Milestones: Wāhine and Te Tiriti o Waitangi

Te Tiriti o Waitangi has served as an important defining document in New Zealand history, making it unique in the British Empire - then in 1840, and continues in its impact today. Māori women signed te Tiriti; so far, up to 18 possible names have been identified and more are being discovered by researchers every day. Unlike the women among the white settlers coming to New Zealand then, wāhine Māori traditionally had a say in important matters of their people, especially in matters regarding authority over their lands. This tradition of leadership continues to fuel the activism to rectify systemic discrimination and end the misogyny that causes a range of socio-economic disparities especially for Māori, Pacifika and immigrant women in New Zealand. More importantly, the historical events and laws that breach te Tiriti have and continue to impact all New Zealand women today. Below are some milestones in New Zealand's history adapted and excerpted from "Historical events and laws which breach te Tiriti o Waitangi," pp. 58-68 in Treaty of Waitangi, questions and answers (Network Waitangi, 2018).

1840. Te Tiriti o Waitangi is signed over seven months. The treaty written in Māori was signed by 512 Māori (including Topeora of Raukawa on behalf of her hapū) and by the British Governor on behalf of the Queen. Recognised in international law, this treaty maintains Māori authority in Aotearoa New Zealand. The Treaty written in English was signed by 39 Māori and is recognised by the New Zealand Parliament. The treaty gives Māori the same rights as British people, though the Queen guarantees all Māori rights to their land, forests and foreshore and seabed. It gives overall though limited control to the Crown. At this time, the Māori population is about 150,000 and the Pākehā population about 2000.

Merenoko and her hei-tiki - image resized and published on
Land rights activist Mere Nako of Motueka (d. 1888)

1845. Advocacy by Māori leaders to fulfil the Crown’s legal obligations to the customary owners in Te Tau Ihu (top of the South Island) to protect 15,100 acres of land – and in particular by the 1870s Nelson and Motueka reserves (aka "Tenths") - takes shape and continues today in on-going court proceedings. One of the leaders in the 1870s-80s for petitions to the government is Mere Noko, whose precious hei-tiki seen in her portrait to the right is worn by her descendant as he attends Court proceedings today.

1846. Governor George Grey abolished the position of Protector of Aborigines which was to advocate to the Crown for Māori interests.

1852. The British government creates the New Zealand Parliament and suffrage is granted expressly only to males, aged 21 years or older, landownership in male voter's name. Ignoring the Constitution, Governor Grey did not declare any Native districts which would recognise Māori authority (including women leaders) over their own affairs. Nearly all of the South Island and about one-fifth of the North Island had passed into Crown ownership by 1865.

1860s. The Pākehā population is booming, and the government creates the Native Land Courts in 1865. A Native Land Court could exclude Māori from holding shares in whenua on the basis of being identified as a rebel. Wāhine Māori spend lengthy hours in court pursuing their land interests (unlike their British counterparts they were acknowledged as landowners under Māori law and custom). Rural women make a concerted effort to learn how to read and write to support their claims in court to certify land they already own. However, the Land Courts allow land transfer to Pākehā settlers to become much easier, and approximately 2 million hectares changed hands between 1870 and 1892.

1867. Four seats in Parliament are reserved for Māori representatives - men only. The New Zealand government creates Native Schools which teach British laws, culture, agricultural and domestic sciences - disallowing any use of Māori traditions, including farming knowledge. By 1880, all teaching must now be in English. By 1907, use of Māori medicines and healing practices are made illegal. While this mainly affected the work of male experts (tohunga), elderly women and female healers were also targeted.

1879-83. NZ government passes a series of acts to imprison without trial those who conducted the non-violent resistance to surveying Māori land, including Parihaka women and children. The Native Reserves Act of 1881 gives control of Māori reserves to a Public Trustee. Native Land Acts throughout the 1880s-90s allow for further sales, including land formerly designated as reserves.

