Story: Kāwanatanga – Māori engagement with the state

Page 1. Defining kāwanatanga

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The term ‘kāwanatanga’ is derived from a Māori-language version of the English word ‘governor’. There is no exact equivalent in Māori for this word, since traditional Māori society had decentralised forms of leadership, administration and social control that were quite different from the monarchic and bureaucratic systems of government developed in Britain. As a result, when the first representatives of the British government took up their posts in New Zealand, they needed new terms to explain to Māori the kind of administrative control they proposed to introduce.

1835 Declaration of Independence

In 1835 a group of northern chiefs representing ‘the united tribes of New Zealand’ signed a Declaration of Independence drawn up by the British Resident, James Busby. The declaration stated that the chiefs would not permit any kāwanatanga except their own to be exercised in their country, ‘unless by persons appointed by them, and acting under the authority of laws regularly enacted by them’.1 The unfamiliar term ‘kāwanatanga’ is likely to have been explained to the chiefs as meaning that they would retain their existing chiefly authority unless they knowingly chose to transfer it to others.

Governorship or governance?

The Māori word ‘kāwana’ is an adaptation of the English word ‘governor’. ‘Kāwanatanga’ is derived from it and is often translated as ‘governance’. However, some historians such as Judith Binney have suggested that when chiefs first encountered ‘kawanatanga’ in the text of the Treaty of Waitangi, they may have understood it to refer only to the role and functions of the governor, William Hobson. That is, they may have understood kāwanatanga to mean ‘governorship’ rather than ‘governance’. The distinction between these two meanings is significant, and may have influenced the chiefs’ decisions to sign the treaty.

Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by a much larger number of chiefs, including many of those who had signed the 1835 declaration. The Māori text of the first article of the treaty stated that these chiefs, ‘ka tuku rawa atu ki te Kuini o Ingarani ake tonu atu te Kawanatanga katoa o o ratou wenua’. In the original English version of the treaty this expression reads, ‘give absolutely to the Queen of England forever the complete sovereignty over their land.’2 The term ‘kāwanatanga’ was used by the translators to mean ‘complete sovereignty’.

Redefining kāwanatanga

In recent times scholars of the Māori language have questioned the accuracy of this translation. They have suggested that many chiefs would not have signed the treaty if they had understood that by doing so they were surrendering ‘complete sovereignty’ over their tribal lands. Anthropologist Hugh Kawharu has made a new translation of the treaty using the term ‘government’, rather than ‘sovereignty’, for ‘kāwanatanga’. Kawharu noted, ‘There could be no possibility of the Māori signatories having any understanding of government in the sense of “sovereignty”: ie, any understanding on the basis of experience or cultural precedent.’3

Tino rangatiratanga

The second article of the treaty confirms that although ‘kāwanatanga’ of their country will be transferred to the British Crown, Māori retain ‘te tino Rangatiratanga’ of their people, land and all other possessions. The original English version of the treaty gave the meaning of ‘te tino Rangatiratanga’ as ‘full, exclusive and undisturbed possession’.4 Kawharu later translated this term as ‘unqualified exercise of their chieftainship’5.

Throughout the history of the state’s relations with Māori, the exact meaning and application of the terms ‘kāwanatanga’ and ‘tino rangatiratanga’ have been debated by the two parties, and often disputed. The state has aimed to enforce kāwanatanga through various means including patronage, co-option, force, and legislative and institutional arrangements. Some Māori, especially in recent years, have interpreted ‘tino rangatiratanga’ to mean Māori self-government.

  1. Quoted in Facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi. Wellington: Government Printer, 1976, preface. Back
  2. Quoted in Facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi, preface. Back
  3. I. H. Kawharu, ‘Treaty of Waitangi – Kawharu Translation.’ Waitangi Tribunal (last accessed 28 May 2012). Back
  4. Quoted in Facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi, preface. Back
  5. I. H. Kawharu, ed., Waitangi: Maori and Pakeha perspectives of the Treaty of Waitangi. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1989. Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins, 'Kāwanatanga – Māori engagement with the state - Defining kāwanatanga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 March 2017)

Story by Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 22 Aug 2016