Ani Mikaere (Photo supplied)

The Waitangi Tribunal is currently hearing claims of prejudice to wāhine Māori as a result of breaches of Te Tiriti by the Crown.

It’s one of the “kaupapa inquiries” which deal with issues of national significance, rather than claims specific to an iwi or hapū. The wide-ranging arguments say that Crown action, and inaction, have marginalised Māori women for far too long.

But why the focus on women, when all Māori have suffered the effects of our history? In this essay, first published in 1994  — the first Mana Wāhine claim was lodged in 1993, nearly 30 years ago — Ani Mikaere explains why the colonisation of tikanga Māori has been so devastating for wāhine Māori in particular.


It is often assumed that, according to tikanga Māori, leadership was primarily the domain of men and that men in Māori society exercised power over women.

However, evidence abounds which refutes the notion that traditional Māori society attached greater significance to male roles than to female roles.

This article begins with a discussion of the position of women in Māori society before colonisation. It then considers the position of women under English law, and examines the effects that law had on Māori women as a result of colonisation.

Tikanga Māori and Mana Wāhine

The roles of men and women in traditional Māori society can be understood only in the context of the Māori worldview, which acknowledged the natural order of the universe, the interrelationship or whanaungatanga of all living things to one another and to the environment, and the overarching principle of balance.

Both men and women were essential parts in the collective whole. Both formed part of the whakapapa that linked Māori people back to the beginning of the world, and women in particular played a key role in linking the past with the present and the future.

The very survival of the whole was absolutely dependent upon everyone who made it up, and therefore each and every person within the group had his or her own intrinsic value. They were all a part of the collective; it was therefore a collective responsibility to see that their respective roles were valued and protected.

Māori cosmology abounds with stories of powerful women, some of whom have been given a contemporary face through the work of Robyn Kahukiwa and Patricia Grace. The tales of Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga are particularly instructive as to the influential roles that women held. Māui acquires fire from his kuia, Mahuika. It is with the jawbone of his kuia, Muriranga-whenua, that he fishes up Te Ika a Māui (the North Island) and makes the patu with which to subdue Rā (the sun). And it is to his ancestress, Hine-nui-te-pō, that he eventually succumbs when he fails in his quest to attain immortality.

Perhaps the most powerful indication that there was no hierarchy of sexes lies in Māori language, as both the personal pronouns (ia) and the possessive personal pronouns (tana/tona) are gender-neutral.

The importance of women is also symbolised by language and concepts expressed through proverbs. Rose Pere has written on the association of positive concepts with females, pointing to the description of women as whare tangata (the house of humanity) — the use of the word whenua to mean both land and afterbirth, and the use of the word hapū as meaning both pregnant and large kinship group.

Rose Pere has pointed out that the common saying, “He wāhine, he whenua, e ngaro ai te tangata”, which is often interpreted as meaning “by women and land men are lost”, also refers to the essential nourishing roles that women and land fulfil, without which humanity would be lost.

It should be remembered too that the earth is Papatūānuku, the ancestress of all Māori, and that land is of paramount significance to Māori socially, culturally, spiritually, politically and economically. Papatūānuku also played a key role in instructing her son, Tāne-mahuta, where to find the human element and how to make Hine-ahu-one so that humankind could be created.

Rose Pere describes her childhood as being full of very positive female models, and how her elders set the example of men and women respecting and supporting each other, and working alongside one another. She considers her Māori ancestresses, prior to the impact of Christianity, to have been “extremely liberated” in comparison to her English ancestresses.

She points out that Māori women were not regarded as chattels or possessions, that they retained their own names upon marriage, that their children were free to identify with the kinship group of either or both parents, that they dressed in similar garments to the men, and that conception was not associated with sin or childbearing with punishment and suffering but that these were seen to be uplifting and a normal part of life.

Rose Pere also points out that assault on a woman, be it sexual or otherwise, was regarded as extremely serious and could result in death or, almost as bad, in being declared “dead” by the community and ignored from then on. Instances of abuse against women and children were regarded as whānau concerns and action would inevitably be taken against the perpetrator.

Stephanie Milroy has noted:

In pre-colonial Māori society a man’s house was not his castle. The community intervened to prevent and punish violence against one’s partner in a very straightforward way.

Traditionally, therefore, the whānau was a woman’s primary source of support. Her “marriage” did not entail a transferral of property from her father to her spouse. She remained a part of the whānau.

Even if she went to live with her husband’s whānau, she remained a part of her whānau, to whom her in-laws were responsible for her wellbeing. They were to ensure that she was well-treated and to support her. In cases where misconduct was shown, divorce was relatively simple so long as the correct procedures were followed. Divorce carried no stigma, and any issues as to custody and ongoing support of children were sorted out within the whānau context.

