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Ngā rōpū tautohetohe – Māori protest movements

by Basil Keane

Māori have a long history of fighting for their rights, over issues ranging from land loss and language revival to exclusion from rugby tours of South Africa. Acts of protest have included Hōne Heke repeatedly demolishing the Kororāreka flagstaff, Parihaka residents disrupting surveys of confiscated lands, the 1975 hīkoi (land march) to Parliament, and Ngāti Whātua’s 506-day occupation of Bastion Point.

Historic Māori protest

Protests, 1960s onwards

The Māori protest movements that emerged in the 1960s and flourished in the succeeding decades formed against a background of international and national surges in protest activity. Anti-war, indigenous rights, black consciousness and women’s rights movements all emerged during this period. Māori protest movements were influenced by all these activities, but they were also informed by awareness not only of historical injustices, but also the methods used historically by tīpuna (ancestors) to protest.

Earlier protests

Independence protests

There are numerous examples of 19th-century Māori protest. Some were related to encroachments upon Māori independence. In 1844 and 1845 Hōne Heke cut down the flagstaff flying the Union Jack at Kororāreka, Bay of Islands, four times as a protest against the Crown.

In the 19th century Māori also protested against taxes on dogs. At times they were imprisoned for failing to pay. In 1898 a protest led to the ‘dog tax war’, where a group of northern Māori took up arms in Rāwene, Hokianga, and were arrested.

Land protests

Many protests were land-related. These often involved disruption of surveys, including the removal of survey pegs, burning survey huts and ejecting surveyors. In the South Island, the prophet Te Maihāroa occupied a sheep station near Ōmarama. From 1879 Tohu Kākahi and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai of Parihaka, Taranaki, objected to land confiscations by destroying survey pegs and ploughing confiscated land.

Petitioning Parliament was a common method of protest and Māori sent numerous petitions representing land grievances to Parliament. A number of deputations went to England to try and present their grievances to the reigning monarch.

Lake protest

Protests often revolved around waterways, which Māori relied on as important sources of food. In the Wairarapa in the 1890s Pākehā sought to open the spit across the mouth of Lake Ōnoke to prevent flooding. However, local Māori tried to prevent this as the lake was an important source of food, particularly eels. Digging to open the spit was obstructed by Māori filling in the trench. Eventually Ngāti Kahungunu leader Piripi Te Maari-o-te-rangi petitioned Parliament.

Contemporary protest changes

In the 1950s and 1960s protests against government actions tended to be low-key and conservative. The Māori Women’s Welfare League and New Zealand Māori Council wrote letters, organised petitions, made public statements and sent deputations to government officials. By the late 1960s a younger group of Māori activists was more likely to march, picket, demonstrate and organise occupations. Civil disobedience was considered an option. Rather than fearing arrest, many of the younger activists saw it as part of the range of options for protest.

Waitangi Day protests

Waitangi Day

Much protest has revolved around Waitangi Day, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. Commemorations began as a result of Governor-General Lord Bledisloe gifting the Treaty House and grounds to the nation in 1932. In 1934 his gift was marked by celebrations at Waitangi where up to 10,000 Māori attended. At the centenary of Waitangi Day in 1940, Māori politician Apirana Ngata drew attention to Māori concerns over race relations in New Zealand.

New Zealand Day

In 1960 the Waitangi Day Act declared 6 February as a national day of thanksgiving in commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. However, it was not until 1974 that this day became a national holiday, renamed New Zealand Day. This was seen as inappropriate by many protesters, who felt it denigrated the Treaty of Waitangi.

First protests

In 1971 activist group Ngā Tamatoa organised the first protests at Waitangi on Waitangi Day – something that was to become a regular occurrence. In 1973 Ngā Tamatoa members wore black armbands, to signify mourning the loss of Māori land, at Waitangi Day celebrations. Common refrains were ‘Honour the treaty’ and ‘The treaty is a fraud’. In 1979 protests at Waitangi were taken up by the Waitangi Action Committee. In 1981 the investitures of Sir Graham Latimer and Dame Whina Cooper were targeted as a part of the Waitangi Day protests. This represented an overt clash between more conservative Māori leaders and more radical protesters.

