It is a rarity among nations that were once colonized: a country that widely uses its Indigenous language, where a treaty with its first peoples is mostly honored and where Indigenous people have permanent representation in the halls of power.
But a decades-long push to support Māori, New Zealand’s Indigenous people — who lag far behind the wider population in terms of health and wealth and have higher incarceration rates — is now in peril.
Disenchanted with progressive politics, New Zealanders in October elected the country’s most conservative government in a generation, one that says it wants “equal rights” for every citizen. In practice, this means scrapping a Māori health agency, abandoning other policies that benefit the community and ordering public agencies to stop using the Maori language.
One member of the new government, a three-party coalition, has floated a possible referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi, an agreement signed by Māori chiefs and the British Crown in 1840 that is often described as the country’s founding document. Such a referendum, experts say, could tear at the very fabric of New Zealand society, send race relations to a new low and undo decades of work that sought to redress historical wrongdoing against Maori, who now make up about 17 percent of the country’s roughly five million people.
“What this government is saying is: How do we add to the wrongs?” said Dominic O’Sullivan, a Māori academic and political scientist at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia. “It is an extraordinary turnaround.”
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has rejected such criticism. “It’s pretty unfair, to be honest,” he told reporters this month, adding: “We are going to get things done for Māori and non-Maori, and that’s what our focus is going to be.”
In recent days, Mr. Luxon has suggested a referendum on the treaty is unlikely. His party, the National Party, is the largest and most powerful member of the governing coalition, and he must juggle his coalition partners’ desire for wholesale change on Maori affairs with his party’s own reluctance to usher in a potentially distracting and divisive vote.
Māori, deeply shaken by the changes, have taken to the streets. The Māori Party, an Indigenous sovereignty party, organized rallies across the nation in early December, bringing rush-hour traffic in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, to a standstill. In Wellington, the capital, protesters gathered by the hundreds outside the Parliament buildings.
Later that day, during the opening session of New Zealand’s Parliament, members of the Māori Party performed a haka and pledged allegiance to the treaty before swearing a modified oath to King Charles III, New Zealand’s head of state, in which they used another name for him that also translates as “scab” or “rash.”
Kiingi Tuheitia, the Māori king, who holds a significant symbolic role, said he would host a national hui, or meeting, for Māori in January that is aimed at “holding the coalition government to account.”
David Seymour, the leader of Act, the most right-wing member of the coalition government, denounced the demonstrations, saying the Māori Party was “protesting equal rights.”
New Zealanders needed “a healthy debate on whether our future lies with co-government,” where the government makes decisions alongside Māori, “and different rights based on ancestry,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Seymour’s arguments echo those made this year in neighboring Australia, which soundly rejected a referendum on Indigenous representation in Parliament. Opponents had argued that a modern Australia should treat each person alike and avoid “special treatment” of its Indigenous citizens, who are disproportionately more likely to be poor, suffer ill health or be incarcerated.
New Zealand’s Indigenous people also experience material hardship, worse health outcomes and incarceration at much higher rates than the population at large. But the country is an outlier in the extent to which its citizens have championed its Indigenous culture.
The mellifluous sounds of te reo Māori, the language, have become all but commonplace over the country’s airwaves, in its classrooms and even in official government briefings. Jacinda Ardern, the longtime leader of the previous government, vowed that her daughter would learn it alongside English. And so many people have sought to learn the language that the country has experienced a shortage of teachers.
To some, including Mr. Seymour and Winston Peters, who is himself Maori and who heads New Zealand First, the smallest member of the coalition, there is a sense that the embrace of Māori language and culture has gone too far.
On the campaign trail before the election, Mr. Peters vowed to replace the Māori names of New Zealand government agencies with English ones, arguing that it was confusing to the wider population. (About 30 percent of the population speaks “more than a few words or phrases,” according to the last census.)
Mr. Peters disputed that this was an attack on the language, telling supporters last month that “it’s an attack on the elite virtue-signalers, who have hijacked language for their own socialist means.”
The Māori Party once tried to cast itself as the party of the middle ground, able to work cooperatively with either of New Zealand’s two largest parties — the National Party and the Labour Party, which was in power for six years until this year, most of them under Ms. Ardern — in order to give Māori a seat at the governing table. But in recent years, it has taken a path that is more radical, and what critics describe as more theatrical, with more ambitious policy aims.
That approach seems to have resonated with Māori voters, who elected Māori Party representatives to six of the country’s seven Māori electoral seats this year, after awarding them no seats in 2017 and two in 2020.
It is unclear whether the party’s tactics will appeal to the wider New Zealand public — or risk turning them off altogether, said Dr. O’Sullivan, the academic. “You’ve got to convince people that there’s a cause they want to support, including a significant number of Maori people,” he said.
Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke is among the new class of Māori Party lawmakers, and, at 21, the youngest parliamentarian in New Zealand’s history. Delivering her first speech in Parliament this past week, she described how she had been advised not to take the cut-and-thrust of political life too personally.
“In only a couple of weeks, in only 14 days, this government has attacked my whole world from every corner,” she said, listing its proposed changes to Māori affairs. “How can I not take anything personally when it feels like these policies were made about me?”