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New Zealand’s Māori fought for reparations — and won

The country has leaped far ahead of others on redressing the wrongs of its past. While the program isn’t perfect, it has lessons to teach the US.

Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

TARANAKI, New Zealand — About 500 people sat gathered under a large white tent in late October, partly to shield themselves from intermittent rainfall, but mostly to focus their attention on the man speaking at the lectern amid the downpour.

The crowd, mainly made up of members of Ngāti Maru — one of the nearly 150 Māori iwi (Indigenous tribes) that have lived across New Zealand for centuries — hung on the speaker’s every word, their eyes fixed on the stage. It was a message they had been waiting to receive for generations.

“The Crown acknowledges that Ngāti Maru’s relationship with the Crown has been one characterized by loss of land, of identity, and of autonomy. For Ngāti Maru, this loss has left a legacy of dislocation and dispossession,” Andrew Little, New Zealand’s minister of health and minister of the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, told the audience. “For those actions which rendered your iwi almost completely landless, severed your connection to your whenua (land), and inflicted economic hardship and suffering on generations of your people, the Crown sincerely apologizes.”

As I scanned the tent, I paused on the faces of Ngāti Maru elders. Some looked relieved, and others were pensive. One woman turned her head upward, her moko kauae, a traditional Māori chin tattoo, pointing toward the sky, as if in acknowledgment of the burdens her ancestors shouldered. Other members fervently uttered, “Kia ora,” the standard Māori greeting, as a way to affirm Little’s words. Tamzyn Pue, the chair of the iwi’s meeting grounds in which we all sat, nodded in satisfaction. The minister’s words, she would later tell me, meant a lot.

Little continued: “This apology in and of itself cannot undo the harm that has been caused through the actions of the Crown. But I hope that it demonstrates a different Crown, one that seeks to learn from its history and commits to working alongside Ngāti Maru today and in the future.”

With this statement, on behalf of New Zealand’s government, Little officially apologized for the atrocities that British settlers and leaders committed against the iwi throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The apology was the latest in a line of dozens that the government has made since the mid-1990s as part of New Zealand’s effort to provide redress to Māori people for how British colonizers, under the guidance of the British monarchy, invaded the islands, set off wars, and alienated Māori from their own lands.

A former British soldier and his family at their home at Taranaki in the west of New Zealand’s North Island, circa 1860. Many British soldiers came to the country to fight the Māoris in the New Zealand Wars and later settled as farmers.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though welcomed and accepted, the apology wasn’t the only redress the Māori waited to receive that day.

After reading the lengthy list of historical grievances, Little read another list of items: “financial redress of $30 million plus interest,” returning “16 sites of cultural significance” across the Taranaki region of New Zealand, a “fund of $1,023,454” to aid with “cultural revitalization,” and Ngāti Maru’s right to purchase “the Te Wera Crown Forest.”

This was a governmental transfer of tangible redress that would help the iwi heal, recoup some of what was stolen from them, and set themselves up for the future.

New Zealand has created what some in the United States say can’t be done in America: It has established a reparations system that tells the country’s story of colonization, acknowledges Māori historical grievances, and provides redress through policy change and compensation packages. Most of all, it explores what justice might look like for people displaced from their lands and stripped of their agency — and what happens when a country takes steps to grapple with its past.

“One of the significant things about today and why I say it’s a celebration for all of Taranaki is because Ngāti Maru is one of the last iwi to settle,” Tamzyn Pue told me. “Once you lose your land, you lose your culture, you lose your [language], you lose your identity, you lose everything. So we have been in a process of reclamation, rejuvenation, and revitalization.”

I traveled to New Zealand in the fall, as their winter turned to spring, to examine how the South Pacific nation, which has served as an exemplar of progressivism in other areas, came to pour billions of dollars into cash and land settlements for Māori — and what it might have to teach the United States about reckoning with the crimes of the past. Though more Americans than ever believe that racism is a problem, the country can’t seem to agree on what to do about it — or whether something should be done at all.

The Māori fight for justice leads the way on how to reckon with a dark past.

The specific solution of reparations, though it’s gained popularity in the past decade, continues to divide Americans. A recent Pew survey found that 68 percent of Americans believe that descendants of people enslaved in the US should not be repaid in some way, whether with land or money, although 77 percent of Black Americans, compared with 18 percent of white Americans, support reparations for descendants of enslaved people.

