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A person has Māori descent if they are of the Māori race of New Zealand; this includes any descendant of such a person.

Operational issues

The definition requires people to know their biological ancestry. Traditionally, such knowledge is passed from generation to generation, with Māori relying on the recital of whakapapa by the appropriate tribal member, rather than on written documents.

There will be cases where knowledge of biological ancestry has been lost to a respondent, particularly where there has been an adoption in the family or where there has been a long line of descent from a single Māori ancestor.

The Māori renaissance of recent years may have resulted in an increased willingness to acknowledge Māori antecedence and the growing interest in genealogy, across the whole population, may mean that, in researching their family trees, more individuals will have discovered previously unknown Māori ancestry.

Despite these influences, when asking a question on Māori descent, as with any other question, we must assume that people are in a position to give us accurate information.

Explanatory notes

History of the definition

Prior to 1998 this standard included an ideal and an operational definition of ‘Māori’. The ideal definition was “A person is said to have Māori ancestry if they have any Māori ancestors, no matter how distant”. The operational definition, which was designed to take into account the concerns discussed above under the heading operational issues, was “A person is said to have Māori ancestry if they claim to have Māori ancestors, no matter how distant".

Data collection questions were designed in accordance with the ideal definition; the operational definition was intended as an acknowledgement of the constraints on data collection. However, the operational definition was found to be subject to misunderstanding, by data users, because it was less precise.

In 1998 Statistics New Zealand decided that the ideal and operational definitions should be combined and that they should be brought into line with the 1993 Electoral Act and the 1974 Māori Affairs Act (Te Ture Whenua Māori). Both of these acts define a Māori as: “ ‘Māori’ means a person of the Māori race of New Zealand; and includes any descendant of such a person”. In essence, this definition is the same as the ideal definition contained in previous versions of this Standard.

As noted before, data collection questions have always been designed in accordance with the previous Standard’s ideal definition. The changes to the definition contained in this version of the Standard are to avoid misunderstandings about the data collected and to bring the definition into line with other legal definitions of ‘Māori’. The changes to the definition are not expected to have any impact on questionnaire design or on the data collected.

Use of ‘New Zealand’ in output

This standard is strictly designed to obtain information on people of ‘New Zealand Māori Descent’. However, the words ‘New Zealand’ should be omitted from output as they are seen by many as offensive to the tangata whenua. The term ‘Māori Descent’ should be used instead.

Cook Island Maori

The 1996 Ethnicity standard identifies people belonging to the Cook Island Maori ethnic group separately from the tangata whenua. The general view is that the genealogical and linguistic ties of the two groups make it desirable to retain the word ‘Maori’ in the Cook Island Maori descriptor. However, for the purposes of the Māori Descent standard, a Cook Island Maori should not be classified to the ‘Māori Descent’ category.

Descent versus ethnicity

Māori descent is a biological concept. The Report of the Review Committee on Ethnic Statistics 1988 recommended “That official statistical surveys, in addition to any cultural affiliation measure, obtain information on Māori people on the basis of descent.”

The concept of ethnicity differs from that of descent, having a social and cultural base, as opposed to a biological base.

Ancestry versus descent

Previous versions of this standard used the term ‘Māori Ancestry’ rather than ‘Māori Descent’. During consultation with the Māori community over the content of the 1996 Population Census a general consensus emerged that a descent-based question would be more appropriate than one based on ancestry. It was felt that ‘descent’ emphasised the importance of the respondent, as the responding unit, rather than the generations who came before the respondent. None of the submissions on the content of the 2001 Census sought to vary the wording of the question on Māori descent. This review of the standard, the first since 1994, will incorporate the change in terminology.

The change from ancestry to descent does not involve any change in the data being classified but is simply to reflect the preferred current usage.

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