1890s. The Advances to Settlers Act of 1894 gives low interest loans to Pākehā only, and the Old Age Pensions Act of 1898 automatically disqualifies those with shares in tribal land. Between 1890 and 1930, approximately seventy percent of the remaining 10 million acres of Māori land had been lost. Much of the land that remained (3.6 million acres) was useless for commercial farming; Māori were rendered economically and culturally impoverished. Led by their rangatira Mere Rangingainga, the Wanganui women's committee presented their opposition in the courts and before government planning to open the Wanganui River for trade. In 1895 Makere Mihi led a well-attended meeting at Te Aute Hawke's Bay at which she formed a committee of women to invoke mana tikanga to organise an embargo of the Land Court and convince Māori to cease selling land. 

1909. Native Health Act restricts Māori from adopting children within extended families. It also prevented wāhine Māori from breastfeeding, supporters stated it was supposedly to prevent the spread of disease.

1918. NZ soldiers returning from active duty in World War I are given land to farm, but not to Māori soldiers (nor to any women nurses or volunteers).

1928. NZ government was authorised to take land for forestry, airports, roads, land development and subdivision - it was legal to avoid telling Māori owners of pending confiscation.

1930s. NZ government provides subsidies to help unemployed during the Great Depression - Māori receive 1/2 of the regular amount given to Pākehā.

1953. Māori Affairs Act allowed for Māori land deemed to be "uneconomic" by the Māori Trustee (a Pākehā male) could be sold without the owners' consent. Much of this was then leased to forestry companies to use for monoculture and without oversight so to attain maximum profit. The Town and Country Planning Act prevented rural Māori from building on their land - 60% of Māori shifted to towns and cities between 1950 and 1980.

1967. Rating Act enabled local governments to lease or sell Māori land where rates were outstanding, even if the land was not producing any income for its owners.

Dame Whina Cooper - image from Wikipedia biography
Dame Whina Cooper ONZ DBE addressing the Māori land march at Hamilton in 1975

1975. Dame Whina Cooper from Cape Reinga launched the Te Rōpū Matakite o Aotearoa (‘Those with Foresight’) group and led the Māori Land March to Parliament: "Not one more acre." The Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 established the Waitangi Tribunal as a permanent commission of inquiry to make recommendations on claims relating to Crown actions which breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1986 the Act was amended to allow claims to the Tribunal dating back to 1840. 

1986-88. State Owned Enterprises Act provided for the transfer of Crown land to state owned corporations - a step toward the privatisation of Crown assets, reducing the possibility of the return of publicly-owned resources to settle Treaty claims. Māori disproportionately are affected by the redundancies caused by the Act (up to 80% of the jobs lost), and with the high unemployment levels came a sharp decrease in health outcomes compared to Pākehā. The Ports Reform Act 1988 allowed privatisation of Harbour Boards and the right to sell assets including Crown land and foreshore, putting them outside the jurisdiction of the Waitangi Tribunal. Both Acts include sets of "Principles" for Crown action on the Treaty of Waitangi despite the rejections by Māori.

1995. Te Arikinui, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, signed as the Māori Queen the Waikato Raupatu Deed of Settlement with the NZ Prime Minister. Queen Elizabeth II, with Dame Te Atairangikaahu present, gave royal assent to the new legislation that provided inflation-adjusted Crown payments to the people whose lands had been confiscated in the 1860s as well as the return of some lands. This was the first historical Waitangi Tribunal settlement relating to grievances about the loss of land. 

2004. The Foreshore and Seabed Act extinguished Māori customary rights and title. Tariana Turia and Nanaia Mahuta vote against the Bill; a special envoy from the UN came the next year and wrote a report protesting the Act but was ignored. As a part of the anniversary commemorations of the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, the Peace Movement Aotearoa launched in 2003 the "No raupatu in our time!" campaign in a collaborative protest by Pākehā opposed to the government's foreshore and seabed proposals. The government's claim had been steadily built up by the Māori Fisheries Act 1989 and the Treaty of Waitangi (Fisheries Claim) Settlement Act 1992.

2007. New Zealand is one of only four countries to vote against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There was no consultation with hapū or iwi about the government's position. NZ police conduct "anti-terrorist" dawn raids around the country and Māori families and communities are treated very differently from others.