The absence of distinction between private and public domains in the context of family arrangements protected and affirmed women. Kuni Jenkins describes the interaction of a couple and their children with the rest of the whānau in the following terms:

In her cultural role the Māori woman was part of a community. The home unit was part of the whole kāinga. Grandmothers, aunts and other females and male elders were responsible for rearing the children of the kāinga. The natural parents were not the sole caregivers . . . The routines of the whānau were such that couples could not be isolated to lead independent lifestyles. Their communal living required constant contact and interaction with other members of the tribe in a concerted effort to keep the affairs of the group buoyant and operational.

This form of social organisation ensured a degree of flexibility for women not possible within the confines of the nuclear family. The presence of so many caregivers, and the expectation that they would assume much of the responsibility of child-rearing, enabled women to perform a wide range of roles, including leadership roles.

Api Mahuika has written specifically on Māori women and leadership. Noting the widely-held assumptions that Māori women did not fulfil leadership roles in traditional society, he goes on to show that, with regard to his iwi, such assumptions are inaccurate.

His account is instructive, not just for the wealth of examples that he provides, but because of the way he gleans information about the role of women from waiata, haka, whakataukī, iwi histories and the naming of hapū and iwi. It is vital, for reasons that will be discussed later, that our attempts to build a picture of Māori society before the arrival of the first missionaries and settlers are based on Māori sources of information.

Māori culture was an oral culture. Waiata, haka, and whakataukī were therefore the primary means of transmitting knowledge, the vehicles through which ancient concepts and beliefs have been passed down to us today.

That women played an important role in the maintenance and transmittal of iwi history and knowledge is clear from the numbers of waiata tawhito that have been composed by women. Ngā Mōteatea is full of such waiata written by women, some of whom were clearly quite prolific composers. It seems entirely logical that those responsible for the physical survival and continuance of the iwi should also play a significant role in the survival of its history and therefore its identity.

The naming of hapū and whare tūpuna after women is a clear indication of the significance of those women. There are many such instances across a wide range of iwi. Iwi histories that have been handed down orally from generation to generation present a picture of a society where women and men featured in all aspects of life, and fulfilled all manner of roles.

It is clear from such histories that Māori women occupied very important leadership positions in traditional society — positions of military, spiritual and political significance. Kuni Jenkins refers to a number of dominant Māori women whose stories have continued to influence later generations. She includes Wairaka, who is said to have saved the Mataatua canoe from floating out to sea; Hinemoa, who seized the initiative and swam across Lake Rotorua in order to be with Tūtānekai; and the legendary Rongomai-wahine of the Hawke’s Bay area.

The feats of these women are recorded vividly in oral histories; the fact that waiata continue to be composed about them today is a reflection of their enduring power and influence.

Claudia Orange’s book The People of Many Peaks gives some examples of women of mana who lived between the years 1769 and 1869. One woman who came to the attention of the earliest settlers as a leader was Hinematioro of Ngāti Porou, whose mana was recognised from Poverty Bay to Hicks Bay. Another was Rangi Topeora, of Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Toa descent. She was a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi, a powerful landowner, and a prolific composer of waiata. Her mother, Waitohi, was Te Rauparaha’s sister, a leader in her own right and a known military strategist.

Heni Pore of Te Arawa epitomises the adaptability required of Māori leaders during the latter half of the 19th century. She fought against the British troops in support of the Kīngitanga during the 1860s; she also fought in the battle of Gate Pā at Tauranga in 1864. Along with her husband, she managed a hotel at Maketū for a time and was later a staunch supporter and member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, becoming secretary of the Ōhinemutu branch in 1896. She was also a licenced interpreter and was very involved in land and other social issues.

As more is written about such women, a picture emerges of Māori women from all iwi performing leadership roles of all types, alongside the men.

The Status of Women Under English Law

The position of women in English law was derived directly from their status in Roman law:

The term [family] was invented by the Romans to denote a new social organism, whose head ruled over wife and children and a number of slaves, and was invested under Roman paternal power with rights of life and death over them.

According to the English common law, the head of the family (the husband/father) was in control of the household, and “women and children were chattels to be used and abused by the paterfamilias as he chose”.

As girls reached adulthood and married, they changed from being the property of their fathers to being the property of their husbands. Any property that a wife brought to a marriage was immediately vested in the husband, and he could do with it whatever he liked. She either had no legal personality at all, and simply existed to enable the legal person of the household to act effectively in the market, or, at best, she was incapacitated, only a partial person.

Male ownership of the children meant that a mother had no rights whatsoever to her children. And a wife had virtually no legal means of ending the marriage in a way which would enable her to keep the children or to regain any former property or to get any upkeep from her ex-husband for herself or her children, no matter what the reason for the divorce.

The vestiges of this common law approach have remained apparent in many aspects of New Zealand law. Until comparatively recently, the marriage ceremony concluded with the couple being pronounced “man and wife” — he, retaining his independent personality; she, losing hers and being declared “in service” to him.

