WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand's leader apologized Thursday for joking that he would have been part of the meal had he attended a dinner with a Maori tribe whose history includes cannibalism.
Prime Minister John Key's quip further soured relations with the Tuhoe people that are already strained over their bid to win back ownership of tribal lands confiscated by a settler government 150 years ago.
The Tuhoe have accused Key of betraying an earlier agreement with the government for the return of their sacred Te Urewera lands on eastern North Island.
Key was addressing a tourism conference when he made a reference to the dispute and having a meal with leaders of a tribe – known as iwi in New Zealand – that are Tuhoe's neighbors.
"The good news was that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou as opposed to their neighboring iwi, which is Tuhoe – in which case I would have been the dinner," Key said.
Maori lawmaker Te Ururoa Flavell said the joke was unfortunate and would add to the Tuhoe's sense of injustice.
"Well, the first thing to say is, it's probably correct, and the second thing is – probably not wise in the current climate," Flavell 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.
Tuhoe chief negotiator Tamati Kruger told National Radio that Key's joke was "in poor taste," was unbecoming of a prime minister and that relations with him were getting worse by the day.
Later Thursday, Key apologized.
"It was a lighthearted joke, a bit of self-deprecating humor," he told reporters. "But if anyone is offended, then I deeply apologize."