2011. Māori adolescent mothers were found to be approximately half the total number in NZ. However, research has shown that with Māori adolescent mothers in teen parent organisations, the “integration of Indigenous knowledge opens up new avenues for a more sophisticated understanding of organisational practices” (Pio and Graham p.1) and positively intertwine with their life journeys. See also Hindin-Miller (2012).

2018. Child Poverty Reduction Act shows significant improvement over time for New Zealanders despite the median incomes of households with children of predominantly Māori and Pacific peoples still lag below those households in New Zealand who identify themselves as European. However, the 2022 surveys are missing data on children living in transient housing. 

2020. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing in NZ Leilani Farha urged the nation to consider its roots in the Treaty (Te Tiriti) as a source of rights and expectations for all New Zealanders. She stated: "New Zealand’s ongoing history of colonization, land dispossession, forced assimilation, and racism and the contemporary consequences of these forces on and for Māori." 

This brief recounting serves as a tribute to the women, both Māori and Pākehā, who advanced the struggle for social justice and economic equality in New Zealand. For more information, refer to the references below. You can download "Treaty of Waitangi: Questions and Answers," (Network Waitangi, 2018) or email a purchase order for hard copies using this Peace Movement Aotearoa webpage:


"About the Waitangi Tribunal," Ministry of Justice, New Zealand Government:

Benjamin, Ethel. "Māori Women and the Law - Ethel Benjamin Commemorative Address," Speeches, New Zealand Government (8 July 1999):

Farha, Leilani. "End of Mission Statement Visit of the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing to New Zealand," UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (19 February 2020):

Henare, Denese. "Carrying the burden of arguing the Treaty," pp. 126-136 in Vision Aotearoa: Kaupapa New Zealand, Witi Ihimaera, ed. Wellington, N.Z.: Bridget Williams Books, 1994.

Hindin-Miller, J.M. "Re-storying identities: Young women's narratives of teenage parenthood and educational support," unpublished doctoral thesis. (Christchurch, NZ: University of Canterbury, 2012).

Hollingsworth, Randolph. "Charts to Use: Child Poverty in New Zealand," The Circular, NCWNZ (28 October 2022):

Hollingsworth, Randolph. "Te Tiriti o Waitangi & NCWNZ," The Circular, NCWNZ (9 July 2022):

Kidman, Joanna; O'Malley, Vincent; et al. Fragments from a Contested Past: Remembrance, Denial and New Zealand History. (BWB, 2022):

Mikaere, Annie. "Maori Women: Caught in the contradictions of a colonised reality," Waikato Law Review 2(1994): 125-?.

Mitchell, Dr James S. "The Native Land Court and Maori land alienation patterns in the Whanganui District 1865-1900," Wai 903, A58 (September 2004):

"No raupatu in our time!" Peace Movement Aotearoa

Papa, Rāhui and Meredith, Paul. "Te Atairangikaahu Korokī Te Rata Mahuta Tāwhiao Pōtatau Te Wherowhero," Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (orig. pub. in Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 2018)

Paterson, Lachy and Wanhalla, Angela. He Reo Wāhine: Māori women's voices from the nineteenth century. (Auckland University Press, 2017):

Pio, E., & Graham, M. "Transitioning to higher education: journeying with Indigenous Maori teen mothers." Gender and Education, 30 (2018): 846-865.

Ruru, Stacey; Roche, Maree; and, Waitoki, Waikaremoana. "Māori women's perspectives of leadership and wellbeing," Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing 2 (1 June 2017): 5-14.

Seuffert, Nan. "Race-ing and engendering the nation-state in Aotearoa/New Zealand," American University Journal of Gender Social Policy and Law 10, no. 3 (2002): 597-618.

"The Treaty in practice," NZ History, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Manatū Taonga (updated 15 April 2016):

Whaanga, Mere. "Te Kōti Whenua – Māori Land Court - Surveying and other costs, 1880–1900," Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (20 Jun 2012):

"Whina Cooper leads land march to Parliament 13 October 1975," NZ HistoryMinistry for Culture and Heritage, (updated 27-Oct-2021):


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