Tongariro National Park, New Zealand; the Struggle to Protect Waahi Tapu

The Maori people arrived on modern-day North Island, New Zealand in the 14th century and named it Aotearoa (land of the long white cloud).  The Maoris are descendents of Polynesian islanders who migrated across the South Pacific in double-hulled canoes.  As legend goes, Ngatoroirangi, the high priest and navigator of one of the first canoes to arrive in Aotearoa, explored the new land and was first to come across the three large volcanoes at the heart of the North Island.  The priest climbed the most northerly volcano to claim all the land he could see.  Upon summiting, a cold, strong wind came from the south threatening to freeze the explorer.  Ngatoroirangi called out for help from his family on his home-island of Hawaiki.  They responded by sending fire under the earth to save their brother.  The fire left a trail of geothermal activity that reminds Maoris of their heritage and their ancestors’ journey to a new land (Polidor 2006).  Today, this area of cultural and geologic importance is protected by National Park and UNESCO World Heritage status.  While the current standing of the park is a positive example of conservation of an important cultural and natural site, it is hardly exemplary of land arrangements between Maori and the British Crown.


In Maori tradition, all people are Kaitaiki (guardians) over whenua (land), taonga (treasured possessions), and waahi tapu (sacred land)(Matunga 1994).  Not unlike Native Americans, Maoris have a strong tie to the earth and natural elements.  They believe that “[h]umans are not separate from the environment but are an intimate part of it” (Matunga 1994, 220).   The literal translation of waahi tapu is sacred land, but in a more recent attempt to encapsulate its meaning it has been defined as “windows to the past” (Sole & Woods 1996).  Waahi tapu has different meanings to every Maori tribe but most consistently involves ties to ancestors, heritage, death, and the past (Matunga 1994).


After French and Dutch colonists had briefed Aotearoa, by the mid-19th century, the British had maintained a permanent presence.  In 1840, the British settlers and Maori leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi.  Despite many tribal leaders either refusing or otherwise not being able to sign the treaty, the Crown ruled that all inhabitants of Aotearoa were thenceforth bound by the treaty (“The Treaty in Brief” 2014).  The treaty had three core articles.  The first stated that the British Crown had sovereignty over all of Aotearoa.  The second gave the right for Maoris to own or sell (but only to the Crown) their land and other resources like fisheries and forests.  The third enlisted all inhabitants of Aotearoa as British subjects (“The Treaty in Brief” 2014).

The consequence of the treaty has been in dispute ever since its actualization.  A key few words in the version of the Treaty of Waitangi translated into Maori language gave the locals a very different idea of their rights from what the British had intended.  One key word lost in translation was that for ‘sovereignty’.  The Maori treaty used the word ‘kawanatanga’ which means something closer to ‘governance’.  As a result Maoris thought they would be able to retain the right to manage their own affairs (“The Treaty in Brief” 2014).  Additionally due to phrasing, Maoris incorrectly assumed they would retain full authority of treasured possessions which may include intangible resources (“The Treaty in Brief” 2014).

The common tale of the creation of Tongariro National Park is that a peaceful and mutually beneficial agreement gave authority of the three volcanic peaks to the Crown.  Te Heuheu Horonuku, a leader of a local tribe, gifted the sacred peaks out of fear of development and partitioning by British settlers under the condition that they be preserved (Boast 2008).  This story is mostly fiction, as the idea of the creation of the world’s fourth national park was neither proposed by a Maori consensus, nor for the mere purpose of conservation.  Instead, a British settler by the name of Lawrence Grace thought of the idea for economic gain as a tourist attraction for otherwise unusable land.  Additionally, Grace put pressure on local tribes to give consent for the transaction and suppressed and belittled protesters (Boast 2008).  Eventually, the Crown gained control of the three peaks and later the surrounding land to create a continuous park.

Over the years, the park has gained economic developments and recreational attractions including a village, hiking trails, roads, busses, and even a small ski area.  It attracts over a million visitors a year and suffers noise and waste pollution, erosion from hikers, and general degradation of a sacred sight due to the extensive development (Groot 2003).

In 1993, Tongariro National Park achieved a new level of protection; it was the first park in the world to receive status as a UNESCO World Heritage cultural landscape.  Though the local tribes have been mostly isolated from the management of the park, the new plan under UNESCO strives for more stringent environmental protection as well as renewed commitment to support the Maori culture in relation to the park (Ruru 2008).  In fact, in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, a wide channel for protection for tourists was proposed, but Maoris vetoed its progress as it would compromise the cultural integrity of the site.

Although the story of Tongariro is not without conflict, it represents one of the most successful merging of Maori and British values.  After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi much of Maori land had been usurped by the British.  Some land was willingly sold, while other land was confiscated under the pretense of rebel uprising (Sole & Woods 1996).  Much of this land was desecrated by economic development including deforestation for farming and construction of cities (Sole & Woods 1996).

In the past few decades, New Zealand has passed acts like the Historic Places Act in 1980 to protect sites that fall under a few categories determined by Archaeologists.  However, Archaeologists have refused to recognize history that hasn’t been recorded.  While some Maoris have complied by working with Archaeologists to get their history into writing, Maori tradition and lore has been handed down orally and much has been unaccounted for under these new laws (Matunga 1994).

The desecration of sacred Maori land stems from fundamental differences in spirituality and ideals of Maoris and Westerners.  Maoris see themselves as belonging to the earth while newcomers from the West see land as belonging to them.  While Maoris see themselves as being part of the earth while simultaneously protecting it, the settlers seek economic opportunity from the earth.  The authority of destruction for personal gain and alien establishments of binding contracts and land rights the British brought to Aotearoa overpowered Maori spirituality.  Fortunately, in recent history, Maoris have been given more of a voice.  The Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975 created a delegation to settle disagreements from the original 1840 Treaty and the voice of the Maori party is growing in parliament (Sole & Woods 1996).  As is the case in many colonized territories, the indigenous people of New Zealand have been oppressed and pinned to the lower tiers of society.  However, awareness of social and cultural equality is growing relations between Maoris and New Zealanders of European descent is ever-progressing.


Ben Joseph


Works Cited

Boast, Richard. Buying the Land, Selling the Land: Governments and Maori Land in the North Island 1865-1921. Wellington: Victoria UP, Victoria U of Wellington, 2008. Print.

Groot, Rachel. “The Tongariro National Park: Are We Loving it to Death?.” New Zealand Journal of Geography 115.1 (2003): 1-13.

Hill, Richard S. “People, land and the struggle for rangatiratanga/autonomy in New Zealand.” Identities 19.1 (2012): 26-42.

Matunga, Hirini. “17 Waahi tapu: Maori sacred sites1.” Sacred sites, sacred places 23 (1994): 217.

Polidor, Amberly. “The Land and Its People.” Sacred Land Film Project » Tongariro National Park. N.p., 6 Sept. 2006. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

Ruru, Jacinta. “A Maori Right to Own and manage National Parks?.” Journal of South Pacific Law 12.1 (2008).  BIASED

Sole, Tony, and Kirsty Woods. “Protection of indigenous sacred sites: the New Zealand experience.” Aboriginal Involvement in Parks and Protected Areas. Aboriginal Studies Press. Canberra (1996).

“The Treaty in Brief.” New Zealand History. Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 5 Aug. 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

Tongariro Conservation Board. Tongariro National Park: A Gift to the People of New Zealand (Draft Tongariro National Park Management Plan). Janauary 2003. – See more at:

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