New Zealand's premier offends Maori tribe by cracking cannibal joke

The Prime Minister of New Zealand apologised yesterday for joking that he would have been part of the meal had he attended a dinner with a Maori tribe whose history includes cannibalism.

John Key's quip further soured relations that were already strained over the Tuhoe people's attempt to win back ownership of tribal lands confiscated by a settler government 150 years ago.

The Tuhoe have accused Mr Key of betraying an earlier agreement with the government for the return of their sacred Te Urewera lands on New Zealand's North Island.

The premier was addressing a tourism conference when he made a reference to the dispute and having a meal with leaders of a tribe – known as an iwi – who are the Tuhoe's neighbours.

"The good news was that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou as opposed to their neighbouring iwi, which is Tuhoe – in which case I would have been the dinner," Mr Key said.

Te Ururoa Flavell, a Maori lawmaker, said the joke was unfortunate and would add to the Tuhoe's sense of injustice. "Well, the first thing to say is [that] it is probably correct, and the second thing is – probably not wise in the current climate," he told National Radio.

Before European settlement, Maori tribes regularly raided other tribal groups, seizing some as slaves and indulging in cannibal feasts to sow fear among their enemies. Scholars believe the practice ended 200 years ago.

Tamati Kruger, the chief Tuhoe negotiator, said the joke was "in poor taste", was unbecoming of a prime minister and that relations with Mr Key were getting worse by the day.

Mr Key later expressed regret, saying: "It was a light-hearted joke, a bit of self-deprecating humour. But if anyone is offended, then I deeply apologise."