The notion of illegitimacy and the law’s condemnation of it were also reflective of common law principles, whereby a woman’s reproductive powers could only be exercised in legal connection to a man, thereby creating property (children) for him.

Until 1985, rape could not be perpetrated in New Zealand law by a husband against his wife. This stemmed from the notion of the wife being his property. To the present day, the frequent inequities in division of matrimonial property, as well as the continued  trivialisation by the law and law enforcement agencies of domestic violence, reflect the extent to which common law attitudes about the role of women continue to pervade the legal system.

The Impact of Introduced Law on Māori Women

When the missionaries and early settlers arrived in Aotearoa, they brought with them their culturally specific understandings of the role and status of women. Kuni Jenkins describes the conflict in values and the British reaction as follows:

Western civilisation when it arrived on Aotearoa’s shore, did not allow its womenfolk any power at all — they were merely chattels in some cases less worthy than the men’s horses. What the coloniser found was a land of noble savages narrating . . . stories of the wonder of women. Their myths and beliefs had to be reshaped and retold. The missionaries were hell-bent (heaven-bent) on destroying their pagan ways. Hence, in the re-telling of our myths, by Māori male informants to Pākehā male writers who lacked the understanding and significance of Māori cultural beliefs, Māori women find their mana wahine destroyed.

It is posited that this re-telling of Māori cosmology led to a shift in emphasis, away from the powerful female influence in the stories and towards the male characters. The Māui stories became focused almost solely on the exploits of this male demigod, his kuia being made nearly invisible in the process. The account of the creation of the first woman, Hine-ahu-one, metamorphosed into a tale uncannily similar to the biblical myth of Adam creating Eve from his rib; Tāne-mahuta became the main figure in the story with Papatūānuku’s essential role virtually silenced.

Linda Smith has referred to the Māori women within these stories having been turned into “distant and passive old crones whose presence in the ‘story’ was to add interest to an otherwise male adventure”.

The female figures in Māori cosmology were not the only target for missionary zeal and redefinition at the hands of the settlers. Their paternalism also coloured their perceptions of the Māori women they found around them.

Linda Smith notes:

Māori women were perceived either in family terms as wives and children, or in sexual terms as easy partners. Women who had “chiefly” roles were considered the exception to the rule, not the norm . . . Māori women were considered attractive in the absence of a pool of white women. Their autonomy was interpreted as immorality and lack of discipline. Christianity reinforced these notions by spelling out rules of decorum and defining spaces (the home) for the carrying out of appropriate female activities.

Aside from being regarded as the wives and children (the property) of Māori men, or potential bedmates for white men, Māori women were also sometimes regarded by the settlers as potential sources of land and economic security.

The concept of women as leaders and spokespersons for their whanau, hapū and iwi would have been beyond the comprehension of the settlers or the Crown representatives who were sent to negotiate the Treaty of Waitangi.

They could only conceive of dealing with men: “Māori men were the ones with whom the colonisers negotiated, traded and treatied”. The fact that the Treaty was signed predominantly by men — sometimes pointed to as a reflection of pre-colonised Māori society’s attitudes towards women — is more an indication of the influence of Christianity and the fact that those seeking signatories largely ignored the possibility of women signing. This approach has been recorded as having angered Māori women, thus leading the missionaries to allow some women to sign.

There were also occasions where Crown representatives refused to give in to pressure for women to be allowed to sign, probably losing potential male signatories as a result. Thirteen women have so far been identified as having signed the Treaty whereas it was once said that only three or four had done so. There may have been many more but because Māori names, like the language, are generally gender-neutral it is difficult to tell how many more women were involved. Over time, people have come to assume that they were all men. This is one area which requires a great deal more research.

One of the most damaging effects of colonisation for Māori women was the destruction of the whānau. It was clear right from the outset that Māori collectivism was philosophically at odds with the settler ethic of individualism. As Māori had their cultural and economic base wrested from them, and as they were ravaged by introduced diseases, their social structures were inevitably undermined.

The disruption of Māori social organisation was no mere by-product of colonisation, but an integral part of the process. Destroying the principle of collectivism which ran through Māori society was stated to be one of the twin aims of the Native Land Act which had set up the Native Land Court in 1865; the other aim being to access Māori land for settlement.

Not only was the very concept of individual title to land destructive of collectivism, but the massive land loss brought about by the workings of the Native Land Court meant that, as the Māori population stabilised at a low point towards the end of the century and began to grow, Māori found that they had insufficient land left to support themselves. Whānau were eventually forced to break into nuclear families and move to towns and cities in search of work.