1984 hīkoi

For Waitangi Day in 1984 a hīkoi (march) was organised from Ngāruawāhia to Waitangi. It has been described as the pinnacle of Waitangi Day activism. Eva Rickard was appointed president and Titewhai Harawira secretary of the hīkoi. Around 4,000 protesters assembled at Waitangi, hoping to meet with Governor-General David Beattie, but they were prevented from crossing the Waitangi bridge. The following year, activist group Te Kawariki, from the far north, began to protest at Waitangi on Waitangi Day. This continued through to the 2000s.

Political controversies – 1990s onwards

At the 1990 Waitangi celebrations, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the treaty, a young Māori woman threw a T-shirt at Queen Elizabeth II. Almost as controversial was a speech by the Reverend Whakahuihui Vercoe, the Bishop of Aotearoa, who recalled the failure of the Crown to honour the treaty.

Politicians have often had a difficult time at Waitangi. In 1998 then opposition leader Helen Clark was brought to tears when Titewhai Harawira challenged a male elder for allowing Clark, a Pākehā, to speak on the marae when Māori women could not. In 2004, as prime minister, Clark was jostled, as was Prime Minister John Key in 2009. The ongoing protests have meant that politicians have often avoided attending Waitangi Day at Waitangi, with official government observances happening instead at the governor-general’s residence in Wellington.

Land protests

Historic land protest

Māori protest about land dates back to the 19th century. Māori protested against land loss through petitions and occupations and by destroying survey pegs. Pan-tribal movements, including the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) and Kotahitanga (Māori parliament movement), were often formed to advocate for Māori land issues. One movement in Hawke’s Bay, the Repudiation movement, was formed specifically to repudiate land sales that had taken place as inappropriate and unfair.

1975 hīkoi

In 1975 a hīkoi (march) took place from Te Hāpua in the far north to Parliament in Wellington to protest about land loss. Whina Cooper, the inaugural president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, led Te Roopu o te Matakite, the group that organised the hīkoi. The march was similar to the Trail of Broken Treaties, a protest by Native American organisations in the US in 1972. Significantly, the march led to alliances between many Māori organisations, including the Kīngitanga, the New Zealand Māori Council, Ngā Tamatoa, the Māori Women’s Welfare League and other groups.

The hīkoi left Te Hāpua on 14 September (Māori language day). Cooper took the first steps, holding the hand of her mokopuna (grandchild) Irene. The march reached Wellington on 13 October 1975. A memorial of rights signed by 60,000 people was prepared and presented to Prime Minister Bill Rowling, asking that all statutes that could alienate land be repealed and remaining tribal land be invested in Māori in perpetuity. Rowling promised that steps would be taken to address these concerns, but a group of protesters were not happy with his response. About 60 people set up a Māori embassy at Parliament and occupied the grounds.

Bastion Point

In 1977–78 Joe Hawke led the Ōrākei Māori Action Group during their 506-day occupation of Bastion Point (Takaparawhā). This land, which had once been declared ‘absolutely inalienable’ by the Native Land Court, had over the years been taken from Ngāti Whātua. 800 police and the New Zealand army evicted over 200 protesters from the ancestral lands they had hoped to get back. Over time, through negotiations and a successful treaty claim, Bastion Point was returned to Ngāti Whātua.

Raglan golf course

The Raglan (Whāingaroa) protest raged in the 1970s over the Raglan golf course. The government had taken the land from Māori during the Second World War to use as a military airfield. The land was not handed back at the end of the war to its former Māori owners – instead part of it became a public golf course. An occupation was led by Eva Rickard in 1978, and she and other protesters were arrested on the ninth hole of the course. The land was eventually returned.

