Indigenous peoples, environmentalism and ‘wilderness.’ Part 2 – Aotearoa New Zealand

At first look, the idea of wilderness doesn’t seem to resonate quite as strongly in New Zealand as it seems to in North America and Australia. For example, there is no ‘Wilderness Society’ in New Zealand. The foremost conservation NGO, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society (‘Forest & Bird’), does not mention wilderness in formal statements about its role. The Department of Conservation (DOC), set up in 1987 from an amalgam of various government agencies, manages much of the crown (ie state) owned land in New Zealand, including National Parks, forest parks, etc. Like Forest & Bird, DOC doesn’t frame its mission formally in terms of ‘wilderness’; rather it is expressed in terms of ‘natural and historic heritage.’

Nevertheless, as we look around the New Zealand conservation and backcountry recreation community, we do begin to find a strong attachment to the standard idea of wilderness as a pristine, uninhabited landscape. The word ‘wilderness’ is used frequently in documents throughout Forest & Bird’s website and several extensive regions have been defined as ‘wilderness areas’ by DOC. The first two such areas were designated in 1988, and now there are seven within the National Parks. One of the strongest advocates of the ‘wilderness’ concept in New Zealand is the Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC), a grouping of more than 100 tramping, mountaineering, hunting and adventure sports clubs with an overall membership of 12,000. It was FMC that first proposed the setting aside of tracts of public lands as ‘wilderness areas’ in 1960 and then again in 1981 (Barr, 2001, p.19).

Furthermore, the concept of ‘wilderness’ is also very well exploited for its commercial appeal in New Zealand. There is a Wilderness magazine, and a quick web-search turns up any number of wilderness adventures, escapes, expeditions, experiences, guides, lodges, resorts, safaris, tours, and walks: overall, the idea of the wilderness clearly has much symbolic power in tourism and outdoor recreation marketing.

How do Maori fit into this picture of New Zealand’s backcountry as ‘wilderness’?

In a collection of writings on The state of wilderness in New Zealand, former FMC president Hugh Barr (2001) offers his “user’s perspective” on wilderness preservation in New Zealand. In that article, he devotes two paragraphs to the Maori perspective, but only in order to dispense with it: “As a primarily stone-age hunter-gatherer society supplemented by some agriculture, most Maori settlement was near the coast, or in fertile river valleys. There were no permanent settlements in the areas proposed at the FMC conference for wilderness” (p.20).

As has been discussed in the Australian context, the idea of wilderness is employed in this way to make indigenous people invisible. Here it is used to suggest that Maori have no connection and no prior claim to the ‘empty’ backcountry, which can then be filled with the preferred western meaning of ‘untouched nature’.

The erasing of Maori from the backcountry is indefensible on the fundamental basis of Maori identity and the guarantees afforded to that identity through the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty explicitly provides for “tino rangatiratanga o o ratou wenua o ratou kainga me o ratou taonga katoa” (unqualified chieftainship/authority over their lands, villages and all their treasures). What constitutes taonga is generally interpreted broadly to cover not just physical artefacts, but intangible possessions such as language and good health as well. Identity must surely be the most significant treasure of all and, for the people of the land who regard themselves as such (as tangata whenua), it is frequently evident that the intimate connection with the land is integral to that identity.

As many New Zealanders know, iwi and hapu (‘sub-tribes’) identify with particular ancestral mountains and rivers, and individual Maori name their mountains and rivers when introducing themselves in the traditional manner in mihi (greetings). Historian Danny Keenan explains that “what matters most to Maori in the context of marked change and loss is the mana whakapapa [genealogical] assertion of continuing mana whenua [absolute authority over land]. … The function of whakapapa was to anchor claimants into known landscapes, and to establish the ongoing basis from which tribal and hapu mana, identity, and activity in the present could be validated by the past” (Keenan, 2002, p.260).

The deep significance of ancestral mountains is illustrated by the case of some of New Zealand’s highest mountains. In 1998, Ngai Tahu (the largest South Island iwi) reached a settlement of claims against the New Zealand government for historical breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. This included an agreement regarding several mountains, including Aoraki-Mt Cook and other areas of importance to the iwi which requires DOC to inform climbers that “standing on the summit of certain mountains denigrates their sacred status.” However, climbers remain free to choose whether or not to comply with the cultural tradition (Cessford & Reedy, 2001, p.53).

The clash between the wilderness concept and Maori rangatiratanga is also very clearly outlined in Te Urewera of Ngai Tuhoe. As Brad Coombes and Stephanie Hill (2005) have shown, Te Urewera was fully acknowledged as Tuhoe land by the New Zealand parliament through the Urewera District Native Reserve Act of 1896, in recognition of Tuhoe’s “ardent wish that this land be preserved to them” (p.143). In the years following the passage of the act, in contravention of its own legislation, the government vigorously went about purchasing land within the reserve. This land was formed into Te Urewera National Park in 1954, with the park following very similar boundaries to the reserve of 1896.

Maungapohatu, sacred mountain of Tuhoe at the heart of the National Park, is renowned as the home of Rua Kenana, early 20th century prophet of the Ringatu Church. Close to Maungapohatu lies Ruakituri, the most recently declared ‘wilderness’ area which, while remote and rugged bush country, is far from being a pathless, uninhabited landscape. If any further evidence were needed, the Ruakituri ‘wilderness’ area is traversed by ‘Rua’s Track’ which originally ran through to the east coast – and is still acknowledged and maintained by DOC.

But how do Tuhoe people themselves feel about the park? Coombes and Hill cite submissions (from 1999-2003) to DOC on their management plan for the Urewera National Park:

  • “Over the years the roles have changed where DOC is now ‘Tangata Whenua’ and tangata whenua is now regarded as another ‘Joe Public’” (p.149).
  • “Whilst Tuhoe lost the sovereign title of much of its ancestral lands to the greed of the Crown, Tuhoe has never relinquished its spiritual sovereignty over Te Urewera” (p.148).
  • Na whenua, na Tuhoe. Ko DOC te partner.” [Tuhoe are of and from the land. DOC is only a partner] (p.135).

Even though the backcountry may be managed by state agencies and traversed by climbers, trampers and visitors seeking the majesty and solitude of their imagined wilderness, Maori identity is everywhere through this land, spiritually, culturally, emotionally, and physically. It cannot be erased. As Danny Keenan writes, “Despite everything, Maori remain forever bound to the land” (p.260).


Hugh Barr (2001) Establishing a wilderness preservation system in New Zealand – A user’s perspective. In Gordon Cessford (ed) The state of wilderness in New Zealand. Wellington: DOC.

Gordon Cessford and Murray Reedy (2001) Wilderness status and associated management issues in New Zealand. In Gordon Cessford (ed) The state of wilderness in New Zealand. Wellington: DOC.

Brad Coombes and Stephanie Hill (2005) “Na whenua, na Tuhoe. Ko DOC te partner” – Prospects for comanagement of te Urewera National Park. Society and Natural Resources, 18, 135-152.

Danny Keenan (2002) Bound to the land: Maori retention and assertion of land and identity. In Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking (eds) Environmental histories of New Zealand. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.


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