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State Authority, Indigenous Autonomy: Crown-Maori Relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa 1900-1950

Land and autonomy

Land and autonomy

The politico-economic subsuming of Maori could be challenged and partly resisted. But in the early twentieth century the accompanying alienation of most tribal lands seemed largely irreversible. Accepted wisdom would have it that large-scale possession of ancestral land was absolutely crucial for exercise of rangatiratanga. But, when many Maori came to realise that their demographic up-swing would not be accompanied by victories on the question of land, the struggle for self-determination was far from abandoned. Even when it became clear that much of the remaining Maori land would continue to be lost to bureaucratic and (pakeha) farmer control for decades of leasehold, or disappear altogether from tribal patrimony through Crown purchasing of shares from individuals, the quest for the maximal ways of exercising rangatiratanga proceeded unabated.

This discussion has, then, contextualised and corrected a tendency in the New Zealand literature to conflate land-holding and collective indigenous agency and identity. Here, as throughout empire, despite the undoubtedly fundamental nexus between the political culture of indigenous people and the land, collective ethno-cultural identity was the crucial defining factor. The politics of socio-cultural agency prevailed, in spite of land loss and the everyday pressures to subsume indigenous culture.

It is true that struggles for self-determination often centred on the question of land retention or restoration as an immediate tactic, a longer-term strategy or an ultimate goal. But it is equally true that only total assimilation (or genocide), not land loss, could obliterate indigenes as indigenes. The land question, however crucial, was – in the final analysis – subordinate to people. A whakatauki/proverb asks what is the most page 87important thing in life, and the answer is: 'He tangata, He tangata, He tangata'/'It is people, it is people, it is people.' With much of their land base irretrievably lost, and the rest subjected to whittling away of ownership or control (however hard their resistance), Maori increasingly saw the need to focus for the foreseeable future on attaining politico-cultural autonomy. The tribal or pan-tribal regimes embodying this struggle were not geared to prospects of regaining a sizeable landed base within a short or even medium timeframe, or even necessarily of retaining all the land that was left.

To sum up, the integral connection between tangata and whenua – the fact that even the most alienated patch of land was 'still there' and could retain 'spiritual' or other significance and be regarded as potentially repossessable – and the ultimate goals of rangatiratanga gave a profound importance to the role of ancestral land. Yet it was the collectivity of a tribal or other grouping that continued to make an impact, whether or not most pakeha appreciated it, on the social landscapes of New Zealand. When Maori hopes for exercising rangatiratanga through retention and development of the remaining patrimony were, whatever the official line, dashed by Crown actions in the early years of the twentieth century, their focus switched to the quest for politico-cultural autonomy.61