What started as a dispute over land has become a tense battle over race relations, with potentially serious consequences for the future of New Zealand.
By Rosie Goldsmith
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents
Everything seemed to be going well in New Zealand.
The Maori people believe the coastline belongs to them
There had been a tourist boom after the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a thriving economy and a Maori cultural renaissance.
Maori make up 15% of the country, which has a population of four million, and have - by comparison with Australian aboriginals for example - enjoyed relatively harmonious relations with their former colonisers.
But now some Maori talk about war and a "new colonialism", and some of the Pakeha, descendants of the European settlers, worry about dangerous "racial separation".
"I have been accused of threatening civil war," said Margaret Mutu, a prominent Maori academic.
"But I was speaking on behalf of my tribe," she continued. "It is a statement of the depth of our feeling. The government wants to take our land."
The Labour government of Prime Minister Helen Clark has been planning legislation to nationalise the coastline and to stop anyone claiming property rights over the foreshore and seabed.
There is a lot of it in New Zealand and there are already a lot of claims on its ownership.
But the Maori believe the coastline belongs to them, as does the land, the sea and the air.
They were the original owners of New Zealand and they say this is a "colonial land grab".
"I live on the coast and the foreshore is like my front garden," Margaret Mutu explained.
"It is part of my spiritual inheritance. You cannot march in and take it over. And if the government sends in the army it will not just be my nephews and family who defend it."
As he watched the crashing waves of the Tasman near his home town of Nelson on the South Island, Nick Smith, an MP for the opposition National Party, explained why this issue has angered non-Maori like himself:
"The beach is the core to being a New Zealander. It is our right to grab the picnic bag or the barbecue and go to the beach.
"It is also very valuable real estate. The Maori claims industry is all about money dressed up in cultural clothing."
The fear is, as Mr Smith pointed out, that if Maori succeed in regaining the foreshore, they will deny public access to the coastline.
And there has already been one case of that in his constituency.
Maori tribes successfully won a court case and then blocked off an estuary by erecting a concrete and steel gate.
Local fisherman Len Harvey spoke of his anger: "My family has lived and fished here since 1842.
"The Maori have been brutal and aggressive. If I was not a racist before, I am now," he said.
The Maori "grievance industry" and their "culture of dependency" are phrases used by Nick Smith's boss, National Party leader, Don Brash.
Earlier this year he divided the country with what is now known as his "nationhood speech".
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents, Don Brash said he was still proud of that speech:
"The government labelled me racist and dangerous. The media likened me to an Australian woman called Pauline Hanson who was openly xenophobic.
"But what became apparent," he continued, "is that, what I was saying accorded with what New Zealanders across the political spectrum have been wanting to say for a long time."
And Mr Brash's message is this: for too long Maori have had "preferential treatment", and they have become dependent on government hand-outs and "fat cheques" from land settlements.
"We are all one New Zealand," he said, "and should not have separate, race-based laws."
The Foreshore and Seabed Bill, it seems, is not popular in New Zealand.
It is not due to be passed until the end of 2004 but its passage will not be smooth.
In June, 40,000 mainly Maori protesters marched on the capital, Wellington, in the largest demonstration in New Zealand's history.
The Prime Minister referred to the demonstration leaders as "haters and wreckers" but has since kept quiet about it.
It has been a tumultuous year. One Labour MP and cabinet minister even resigned over the issue and immediately formed her own party.
Her name is Tariana Turia and she led the demonstration.
She is a Maori grandmother and respected politician. Her Maori Party was born in July 2004 and has been busy absorbing views and voters around the country.
For the first time, she told the BBC, we have come together in a "unity of purpose and direction", no mean feat for a fragmented tribal group.
"The time for Maori political activity has come," she said.
Unless it is resolved, the Great Race Row - as it has become known in New Zealand - will become a central platform for all parties in next year's general election.
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 28 October, 2004 at 1100 BST.
The programme will be repeated on Monday, 1 November, 2004 at 2030 BST.