish the social inequality between the Māori and the Pākehā. Journalist Aaron Smale comments that, “At the first day of the hui to consult on the terms of reference for the new Royal Commission, there was a panel of nine survivors. Of them, only one was a Māori man. When I pointed this out and how it was problematic given the majority of state wards were Māori boys, I was met with a chilly silence.” 

Rather than a generalised approach that the government has taken up so far, this paper seeks to point out three important mediums in which the government can better improve, empower and sustain the Māori, revealing a list of social benefits that will not only help the country improve but also help to create a uniform identity as people of the land. 

Action Recommended

A three-pronged framework, coming in from the health, media and education industry, seeks to improve, empower and sustain the Māori. This plan assists the Māori community by improving the current living standards of the people. The Te Hoe Nuku Roa has reported a link between higher Māori identity scores and positive health and educational outcomes as measured by the framework (Durie et al., 1999). As such, the betterment of current health standards in Māori-populated areas is needed to further improve their lifestyles. Next, the media industry needs to adopt not a policy of tolerance, but rather a policy of harmonious identity. This can be best achieved through the Te Pae Tawhiti, a new media industry group. Finally, in order to perpetuate the paradigm shift in society towards embracing the Māori identity as a part of Aucklanders’ way of life, the next generation will need to be taught the ways of the Māori. However, rather than a indoctrination of Māori ideals into the current landscape, the next generation will need to adopt mindsets that the Pākehā and Māori can coexist in a mutually beneficial, harmonious society. 


Rather than trying to solve the problem, the framework tries to draw more attention to rising disparity between the Māori and the Pākehā. Therefore, this paper serves to act as a call to action, drawing awareness to the issue at hand. Although Singapore’s slightly removed presence from the Maori issue may cause some to hesitate, the prevalence of the disintegrating Maori identity strikes us as an issue the world must pay attention to—before the cultural heritage of another indigenous group is stamped out.


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  16. Smale, A. (2018, March 27). New Zealand’s problem with Māori boys. Retrieved from https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/27-03-2018/new-zealands-problem-with-Māori-boys/
  17. The Māori Language Act 2016. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.tetaurawhiri.govt.nz/about-us/what-is-the-Māori-language-commission/the-Māori-language-act-2016/
  18. Webcoordinator@msd.govt.nz. (n.d.). Still Kicking? The Royal Commission on Social Policy, 20 Years On. Retrieved from https://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj37/37-still-kicking-the-royal-commission-on-social-policy-20-years-on.html#MāoriandTeTiriti7

Celeste Koh (18-I4)

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