WAITANGI, NEW ZEALAND – Their land was confiscated, their homes burned down and many of their people killed.
Now, 150 years later, the indigenous Ngai Tuhoe tribe in New Zealand is getting a new start. The government has apologized for its past atrocities, handed over 170 million New Zealand dollars ($128 million) and agreed the tribe should manage a sprawling, rugged national park it calls home.
Last year’s settlement is one of dozens the government has signed with Maori tribes in a comprehensive, multibillion dollar process described in a U.N. report as imperfect but nevertheless “one of the most important examples in the world of an effort to address historical and ongoing grievances of indigenous peoples.”
The payouts have transformed some of the tribes into major economic players in a nation where Maori make up 15 percent of the country’s 4.5 million people. They have also contributed to a broader cultural renaissance and improved prospects for Maori.
Tamiti Kruger, who led the negotiations for the Tuhoe tribe, or “iwi,” said the settlement provoked great emotion, especially for older tribal members.
“They could not believe that they would be alive in a time when they would witness the return of their homeland,” he said.
The settlements are the result of legal claims brought by tribes against the government for breaches of the nation’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi.
The 1840 agreement effectively handed Britain sovereignty of New Zealand while guaranteeing Maori certain rights over traditional land and fisheries. Versions in Maori and English stated different things, and the treaty’s implications, including whether Maori ever willingly ceded sovereignty, continue to be debated.
Soon after the treaty was signed, conflicts between Maori and white settlers over who owned land escalated into a war that killed hundreds of Maori warriors and British troops.
The government began settling claims a quarter century ago, apologizing for its past actions. Some whites argued the nation would go broke, and some Maori said it wasn’t fair the government, a party to the negotiations, also got to dictate the terms, something the U.N. report cited as a flaw.
But a broad consensus has grown among lawmakers and Maori leaders that the process is working. Te Ururoa Flavell, New Zealand’s Maori development minister, said the settlements have not only righted wrongs, but have also lifted Maori confidence.
With the finish line in sight, the pace of settlements has picked up. The government has signed 72 agreements and hopes to sign the final one by 2017.
The settlements appear to be improving the economic and social standing of Maori, who still lag behind white New Zealanders on many social measures. Maori have higher-than-average incarceration rates and a 12 percent unemployment rate, compared to a 4 percent rate for white New Zealanders. But the number of Maori who earned at least a bachelor’s degree rose 56 percent between 2006 and 2013.
“All of the stats that we see are that Maori, in pretty much every measure, from longevity to participation in schools, are improving,” said Prime Minister John Key. “And where the settlements have been, and where those iwi have had those resources, I think you can point to a faster improvement.”
Not all the tribes have used their settlements wisely. The small Ngati Tama tribe lost almost all its NZ$14.5 million settlements on bad investments in a computer software company and a fishing venture. Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said there is no chance to redo the process.
“The right to make their own decisions also means the right to mess things up,” he said.
The Waikato-Tainui, the first big tribe to settle when it accepted NZ$170 million in 1995, has seen its fortunes yo-yo.
The tribe initially lost millions after making bad investments in foreign hotels and a rugby-league franchise, and its leaders were criticized for excessive spending on frivolous things like box seats at sports stadiums.
“People were burned over that,” said the tribe’s current chief executive, Parekawhia McLean. “But we have learned our lessons and have continued to grow.”
After the losses, the tribe took a more rigorous approach to managing its money and clearly separated its entrepreneurial and distribution sides, she said. Through investments primarily in property, the tribe has parlayed its settlement into more than NZ$1 billion.
The tribe distributes millions of dollars each year to its 56,000 members in grants for education, health and cultural activities, McLean said. These are not handouts, she said, but rather “hand ups” that will improve their lives through targeting specific needs.
The Ngai Tahu tribe also has turned its NZ$170 million settlement into over NZ$1 billion, thanks to investments in health care, property, farms and fishing ventures.
Tessa Gregory, a 22-year-old commercial painter, said the tribe helped cover a 14-week training course that enabled her to find work.
“Ngai Tahu was there from the beginning and they’re still there,” she said.
The impact of Maori tribes on New Zealand’s economy is far greater than that of Native American tribes on the U.S. economy, said Stephen Cornell, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona. Yet, Native Americans have more political power than the Maori, he said.
While some U.S. tribes have developed resources like gas reserves and casinos, Native Americans, who account for just 1.5 percent of the population, continue to lag far behind average Americans across most socioeconomic measures. Cornell said one difference is that Native Americans have more political power than the Maori, as the U.S. treats them as separate legal entities or governments.
Some Maori advocate greater legal status for tribes, but Finlayson said he does not think a U.S.-style system would be welcomed in New Zealand. He said Maori tribes could take greater control over certain functions like welfare and employment training.
The settlements have cost NZ$1.6 billion so far, a figure Finlayson said could rise to NZ$3 billion. The government has yet to reach agreement with Ngapuhi, the country’s biggest tribe with 126,000 members and the most complex to deal with because of its many factions.
Tamiti, the Tuhoe negotiator, said his tribe’s settlement has helped heal generations of hatred between the tribe and the government.
“New Zealanders are to be commended for confronting their history,” he said. “It’s entirely untrue that you can’t change the past.”