But even before the country can seriously consider reparations, it needs to start by acknowledging the past. Publicly examining the effects of the forced displacement of Native Americans or the enslavement of Africans in the United States could go a long way toward opening up pathways to healing for these groups.

The Māori efforts that led to New Zealand’s settlements were initially inspired by US protest movements of the 1960s and ’70s. But the country has leaped far ahead on actually redressing the wrongs of its past. And while the program isn’t perfect, it has lessons to teach the US about the benefits of acknowledging and reckoning with history — an experience that shows the difficulty of tackling historical grievances, the power of apology, and the hope of forging a future based on truth.

An unfortunately familiar story of British colonization

For centuries, Māori who lived across Aotearoa, as New Zealand is called in the Māori language, lived with a deep reverence for their land. For Māori, the earth is Papatūānuku, the mother; and Māori are tangata whenua, people of the land. They practiced fishing and horticulture, viewing land not as something to be owned but as something to be nurtured and cultivated. Māori often identified themselves by the mountains, rivers, lakes, and oceans that surrounded them.

A Māori chieftain in 1870.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Māori women greet each other circa 1915.
Roger Viollet via Getty Images
A lithograph from the late 1820s shows men putting to sea from a Māori village.
SSPL via Getty Images

But encounters with British settlers in the 19th century threatened to erase the Māori way of life — causing a ripple effect that has left today’s Māori far behind their pākehā, or white European counterparts, in life outcomes. Before widespread European contact, an estimated 100,000 Māori lived across the islands; by the end of the 19th century, after nearly a century of contact with Europeans, only about 40,000 Māori remained, compared with 715,000 pākehā.

Actions of British settlers and the British Crown threatened to kill off all Māori. Māori had sovereignty over the islands, as enumerated in their 1835 Declaration of Independence and through the Treaty of Waitangi, a crucial agreement they signed with the British in 1840. But the British proceeded to establish their own government on the islands by 1842, disregarding Māori laws and agency. The New Zealand Wars of the 1860s further pushed Māori off of their traditional lands; the Māori Land Court illegally seized even more land; and diseases the British carried took thousands of Māori lives.

By the start of the 20th century, an estimated 97 percent of Māori lands were taken under British violence. Though some Māori managed to survive, the decades-long campaign to illegally seize their lands and get them to assimilate to British customs left Māori with poor health and education outcomes, no wealth, few employment opportunities, and poor housing conditions on what land they still maintained going into the 20th century.

Through much of the 20th century, New Zealand’s government painted a rosy picture of the country’s race relations. One Auckland newspaper article from the 1910s quoted a politician who claimed that “The Māoris had always been loyal to the British Empire [...] New Zealand was a country that had never been conquered or annexed […] It was a mutual agreement.”

“There has been a real perpetuation of a myth that New Zealand has great race relations, and often the Treaty of Waitangi is held up as the example of that, to say, look, we negotiated this sovereignty by consent,” said Carwyn Jones, a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington.

But by the mid-20th century, the disparities were glaring: The Māori child mortality rate was double that of pākehā, and Māori were more than five times more likely to be incarcerated. Māori men and women had half the incomes of their pākehā counterparts. Maori military men who fought for the government in both world wars were not given the same benefits as pākehā upon their return.

It wasn’t until a Māori renaissance in the 1970s, a protest movement influenced by Black and Native American agitators in the United States, that the British monarchy and New Zealand government were forced to reckon with the atrocities of colonization. On October 13, 1975, 5,000 Māori and pākehā marchers finished a 660-mile march to Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, to make demands of the prime minister. Beginning with a group of about 50, they had walked the entire Northland, picking up supporters along the way, all to declare that the historic theft and sale of Maori land had to stop. The protests gained the attention of the national media, and the government couldn’t look away.

Māori and pākehā marchers approach Johnsonville, a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, on October 13, 1975, as they make their way to Parliament.
The Dominion Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

In 1975, the government established a special court, the Waitangi Tribunal, to investigate present-day violations of Māori sovereignty. Ten years later, in 1985, the government gave the tribunal retrospective powers, the ability to investigate historical violations of Māori sovereignty going all the way back to the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, opening the door to one of the world’s strongest examples of reparations. Following the amendment, the tribunal began the work of inquiring into and reporting on treaty claims, relating to the restoration of Māori language and fisheries management to Māori land reform. And while the tribunal does not have the power to negotiate or settle treaty claims, it makes recommendations on claims submitted to it for compensation.

