People & Passages: New Zealand’s First Indigenous Female Foreign Minister

Prepared by Art Holbrook, PPP Board member and Chair of PPP’s Communications Committee

After elections last month that returned Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party to government with a landslide, Nanaia Mahuta has been appointed as the country’s first Indigenous Foreign Minister and the first Maori woman to hold such a senior cabinet position. (1). In 1996 Mahuta was the first Maori woman to be elected to New Zealand’s parliament and has held a number of cabinet posts over the years.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Credit: Office of Hon Nanaia Mahuta

Mahuta is the niece of the late queen Tuheitia Potatau Te Wherowhero VII and is related to the current monarch of the Maori, King Tuheitia.  He is now the 8th Maori monarch of the Kingitanga. The Kingitanga, or Maori King movement, was first established in the 1850s as white settlers sometimes used unscrupulous means to gain possession of Maori lands. By claiming kingship over a part of the North Island that was still under Maori control, the Kingitanga developed into a significant political presence that has survived wars, land confiscations and the displeasure of some white New Zealanders. While having no official status in the New Zealand government and not being recognized by all Maori tribes, the Kingitanga has its own parliament and has some influence at the local level.(2)

Recognizing this heritage, Mahuta decided in 2016 to take part in a moko kauae ceremony where she received the traditional woman’s tattoo on her chin. The design of her moko is unique to Mahuta as it symbolically traces her lineage. She was inspired to get the moko by her daughter who challenged her to do it.

Several other Maori women in the New Zealand parliament responded enthusiastically to Mahuta’s initiative. Green Party MP Marama Davidson said, “I couldn’t think of a better wahine [Polynesian woman] to be the first role model for us; it’s absolutely fantastic. What I’m really excited about is the statement that it makes – that we have the right to wear our moko everywhere…”(3)

(1) CNN World, 2 November 2020, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern appoints country’s first Indigenous female foreign minister”.

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Māori_King_Movement.

(3) RNZ, 9 August 2016, “Mahuta in MP tattoo first”.

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