Waitangi Tribunal

Partially as a result of protest, the Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 to remedy breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. At first it could not look at historical grievances, and was largely ineffective in dealing with land issues. In 1985 the tribunal was given retrospective jurisdiction back to 1840, and became more relevant for the settlement of historical land losses. This change probably resulted in a lessening of protests about historical land issues.


From February to May 1995, Whanganui Māori occupied Pākaitore (also known as Moutoa Gardens), the site of the courthouse in Whanganui city, to protest lack of settlement of their treaty claims. Eventually the occupation ended and a tripartite agreement between iwi, government and local government was signed. The Pākaitore Trust was set up to manage the courthouse and surrounding land.

Ngāwhā and Te Kurī a Pāoa

In 2002 an occupation took place at Ngāwhā in Northland, where a new prison was to be built. For local iwi this site included wāhi tapu (sacred places) and the traditional lair of a taniwha (supernatural creature), Taukere. Ultimately the occupation was unsuccessful and the prison was built.

The sale to overseas buyers of Te Kurī a Pāoa (Young Nicks Head) on the East Coast led to concern from Ngāi Tāmanuhiri. Eventually, after negotiations with the new owner, the headland became a historic reserve and public access was retained.

Rugby and South Africa

Māori had long held concerns over sporting contacts with apartheid-era South Africa, but protests began in 1960. Prior to this New Zealand Māori teams played against South Africa in 1921 and 1956. The problem to come was foreshadowed in the 1921 match played in Napier, when a South African journalist sent a telegram home regarding the match.

Bad enough having play team officially designated New Zealand Natives. Spectacle thousands Europeans frantically cheering on band of colored men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who frankly disgusted.1

1960 tour

In 1960 it was made clear that South Africa would not tolerate the selection of Māori players for the All Blacks team to tour its country. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) decided to send racially selected teams to South Africa. This was not the first time that Māori players had been excluded, but it was the first time that a significant protest campaign was organised. A campaign emerged with the slogan ‘No Maoris, no tour’. Anglican bishop Wiremu Panapa led a petition for equality between Māori and Pākehā over not just the tour but wider instances of racism and inequality in New Zealand. The tour went ahead anyway.

In 1967 a tour of South Africa was cancelled because Māori were still excluded.

Honorary whites

For the 1970 tour of South Africa a compromise solution was devised for Māori (and Pacific Island) players. They would be considered ‘honorary whites’. It was a term applied by South Africans to certain ethnicities, giving them most of the rights of white citizens. However, while this placated some, many others were angered. Protest organisation HART (Halt All Racist Tours) was formed in 1969 and had significant Māori input. The tour went ahead with Sid Going (who was Māori) and Bryan Williams (Samoan) participating as honorary whites. While the New Zealand Māori Council saw this compromise as acceptable, the Māori Women’s Welfare League opposed the tour.

In 1973 the government under Prime Minister Norman Kirk effectively forestalled planned protest actions when it intervened to cancel a planned Springbok tour of New Zealand, as the team was to be selected on grounds of race rather than merit.

1981 Springbok tour

In 1981 a Springbok team was permitted to tour New Zealand, and protests against the tour reached a level unparalleled in New Zealand history. This reflected the fact that both the Māori protest movement and anti-apartheid movement had developed significantly. The Patu Squad in Auckland was led by Māori activists Ripeka Evans, Donna Awatere and Hone Harawira. It had a core of around 100 members, mostly Māori. While the squad represented Māori opposition to the tour, there was overlap with other protest groups such as HART. The alliance between the groups was not always an easy one. Some issues supported by Māori protesters – particularly their emphasis on New Zealand racism and push for mana motuhake (Māori self-determination) – did not always sit well with other members of protest groups. Many protesters were arrested and charged as protests became increasingly militant.