The Native Land Act 1909 declared Māori customary marriages to be valid for some purposes only and required Māori to undergo legal marriage ceremonies. These provisions, coupled with the parliamentary debates of the time, signalled a renewed determination on the part of the state both to redefine and intrude into the whānau. The remoulding of the whānau into a nuclear family arrangement had been on the missionary agenda since their arrival, as Kuni Jenkins writes:

Māori marriage was the despair of the missionaries. They made it a high priority for elimination and they preached hell-fire and brimstone to the sinful pagans who continued to practise it. They refused to accommodate or tolerate Māori marriage as being an alternative to their idea of the nuclear family and its demands on the colonial wife to be subservient, lacking in initiative and obedient to her husband. She had to prize highly her role of housewife and mother and believe it to be God’s will. . . . the Māori female had to be domiciled very quickly to the values of the new regime that had arrived to civilise her.

The deliberate destruction of whānau and hapū structures and the forcing of Māori women away from their whānau and into the Pākehā model of the nuclear family left them vulnerable in a host of ways. They became dependent on their husbands as breadwinners, while they became increasingly isolated as caregivers at home.

Some women were expected to work both outside and in the home, as economic hardship required them to contribute financially while Christian values about what constituted a good wife and mother compelled them to maintain that role as well. Such values also meant that husbands became increasingly the head of the family; wives feeling obliged to remain with them no matter what.

The church schools trained Māori girls to domesticity, to become good wives in the context of a nuclear family situation. Hukarere Protestant Girls’ School was established in 1875 by the Bishop of Waiapu, William Williams, “with the thought of providing good Christian wives for the boys of Te Aute”.

The denominational schools were actively discouraged from becoming too academically orientated; the Director of Education arguing in 1931 that the aim of Māori education should be to turn out boys to be good farmers, and girls to be good farmers’ wives. In 1906, the principal of Hukarere described the daily routine of the girls as covering all aspects of domestic work, including cooking, washing, ironing and mending clothes.

Judith Simon notes:

Māori girls were thus being fitted, not only for manual labour but also to fulfil the subordinate domestic roles deemed, within European culture, as appropriate for females.

However, attempts to set in place colleges for the specific purpose of giving Māori girls domestic training did not eventuate. The proposed colleges met with widespread Māori opposition on the basis that Māori girls should not be trained as servants.

Nevertheless, autobiographical accounts of Māori women indicate that some of them did take up employment in Pākehā households while others found that being Māori disqualified them from being hired. Sandra Coney notes that Māori women moved into domestic positions in hotels and institutions in large numbers in the period following the Second World War, doubtless reflecting the urban migration that was taking place at that time.

Adoption: A Specific Example

The aggressive application of adoption laws to Māori provides an insightful illustration of how the assimilationist policies of the coloniser have affected the heart of Māori society, the whānau, and of the effects on women in particular.

In New Zealand, adoption grew out of the desire to encourage couples to care for destitute children by giving them the security of knowing that birth parents could not return to claim their children at a later time. The process evolved to serve a range of purposes, and was based on the following underlying common law premises concerning the family and the respective roles of men, women and children:

To constitute a real family, a married couple should have children; what is more, a married couple deserved to have children. Children should not be raised outside of a “real family” situation, that is, two parents who were married. A woman’s sexual activities should only be exercised with reference to a single man, within the context of marriage (and therefore owned by him). A woman’s reproductive capabilities could only be legitimated if owned by a man in the context of marriage — hence the stigma of illegitimacy, from which the child had to be protected. Children were property, and could be owned by only one set of parents. It was therefore possible to substitute one set of owners (adoptive parents) for another set of owners (birth parents); so long as the issues of ownership were resolved finally, no other issues arose.

Māori had no institution which paralleled adoption. While it was relatively common for children to be given to someone other than their birth parents to be raised, there was no substitution of parents, no sense in which a mythical nuclear family had to be recreated. The child was born and remained a child of the whānau. The child had an absolute right to know his or her whakapapa. Reasons for giving a child to someone other than birth parents to raise included the strengthening of whānau structures through the securement of enduring bonds, benefiting couples without children, and providing relief for those under stress.

Most importantly, there was no expectation that such arrangements had to be permanent:

There is no property in children. Māori children know many homes, but still, one whanau.

And there was absolutely no stigma attached. If anything, whāngai children were often considered especially fortunate.

Rose Pere, who was raised until the age of seven by her grandparents, refers to herself as “a grandchild who was truly blessed and loved”. Whāngai children were generally regarded as special, often having been chosen by elders on the basis of their talents and their potential.

Initially, Māori whāngai arrangements had been recognised as valid adoptions by the law, although, from 1901, it became necessary to confirm such arrangements by order of the Native Land Court so as to enable such matters as succession to land to be recognised.

Confirmation of the existence of such a relationship did not create the relationship, but merely acknowledged it. This changed, however, with the enactment of the Native Land Act 1909, which provided that, in order to create the legal relationship between adoptive parents and children, an order of the Native Land Court had to be granted.

