Sometime during the 13th Century, people in canoes set off from somewhere in the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific and headed south and west, until they arrived at the islands we call New Zealand, and which they called Aotearoa—"the land of the long white cloud". The group would have used the sophisticated, traditional Polynesian navigational techniques to find this land, inferring its existence from cues and clues reflected in the natural world. They would have come ashore to a place where human beings had never settled, which had torn away from the mainland 100 million years previously, which had a unique and precious biome formed by ages of geological separation. It was a land of innumerable species of birds, including immense and flightless giants, terrifyingly large raptors, and shy bush dwellers. There were few land mammals and a few ancient genera of reptiles. The seas around the island teemed with life.
The oldest known Maori sites are near Te Pokohiwi (Wairau Bar) on the South Island, where the Wairau River dumps into the strait between New Zealand's two main islands. The Maori's own account of their arrival says they are descended from the people of Hawaiki, and that the hero Maui dragged the islands of New Zealand up from the depths with his fishhook. They say the first settlements were by Kupe and Toitehuatahi. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of Maori culture is the recitation of lineage, whakapapa, by which the speaker situates themselves in their history, indeed back to the mythological past. Whakapapa has always been an important social system of the Maori, richly complex and laden with important cultural meaning.
For the next three hundred years or so, the Polynesian heritage of the Maori was shaped by the land they settled. Most groups, or hapu, were led by chieftains, who were imbued with mana—prestige and power—and who could repay friends with kindness and enemies with proportioned revenge. The Maori created beautiful objects from pounamu greenstone and the feathers of the islands' birds. Each hapu kept its own oral heritage alive, pointing back to the canoe-colonists from which they arrived at the island. The Maori perfected the haka, which is an energetic chant with strong, ritualized gestures and facial expressions, used to represent strength, courage, prowess, and respect. The distinctive Maori facial markings are called tā moko, and are unique to the person. For men, these cover the full face, and for women these are done on the lips and chin.
The first Europeans sighted New Zealand in 1642, but it wasn't until the 18th Century that regular contact between Europeans and the Maori began. The Maori referred to the Europeans as Pakeha, which is a term today which means “Non-Maori” more generally. The introduction of firearms and European diseases had a profound and negative effect on the Maori. Europeans began constructing permanent settlements, and in 1840 the British government drafted the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed by many Maori chiefs.
The Treaty of Waitangi follows in the long tradition of unequal treaties between indigenous people and colonial governments, particularly with recognition of claims to the land. The western notion of “owning land” was not a Maori concept, and the Maori understanding of the agreement was substantially different than that of the British. The British coerced sale of Maori land through legally questionable means, and certainly beyond the scope of what the Maori had understood to be within their rights, in exchange for poor recompense.
In response, the Maori Kingitanga movement organized as a way for the Maori to unify behind a single political figure, rather than allow themselves to be further subdivided by pitting different hapu against each other. The Kingitanga movement in turn prompted a government crackdown and confiscation of Maori lands, and the New Zealand Wars ensued between the Maori and the Pakeha. The Maori by now were being forced increasingly off the best land in New Zealand, and into poorer and more difficult terrain, especially on the North Island. The government continued to confiscate land, not only to punish those who had resisted, but sometimes from allied Maori groups as well. In addition to direct confiscation, there were legalistic means used to seize land from the Maori. These practices continued for the better part of a century.
In addition, the island was suffering from profound ecological changes. The Maori arrival had introduced the rat and dog into the fragile ecosystem of New Zealand. Within a century or so of Maori arrival, the immense moa birds had gone extinct, and with them the huge eagles that had preyed on them. Other species' introduction (possums, stoats, and pigs, for example) had damaged the native plant and animal habitats, resulting in a loss of over 40% of the islands' native bird species. Farmers extensively cleared the natural forests to make room for agricultural and pastoral lands.
Beginning in 20th Century there has been an increasing recognition of the historical injustices committed against the Maori, and a resurgence among the Maori in preserving and celebrating their culture. Sir Apriana Ngata, Minister of Maori Affairs, pushed for improved legal recognition for the Maori, and promoted Maori traditional music and poetry, even as he promoted Maori service during the World Wars. The Maori served in proportionally high numbers in the British armed forces during the World Wars, fighting in such difficult theaters as Gallipoli, North Africa, and Italy, and gaining respect both from their allies and their enemies.
Maori protest movements in the latter half of the 20th Century further raised the issues of the historical wrongs done to them. In response, New Zealand has undertake many measures to preserve and promote Maori language and heritage, and there is a growing cultural awareness of the uniqueness of Maori culture. Although the Maori continue to lag behind Pakeha in economic, health, and educational measures, there is a distinct national commitment to gaining equality.
Finally, the Maori attitudes towards the earth and nature are gaining traction. New Zealand as a whole has embraced a robust commitment to reducing ecological damage, preserving its native ecosystems and reducing invasive species, and most recently outlawed further offshore oil exploration in its waters. The Maori ways of speaking to collective responsibility for the planet are finding resonance in Aotearoa and beyond.