And while many iwi see the settlements as a way for Māori to finally regain some agency, the nearly 30-year initiative has allowed Māori to see the many drawbacks, too.

30 years of reconciliation

The first Treaty of Waitangi settlement was signed between New Zealand’s government and the Waikato-Tainui iwi in 1995. They walked out with the largest cash sum awarded to any iwi: $170 million. The government formally acknowledged the wrongful confiscation of 1.2 million acres of Waikato land in the 1860s. Since then, an estimated 79 other settlements have followed. Queen Elizabeth II signed the first settlement herself in New Zealand.

“That was the pinnacle of all apologies. Most apologies are given by the Crown, by the government. But this one was given by the late Queen Elizabeth II. That is a huge admission of wrongdoing,” Māori party politician and Waikato-Tainui member Tuku Morgan told Vox.

In addition to the cash payment, the settlement included the return of land and right of first refusal, and relativity mechanisms which ensured that the tribe’s confiscation claim would remain the largest, laying the groundwork for Māori legal strategy. In the years since the settlement, Waikato-Tainui has used the money to bolster its economic footprint by constructing New Zealand’s second-largest shopping district, built schools, and improved their marae, the traditional Māori meeting grounds.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger and Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a traditional Māori cloak of Kiwi feathers, chat with Māori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu after the signing of the Tainui Settlement Bill at Government House in Wellington, New Zealand, on November 3, 1995. Queen Elizabeth signed into law the bill which effectively offers a royal apology to the Tainui Māori tribal confederation for land the British colonial government seized last century.
AFP via Getty Images

The nearly 150 government-recognized iwi all have their own specific grievances with the Crown, making the negotiation process different for each one. But the list of what they’re seeking usually includes the return of land, waters, seas, fisheries, minerals, and other resources; the protection of the natural environment; the recognition of egregious Crown actions; and the restoration of te reo and t ̄ıkanga Māori (Māori language and culture).

To have their grievances heard and to proceed in the settlement process, iwi must register a historical claim with the Waitangi Tribunal. If their claims are deemed well-founded, they can begin the process of direct negotiation with the Crown.

After what can be years of back-and-forth between the Crown’s negotiating team and the claimant’s negotiating team, both parties write up a final deed of settlement, which details the settlement’s historical account, cultural redress, and commercial redress, which all had to be agreed upon by the iwi community. To receive settlement assets, iwi must set up what’s called a post-settlement governance entity, which administers the assets on behalf of the community — often putting the money toward business development, health, and education for the entire group, not checks to individuals.

For some iwi, these settlements have meant life-changing differences in business opportunities and education. In many categories, like median household income, Māori outcomes have improved. But they are still behind pākehā, and the settlement process has drawbacks.

For one, the settlements don’t begin to scratch the surface of what iwi have lost since the start of the 19th century. In many cases, the Crown only offers iwi 1 percent of what was stolen, but settlements need to be large enough to help them rebuild.

“I don’t believe any settlement will ever fully compensate any Indigenous people around the world for the losses that they suffered, because they are too significant,” said Liana Poutu, chair of the Te Ātiawa Post-Settlement Governance Entity.

The Crown also limits who can request a claim, forcing members of iwi and hapu (subtribes) who may belong to several tribes to fit into just one. Some see the requirement as a disregard for Māori tradition.

“It’s a very fractious process,” said Poutu. The government’s policy is to settle with what they call “large natural groups.” In the modern context, that’s what’s known as iwi, but historically, Maori were more likely to identify themselves by hapu or subtribal groupings. “It’s difficult from the outset because in some instances the Crown [is] trying to group together a whole lot of people under one large group, but those people don’t actually want to be together or settle together,” said Poutu.

Then there’s the Crown’s grand apology. Some iwi want it, while others don’t care for it.

“Some iwi have expressed that they don’t necessarily believe the Crown apology to be genuine, and it’s something that the Crown does for their own benefit to release themselves of perhaps burden or guilt over those historical breaches,” said Poutu. “Some iwi don’t feel they need an apology to be able to move past that grievance mode and develop into the future. I think we need to acknowledge that not every iwi wants an apology, but certainly it’s a key component of our current treaty settlement process. So each settlement carries with it an apology regardless of whether you want it.”

The negotiation process can already take years, and the outcome largely depends on who’s in office. “The settlements are political settlements; they very much depend on the government of the day and they depend on what that government is prepared to offer at a particular time,” Poutu said. “Ultimately, the ministers of the Crown get the final decision on the level of quantum, the level of financial redress, what land parcels might be available to come back, what parcels they’re willing to give back. It very much is dependent on the government of the day.”