The Attorney-General of the time addressed the Legislative Council at length on the 1909 Bill. He considered that, while adoption had been an important feature with Māori, it was “growing less with the advance of the race”. The Act was to prevent the adoption by Māori of Pākehā children, a prohibition which remained in force until 1955.

This, according to the Attorney-General, was necessary in view of the numbers of “indifferent European parents” and “heartless European mothers” who were abandoning their children or imposing on the “generosity and goodness” of “good-hearted” Māori women who possessed a great deal of “human tenderness”.

The prohibition was considered necessary due to the fact that “owing to the condition some of the Māori people live in”, the children were not “living in a way we should consider proper for European children”. So strongly did parliament feel about the undesirability of Māori raising European children that further legislation was passed to enable such children to be forcibly removed and placed in “industrial schools”.

What led such children to be given to Māori families is not clear, although it is known that some settler families gave children to cement ties with their neighbours. It is also easy to imagine how difficult it might have been for any single Pākehā mother to keep and raise any children she had — and how Māori may well have been only too happy to take such a child in.

The characterisation of Māori women as “earth mother” types who longed to do nothing else but care for other people’s children, even if the standard of care was considered to be inferior, says much for the prevalent view of Māori women. The utter condemnation of the Pākehā who were giving their children to Māori women is also interesting. Clearly the notion of simply substituting one set of parents for another did not apply to Pākehā children when the adoptive parents were Māori!

There may also have been the fear that Māori had not yet fully reconciled themselves to the nuclear family model, which was considered to be the only civilised family arrangement possible. Or perhaps it was felt that single Pākehā mothers were being allowed to get off too lightly by simply giving their children to Māori, who judged neither them nor their babies as “illegitimate”.

From 1915, the law began moving towards closed adoption, restricting access to adoption records and information, but Māori were exempted from these requirements. Māori Land Court hearings remained open and details of Māori adoptions were published in both the Māori Gazette and the New Zealand Gazette. There was a clear understanding on the part of the judges that openness was a vital part of the Māori concept of adoption.

However, the 1955 Adoption Act brought virtually all adoptions under a uniform scheme of closed adoption, to be administered by the magistrates’ courts. The only exception was where the child and at least one applicant were Māori (which at that time included only those who were “half-caste” or more): such adoption could still go through the Māori Land Court process. Many Māori simply refused to participate and continued with informal arrangements but, in doing so, risked having their children removed by the Child Welfare Officers.

The 1962 Adoption Amendment Act required all adoptions to go through the magistrates’ courts process. Strong sentiments of “one law for all” were expressed by the proponents of the amendment, as opposed to arguments that equality was not the same thing as uniformity.

The Māori MPs objected strongly to the mainstreaming of adoptions, and were particularly critical of the magistrates’ courts for their refusal to grant adoption applications to aunties, uncles or grandparents, on the basis that the child was closely related to the adopters. The Attorney-General made a point of rejecting the notion that older relatives should adopt children, instead praising young Pākehā couples who were prepared to adopt Māori babies.

From 1962, therefore, there were three ways in which Māori children could be adopted. First, there was adoption through informal means, without the involvement of the courts or legal recognition. This continued to constitute the vast bulk of cases. Secondly, there was legal adoption, assisted by Māori welfare officers, who would generally try to ensure openness and to keep children within their kin group. A Māori welfare officer would typically become involved where the birth and adoptive parents either knew or were related to one another and sought their assistance in order to legalise a pre-agreed arrangement.

Problems arose through the third of these means: legal adoption facilitated by child welfare officers. These welfare officers were contacted by homes and hospitals when children became available for adoption.

A common situation was where a single (and usually young) woman who was living in an urban environment, cut off from whānau and too whakamā to contact them, had become pregnant. The birth mother was generally “worked on” by the officers who argued that her child would be better off with a stable couple who could offer financial security. The shame associated with illegitimacy was emphasised to convince the woman that her whānau should not be informed and that she would be selfish to keep her child. She should look to marrying in the future, within which context further children would be acceptable. Children, like parents, could be replaced.

There were also cases where the father of a child was Māori and the child was given up for closed adoption, either without the father’s whānau ever knowing about it or even against the whānau’s requests to be allowed to adopt the child.

The matching up of Māori babies to adoptive parents was also of extreme concern. Baby girls who did not “look Māori” were relatively easy to place, but boys were more difficult and dark babies especially so. The authorities had a system of “matching for marginality” so that Māori babies would often end up with adoptive parents who were considered marginal in some way. Alternatively, such babies could end up in a series of foster homes or be institutionalised.

All of this was considered preferable to living with the stigma of illegitimacy or the less civilised option of remaining within the whānau.

Closed stranger adoption has been subjected to major criticism as its long-term effects, particularly on birth mothers and their children, have been made apparent. Anne Else has referred to it as “a social experiment with unknown and uninvestigated outcomes, conducted on a massive scale”. Given that closed stranger adoption is based on common law principles which relegate women and children to the status of men’s property, it is hardly surprising that its consequences have been particularly devastating for women who have exercised their sexuality outside of marriage, and for the products of such behaviour, their children.

