New Zealand is located in a very isolated area of the South Pacific which means the islands were uninhabited until very recently. The country has been home to the Maori, who were ruled by British colonialists and this mixed Polynesian-European history has shaped the modern New Zealand. Today, these two cultures are intertwined and live in tandem, celebrating two national days: Waitangi Day (Maori) and ANZAC Day (British).


Compared to other Polynesian nations, New Zealand has a relatively short history. It is estimated that the first settlers known as the Moriori, claimed the islands off the coast, while the Maori were making a home on the mainland around 950 AD. The first Europeans arrived in 1642, with the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. He was repelled by the Maori and the next European generation did not arrive until about a 100 years later.

It was a British explorer, Captain James Cook, who landed in New Zealand in 1769. They opened up a trading and whaling post, with European traders and missionaries settling along the coast. They did not co-exist peacefully and much blood was shed during this time. The Maori’s spears were no match for the muskets of the Europeans, which led to the so-called Musket Wars in 1820, killing many tribes people.

In 1840, the Maori chiefs signed a treaty with the British, known as the Treaty of Waitangi which can be seen at the National Archives in Wellington. The treaty was supposed to give Maori land ownership, rights and protection under the British Crown, but the British believed this gave them sovereignty over New Zealand, perhaps getting lost in translation. Even today, there is heated debate about what the treaty did and meant. It is, however, considered to be the founding document of New Zealand as a nation and is celebrated on Waitangi Day. Today, New Zealand still remains part of the British Commonwealth, but is a parliamentary democracy, with the British monarch the constitutional head.

Under British rule, the Maori culture suffered and were marginalized. Many Maori leaders also realized that not being able to speak English was detrimental as all Parliament proceedings were in English. During this time the numbers of native Maori-speakers significantly dwindled and children were not taught Maori at home. By the 1980’s, it became critically clear that the Maori language on the verge of extinction and the tribal heads implemented an impressive language recovery program. Today, Maori is a thriving and many countries are using the recovery of Maori as a successful model.


New Zealand’s original inhabitants, the Maori and Maori, still play an important role in the country’s culture today. The Maori today make up less than 15 percent of New Zealand’s population, but the numbers are growing at a faster rate than those of other members of the island. New Zealand’s culture has also been heavily influenced by the Europeans, especially the British, who make up 69 percent of the country’s residents.

The colonialists greatly influenced New Zealand culture and in the early 19th century suppressed much of it. It has only been in the last decade or so that Maori traditions and language have been recognized and are being brought back to the forefront. Movies, such as the Whale Rider and the international success of the New Zealand Rugby team, the All Blacks, have popularized Maori history on an international basis.