Even before iwi negotiators walk into the room, they are in a position of disadvantage since the Crown arrives with a list of what’s off the table. Plus, while previous settlements open the door for future settlements, they also limit what later settlements can receive.

“Lots of people think that the negotiation process starts off where both sides are on an equal footing. That’s absolutely not the case and it’s not my experience. I’m not aware of any settlement that’s gone through with 100 percent support of the descendants,” Poutu said.

The process of having to dig up the hardships ancestors faced hasn’t been easy. “There’s tensions that are revisited, and sometimes those tensions are not resolvable in the foreseeable future,” Māori and Indigenous studies professor and Waitangi Tribunal official Tom Roa told Vox.

Māori protesters hold banners and streamers asking Queen Elizabeth II to honor the treaty of Waitanagi during the Waitanagi Day celebrations in Waitanagi, New Zealand, on February 6, 1990.
Manuel Ceneta/AFP via Getty Images

And, of course, there are pākehā who actively oppose the settlements. “Many pākehā perceive this as apartheid. Many pākehā feel Maori are getting a special position where, ‘isn’t it one man, one vote? Are we a democracy?’ So my response to that always has been: democracy favors the majority and always marginalizes the minority — Maori are the minority. And if you don’t recognize the special status of Maori here in this land, you’re underdoing, actually, the agreement that we made in the Treaty of Waitangi,” Roa said.

And unlike in the US, where the reparations movement for Black Americans calls for cash payments to individuals, Māori reparations go toward the broader group. If they were to divide the cash payments among individuals, there wouldn’t be any benefits for future generations, Māori negotiators told me.

Why the US is behind New Zealand on reparations

When it comes to redress, Māori have gotten way further than many other groups, like those in the United States that inspired them. But New Zealand can’t be an exact model for the US.

For one, the country’s population is just over 5 million, which is about equivalent to the state population of South Carolina; Māori make up 17 percent of it. New Zealand’s landmass is comparable in size to the state of Colorado. The Māori also kept strong records, speak the same language, and have the same story of loss across most iwi, which has helped streamline the process.

There are also notable differences in politics and government structure. Māori have always held some level of government representation. The Māori Party, founded in 2004, is a political party that solely advocates for policies that would benefit Māori, like raising the minimum wage to NZ$25, replacing pākehā place names with Maori names, officially renaming the country Aotearoa, establishing a Māori parliament, overhauling the settlements process, and returning conservation lands to iwi, among other policy proposals. And the Māori King Movement, launched by the Māori in 1858 to create a seat of power to rival that of the British monarchy, remains one of the country’s longest-standing political institutions.

“We can be somewhat optimistic about what we’ve seen in the New Zealand case, that there’s a reason to draw a link between the harms from the past and the legacies in the present,” Gloria Ayee, a senior research fellow and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Vox. “No amount of monetary payment will be appropriate compensation, but you do have to start somewhere to address significant inequalities like the racial wealth gap. The New Zealand case shows us that there is a benefit in starting somewhere.”

The US has stalled on direct redress.

The US House of Representatives apologized for slavery and Jim Crow in 2008 but made no mention of reparations. HR 40, the congressional bill to study reparations, has sat mostly unbothered in Congress since 1989. The Indian Claims Commission, which launched in 1946 and ended in 1978, attempted to hear the longstanding claims of Native tribes but ultimately failed Native Americans. And while the US apologized to Native Americans for acts of “violence” and “neglect,” the statement was largely buried in the back of a 2010 defense bill.

“We’re looking at your example and what you’ve done to stand up and be brave in terms of fighting for what you know as your inherent birthright. That’s what we’re doing here,” said Tamzyn Pue, the Ngāti Maru leader. “We say, hey, we’re Māori, we were born Māori, we have ancestors, we have this history, this is our land. Everybody will hear you. I know it sounds like it’s never going to happen. But truly, there comes a point where they have to start to listen.”

Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

This series on reparations is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Canopy Collective, an independent initiative under fiscal sponsorship of Multiplier. All Vox reporting is editorially independent. Views expressed are not necessarily those of Canopy Collective or Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Canopy Collective is dedicated to ending and healing from systemic racialized violence. Multiplier is a nonprofit that accelerates impact for initiatives that protect and foster a healthy, sustainable, resilient, and equitable world. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is committed to improving health and health equity in the United States.

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