After more than 150 years, New Zealand recognises 'extinct' Moriori people

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin
Photograph: Rachel Donnan/AFP

For decades history books in New Zealand taught schoolchildren that the Moriori people were extinct.

The accepted wisdom was that the Polynesian settlers of the Chatham Islands, who arrived hundreds of years before Māori, were wiped out by invading Māori tribes, who killed and enslaved their population after landing on the islands in 1835.

But more than 600 years since the Moriori arrived in New Zealand, their descendants have signed a treaty with the government that enshrines their rights and been awarded NZ$18m in compensation. The treaty includes an agreed historical account and a Crown apology.

The settlement package includes the transfer of lands of cultural and spiritual significance to Moriori on Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) and Rangihaute (Pitt Island) as cultural redress, and $18m in financial redress.

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In the 1990s the Moriori began to rebuild their culture and traditions, officially becoming recognised as the Chatham Islands’ Indigenous inhabitants in a Waitangi tribunal decision.

According to the 2006 census, 945 people said they were of Moriori descent and today the New Zealand government recognised their decades-long struggle for recognition.

The chief negotiator for the Moriori, Maui Solomon, said the settlement had brought his tribe and their descendants some peace.

“The truth is that Moriori made a conscious decision to set aside warfare and killing and to live in peace over 600 years ago,” Solomon told RNZ. “They adhered to this ancient law of peace even when their island was invaded in 1835 and have maintained this unbroken covenant to the present day.”

Treaty negotiations minister Andrew Little said “myths and misconceptions” had circulated for years about the Moriori, with some children being told they had gone extinct, or indeed never existed at all.

“What I learnt at school was that Moriori were gone, they were an original race and they were effectively eliminated by Māori,” he said. “The claims by Moriori were first filed in 1988. However, Moriori have sought justice from the Crown since 1862 when they wrote to Governor George Grey seeking release from enslavement and the return of their lands.”

“One hundred and fifty eight years later, I am pleased to sign the Moriori settlement. The settlement is a testament to the courage, commitment and tenacity of Moriori.”

Little said the New Zealand government had failed the Moriori, and it was well-overdue to right historical wrongs.

“Their grievances are serious, some of the most serious you could imagine,” he said. “They are a people who the Crown failed to properly protect when they were treated in the way that they were on Rēkohu, or the Chatham Islands, and the Crown failed also to prevent the myth about them being a lost race.”