But for Māori women and children, the ill-effects of closed stranger adoption are merely part of the complex web of oppression resulting from the aggressive assimilationism of the coloniser. The consequence of assimilationist policies (of which the imposition of closed stranger adoption was but one) has not simply been the perpetuation of the subordinate position of women and children, for such subordination was never a part of tikanga Māori. It has been the near destruction of the Māori social fabric, and its replacement with a set of values and philosophies founded on white male supremacy.

For Māori, the expunging of lineage and irrevocable trading in parental rights has meant even more than a lifetime of loss and grief for both birth mother and child; it has resulted in the loss of generations of irreplaceable taonga to the iwi concerned, and the stripping of cultural identity for the children involved and all their descendants.

While the Adult Adoption Information Act 1985 enables contact to be made between birth mothers and their children under limited circumstances, there are nevertheless numerous Māori who will be unable to re-establish the connections under the legislation. They will remain lost to their iwi forever. And while there is now a greater degree of acceptance of openness in adoption practices, the law itself remains essentially unchanged.

Issues of openness aside, stranger adoption flouts tikanga Māori insofar as it entails a refusal to acknowledge the responsibilities and rights of whānau, hapū and iwi with respect to their children. Yet Anne Else makes the chilling observation that stranger adoption is “back on the political agenda”. The law’s denial of the Māori person’s inextricable connections with his or her whānau, hapū and iwi has long been a matter of concern for Māori:

The prevalence of Western opinion in influential areas of law . . . affirms the view that the Māori is to be treated as an individual and that the communal orientation of Maoridom is without value or relevance.

The law continues to allow only the birth parents to have input into any adoption decision, unless they are unmarried, in which case the father’s consent is required only if he is a guardian or if the court deems it expedient to seek it.

Eddie Durie, Donna Hall and Joan Metge point out that no other relative has a recognised right to be consulted or to make a counter claim. As recently as 1989, the Family Court denied a paternal grandmother standing to apply for the revocation of an interim adoption order in respect of her grandchild — Inglis DCJ finding that she did not fairly come within the category of “any person” in section 12 of the Act. She was therefore denied even the opportunity of making the argument that her mokopuna should be raised within the whānau.

The following statement, made in 1986 by the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare, encapsulates Māori dissatisfaction with the way in which adoption orders are made:

We do not think cases involving Māori children ought to be determined solely in accordance with Western priorities, or that those who do not have a Māori experience or training, are adequate arbiters or advocates of the best interests of the Māori child. We do not think the law should be weighted to denying the facility of Māori communities to care for their own in the way they best know how.

This observation applies beyond the issue of adoption, throwing down the challenge to the assimilationist policies of the past and present. Before Māori women and children can be restored to their rightful place within whānau, hapū and iwi, an essential first step is the restoration of Māori philosophies, Māori law.

Control from those located outside the culture, well-intentioned or otherwise, is what has brought about the demise of the whānau and the consequent destruction of mana wāhine. It is only through a transferral of power back to Māori that the difficult task of formulating strategies to deal with the destruction wrought by colonisation can begin.

A vital part of that process will be the restoration of a belief system that recognises the intrinsic value of both men and women, encompassed within the framework of whanaungatanga.

The Position of Māori Women Today

Colonisation is not a finite process; for Māori, there has been no end to it. It is not simply part of our recent past, nor does it merely inform our present. Colonisation is our present. This final section seeks to explore what it means to be a Māori woman in Aotearoa today. What is our colonised reality?

The last two decades have seen increased statutory mention of Treaty principles and Māori perspectives. It might be argued therefore that, while the law has been both destructive and neglectful of Māori in the past, Māori perspectives are now being incorporated into the law and that this should surely lead to improvement.

Such a view is simplistic, however, and ignores the context within which such measures were made and are implemented.

Throughout the 1970s, Māori protest over Treaty grievances had been gathering momentum, as Jane Kelsey describes:

Māori grievances over the theft of land, suppression of culture, dishonouring of the Treaty of Waitangi, and denial of economic and political self-determination had become the focus of high-profile protests, frequently led by powerful and articulate Māori women.

These protests forced Māori grievances into the public consciousness and into the arena of national politics. In both 1972 and 1984, Labour’s election platform included a promise to deal with Treaty grievances. Such undertakings led to the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 and, during the years 1984-1987, to “the heyday of Treaty revival”.

Jane Kelsey notes how these years saw references to the Treaty become “commonplace in political, academic, legal, bureaucratic and, to some extent, public discourse”.

Yet, despite the proliferation of Treaty rhetoric, the legislative provisions incorporating Treaty principles were weakly drafted, and usually subject to interpretation by non-Māori decision-makers. And as the Treaty became increasingly unpopular with the electorate, it was gradually sidelined, both in legislation and in the courts.

