The Waitangi Tribunal is struggling to operate due to a lack of money and staff, Chief Judge Wilson Isaac says.
Judge Isaac warned underfunding could lead to the only body charged with hearing Maori grievances against the Crown will battling to do its job.
The tribunal has unveiled plans for its future at a hui in Wellington attended by iwi leaders, claimants, officials and historians, who were told its workload was changing.
The tribunal was getting through regional historical inquiries into land and geographical areas and wants them cleared by 2020, Judge Isaac said.
But the jobs stacking up were contemporary claims and kaupapa claims, such as investigating water rights.
Setting new goals to clear claims would help Maori in the long run but that needed financial backing from the Ministry of Justice.
Associate Minister of Justice Chester Borrows, who was at the hui, said New Zealand's indigenous rights were in better shape than other countries.
He recounted a recent conversation he had with a United States diplomat about First Nations people, who said she was not aware of land grievances and settling rights where she comes from.
Judge Isaac said the claims did not stop coming - particularly urgent ones, such as those over the Rena wreck and Treaty of Waitangi settlements.
It was those priority cases which put the brakes on the tribunal's other mahi [work], he said.