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What it took to get reparations in New Zealand

Māori people are getting redress from the government in the form of land and cash settlements.

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.

New Zealand’s government spent decades painting a rosy picture of the country’s race relations. According to one Parliament member, the British had never “conquered or annexed” the nation, and the country’s Indigenous Māori people were “always loyal to the British empire.” But this pleasant depiction was a false narrative.

In reality, the British pillaged Māori lands throughout the 19th century and nearly eliminated them through displacement, disease, and warfare. In 1840, the British and Māori signed the Treaty of Waitangi, an agreement that ultimately led to land loss and alienation — weakening Māoris’ sacred relationship to the land and causing them to lose their cultural identity. Into the 20th century, Māori people were plagued by poor housing; high incarceration rates and little wealth compared to non-Māori; and poor outcomes in health, education, and job opportunities.

But things began to shift in the 1970s. A Māori renaissance to reclaim their language and land grew across cities and towns. In 1975, Māori activists led the Land March, which stretched from the top to the bottom of the country’s north island and called for the British to stop taking Māori lands.

The march was a turning point. Māori activism helped open the door to something unprecedented: action from the government. The crown established a tribunal that would investigate how the government violated Māori sovereignty over Aotearoa (the country’s original Māori name) and provide Māori with redress in the form of cash and land settlements, or reparations.

Today, the tribunal investigates both modern-day instances of government unlawfulness and ones dating back to the Treaty of Waitangi. To take accountability for harming Māori, the crown is returning land, distributing billions of dollars in compensation to Māori tribes, and publicly apologizing. By putting billions of dollars into this reparations program, New Zealand is leading the world with this kind of atonement and redress. Māori tribes have used the settlements to invest in business opportunities, health programs, and education, and as a means to restore their relationship with the land.

This latest episode of Missing Chapter explores why these settlements are groundbreaking and why they’re deeply complicated. For most tribes, they represent only a drop in the bucket of what was taken. For others, the process has been long and full of roadblocks. The video also examines what the United States can learn about reparations for Native Americans and for Black Americans descended from those formerly enslaved in the US.

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This series 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 and produced by our journalists. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Canopy Collective or the 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.

Check out seasons one and two of Missing Chapter here. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.