Jane Kelsey describes the dilemma of government (both Labour and, after 1990, National) as:

. . . how to convince sufficient Māori of their goodwill to relieve the pressure from the state while reassuring an increasingly insecure Pakeha population and economic interests that their economic and political power was secure.

However, just as significant as the debate on the effectiveness or otherwise of the legislative provisions incorporating the Treaty, is the fact that Māori women as an identifiable group with particularly pressing needs have remained virtually invisible to the law.

One example is the Health and Disability Services Act 1993, which implements the recent health reforms. Section 8 lists as one of the Crown’s objectives in the delivery of health care “[t]he special needs of Māori and other particular communities of people for those services”. There is one Māori director on each of the 15 Crown Health Enterprises; two of them are women. The health status of Māori women is acknowledged as being particularly poor, and yet our needs remain legislatively invisible and we remain largely invisible in the significant bodies operating within the new structure.

Māori women remain largely absent from consultative and advisory bodies set up by the Crown to provide Māori input into decision-making processes. The continued determination to negotiate with Māori men while ignoring Māori women, 154 years after the signing of the Treaty, is the gravamen of a claim recently lodged against the Crown before the Waitangi Tribunal.

According to Denese Henare:

Māori women [have seen] that injustice and said to each other, “. . . There’s something wrong with the way the Crown continues to perpetuate this attitude of no value in Māori women”.

Such dismissiveness on the part of the Crown does little to affirm Māori women at a time when the pace of economic change has impacted on Māori with extreme harshness. Many Māori women are forced to work both outside and in the home, while others are not so fortunate as to find paid employment at all.

Often isolated from the support of whānau, both physically and culturally, Māori women are particularly vulnerable to overwork, ill-health, and domestic violence. And public characterisation of these problems is frequently unhelpful, viewed through the simplistic, distorting lens of racism.

An illustration of such distortion is provided by a comparison of the popular perception of two successful films that have come out of the New Zealand film industry over the last two years.

The Piano is the story of a mute Scottish woman with a daughter who is sent by her father to Aotearoa New Zealand to marry an early settler. Against a backdrop of breathtaking scenery, she is subjected to mental cruelty as well as physical and sexual abuse. Her husband sells her piano, her only means of communication and the one thing aside from her daughter that she cares passionately about, to the neighbour for a piece of land. The neighbour acquires the piano in the knowledge that she wants it back desperately and informs her that she can buy it back from him with sexual favours. When he eventually decides that he can no longer require such terms, he returns the piano without full “payment” (proving that abusers are basically decent men), whereupon she begins to spend time with him of her own accord (proving, apparently, that women really do mean “yes” when they say “no”). Her husband, upon discovering this liaison, punishes her by cutting off her finger with an axe.

Once Were Warriors is a gritty film about an urbanised Māori nuclear family for whom unemployment, alcohol, crime, poverty, domestic violence and tragedy are features of daily life. The husband is a heavy drinker and physically violent, both in and outside the home. The eldest son joins a gang, another is taken into care after getting into trouble with the law. The eldest daughter is raped and commits suicide. There is absolutely nothing of beauty in this film; no pretty scenery, no stunning cinematography. It is harsh and brutal.

It is extraordinary that the two films have been so widely regarded as having nothing in common, other than their phenomenal success. In fact, while very differently packaged, the two films have a great deal in common. Both perpetrate stereotypical views of Māori.

The Piano portrays Māori men as childlike but strong, useful for carrying the piano over impossible terrain and assisting with fencing, but otherwise to be merely tolerated.

Once were Warriors also portrays Māori men as childlike, inherently violent and unable to cope with the pressures of urbanisation through any means other than their fists.

Both films are about very strong women struggling to make their way within the context of the nuclear family and common law expectations about the roles of men and women within it. Both films are harrowing tales of abuse.

However, only one is a tale of hope. The woman in Once Were Warriors is able to leave her abuser, reject the nuclear family model and return to the safety of her whānau. The best available option for the woman in The Piano is to leave the abuser who physically mutilated her for the one who subjected her to sexual abuse, to move from being the property of one to belonging to the other. Return to Scotland to the father who had clearly married her off as something of a liability is not an option. Even if it were, she would simply revert to being his property, liable at any moment to be traded to yet another man in marriage.

The vast majority of viewers and reviewers seem not to have seen these particular points of similarity and difference between the two films. The Piano, a film reflecting the coloniser’s racism and entrenched tradition of oppression of women, is transformed in the public eye into an erotic love story set in beautiful 19th century New Zealand.

Once Were Warriors, a film which reveals the devastating effects of colonisation on some Māori, particularly some Māori women, is primarily perceived as reinforcing the stereotypical views about the violence of Māori men. That the Māori woman in Once Were Warriors is struggling inside the oppressive family framework that the settler woman had to deal with over a century and a half before in The Piano, is a powerful indication of the destructive impact that common law principles of family have always had on Pākehā women and now, as a result of colonisation, on Māori women too.