Rugby protest outcomes

The 1981 tour was the last time the All Blacks and South African rugby teams would play while South Africa was still under an apartheid system. A 1985 tour to South Africa was cancelled after a legal challenge, though a group of rebel players went to South Africa the following year. It was not until the fall of apartheid in the early 1990s that the impact on South Africa of New Zealand rugby protests became clearer. President Nelson Mandela remembered that when he was in his prison cell on Robben Island and heard about the cancellation of the Hamilton game in 1981 due to protests it was as if ‘the sun had come out’.2 When Mandela visited New Zealand in 1995, he made a point of visiting key New Zealand protesters, including many prominent Māori, to thank them for their efforts. In 1994 Prime Minister Jim Bolger said that the 1981 tour had been a mistake.

In 2010 the South African Rugby Union apologised for the exclusion of Māori rugby players due to apartheid. The New Zealand Rugby Union, which had initially stated it was not the right time to apologise, later followed suit.


Cultural rights

Māori language

In 1972 the te reo Māori (Māori language) petition was presented at Parliament. It had been organised by Ngā Tamatoa and the Te Reo Māori Society, and requested that te reo be taught in schools. It was signed by over 30,000 people and the day on which it was presented, 14 September, became Māori Language Day. A Treaty of Waitangi claim over the Māori language was also made to the Waitangi Tribunal, which reported on it in 1986.

Ken Mair of Whanganui led a protest when Television New Zealand announced in 1995 that the Māori-language news programme Te Karere was being suspended. Protesters entered TV One’s newsroom and disrupted the six o’clock news broadcast.

He Taua

On 1 May 1979 a Māori students’ group known as He Taua confronted engineering students at Auckland University who had been preparing to perform a mock haka. The engineering students’ haka had a long tradition and involved participants wearing grass skirts, painting swear words and sexual organs on their bodies and mocking Māori. Students had been trying to have the haka stopped for some time through official channels to no effect. Following the confrontation members of He Taua were charged with various offences, including riot. Surprisingly to many, they received support from some moderate Māori. The mock haka was not performed again.

Māori flag protest

In 1989 a Māori flag competition was run by protest group Te Kawariki. The flag that was chosen became known as the tino rangatiratanga flag. In the 2000s a protest group, Te Ata Tino Toa, attempted to have the flag flown on the Auckland Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day. After a series of protests the flag was chosen as a national Māori flag, and it was flown on the harbour bridge on official occasions from 2010.

Government proposals

Government legislation and proposals have often been a source of protest.

Hunn Report

Māori protest in the later 20th century crystallised around the Hunn Report, released in 1961, which advocated placing Māori land under European land title where possible. Additionally, it pushed for the compulsory purchase of ‘uneconomic shares’ (small shares in an area of land). While these changes had a practical intention, to try and help Māori land to be utilised more effectively, they ignored Māori wishes to retain links to tribal land, and were actively opposed. Protests against this report saw the emergence of the refrain ‘Not one more acre’.

Fiscal envelope

In 1995 the government announced what it described as the ‘fiscal envelope’. This placed a cap of $1 billion on historical settlements of claims to the Waitangi Tribunal. Māori protested against a series of consultation hui in 1995. In reaction to Te Puni Kōkiri head Wira Gardiner’s comment that Māori should not ‘shoot the messenger’, a group protested outside Te Puni Kōkiri’s offices in a ‘shoot the messenger’ protest. The figure was seen as entirely arbitrary. In the end the fiscal envelope was not implemented.

Foreshore and seabed

For many years there was a legal argument that New Zealand courts had incorrectly interpreted Māori rights to the seabed and foreshore. This was tested by Ngāti Apa when they took a case arguing that Māori could have customary rights to both. Ultimately the Court of Appeal ruled that the Māori Land Court was able to decide on these rights, but before they could have their day in court, the government of the day sought to overturn the Court of Appeal decision by statute. This led to a foreshore and seabed protest hīkoi (march) in 2004.

As a result, Pita Sharples and former Labour MP Tariana Turia formed the Māori Party, which contested the election on a platform of repealing the legislation that had overturned the court’s decision. The law was eventually repealed by the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act 2011.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Ngā rōpū tautohetohe – Māori protest movements', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 September 2021)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012