In view of the fact that women, both Māori and Pākehā, must now deal with the gender inequality perpetuated under Pākehā law, it may be assumed that Māori women’s interests would be best served by joining forces with Pākehā feminists.

Linda Smith concedes that the feminist struggle is relevant for all women in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, she goes on to observe that “[o]ur rage as an oppressed group is directed at dominant white structures which sit over us, and so encompasses white women as much as white men”.

And Leah Whiu expresses the dilemma of forming an alliance with Pākehā feminists with absolute clarity: “What affinity can we share with white women if they refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for their colonialism?” She points out to these women:

It seems to me that my struggle necessarily takes account of your struggle. I can’t ignore patriarchy in my struggle. Yet you can and do ignore the “colour” of patriarchy, the culture-specificity of patriarchy. And in so doing you ignore me.

This is not to suggest that Pākehā feminists have nothing to offer Māori women in our struggle against patriarchy and colonialism. So long as they resist the temptation to define Māori culture and practices in terms of their own culture-specific understandings, and accept their responsibilities as a relatively privileged group (relative to Māori women that is) to promote changes sought by Māori women, their insights into the workings of white patriarchy may well be of use to Māori women. This commonality of interest should not, however, disguise the differences in experience. Māori women’s interests are, in the end, our own:

Our struggle as Māori women is our own struggle. To lose control of that struggle is to lose control of our lives. We are not in a position therefore to simply endorse or graft on to the projects of white women. We have to develop according to the reality and logic of our lives. 

Perhaps the most debilitating legacy of colonisation for Māori women is the effect it has had on our perceptions of ourselves. Earlier in this article, examples were given of the sorts of leadership roles that women had performed traditionally. It is clear that female leadership roles did not end with colonisation. Māori women were active in Te Kotahitanga and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. And during this century, there have been countless Māori women who have come forward to take the lead in difficult times. Denese Henare has pointed out that

. . . if you look at the work over the last twenty years in terms of the contention for the treaty, language and social issues, Māori women have been at the forefront.

And for every woman who has become a national figure, there are countless others who are considered leaders at the iwi or hapū level.

This raises a vital question: With this wealth of historical evidence showing clearly the leadership roles that Māori women have performed over time, why has it become so common for people to assume that leadership in Māori society is traditionally a male preserve and that female roles are considered to be of less value than male roles?

No matter how numerous they have been, how diverse their skills and fields of leadership, and how wide-ranging their iwi affiliations, for some reason the achievements of these women have been marginalised as being “exceptions to the rule”, the rule being that only men could be leaders. The facts give the lie to any such rule of male leadership, relegating it to the category of yet another stereotype. As with any stereotype, it is unfounded. And its potential to become a self-perpetuating truth makes it extremely harmful.

It is contended that these changes in perception of the role of women have come about as a direct result of colonisation. With the deliberate destruction of traditional Māori philosophies and values and the attempted replacement of them with those of the missionaries and the settlers, Māori have been “caught in the contradictions of a colonised reality”. We are not alone in this. Aroha Mead recently made the following observation:

. . . [t]he sexism which has occurred in Māori society originates more from colonisation than heritage, and it is a problem as common in international indigenous societies as is alienation of lands and resources. Māori leadership has got to work this through and de-programme all that does not rightfully belong within our Iwi histories. Māori women, as we all know, are the backbone of Māori society and that isn’t only because of our ability to bear children. It is unfair, soul destroying and a tragic waste of much needed skill, energy and commitment, to continue to deny Māori women their rightful place in Iwi/Māori decision-making.

The challenge for Māori, women and men, is to rediscover and reassert tikanga Māori within our own whānau, and to understand that an existence where men have power and authority over women and children is not in accordance with tikanga Māori.

Such an existence stems instead from an ancient common law tradition which has been imposed upon us, a tradition with which we have no affinity and which we have every reason to reject.


Ani Mikaere is from Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Porou. She is the mother of four and Nanny to 11 mokopuna. In her role as Pou Whakatupu Mātauranga at Te Wānanga o Raukawa, she is responsible for leading and promoting activity which nurtures and grows the mātauranga continuum — the constantly evolving body of knowledge that has been produced by successive generations of Māori theorists and practitioners.

In 2016, Ani was awarded Te Kāurutanga, a degree conferred by the founding iwi of Te Wānanga o Raukawa. Her thesis, entitled Like Moths to the Flame? A History of Ngāti Raukawa Resistance and Recovery, investigates the impact of colonisation on Ngāti Raukawa thought and was published in 2017. Other publications include He Rukuruku Whakaaro: Colonising Myths, Māori Realities (2011) and The Balance Destroyed (2017).

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