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

Pursuing tribally based autonomy in the Urewera

page 88

Pursuing tribally based autonomy in the Urewera

Maori had before them a model other than that of the local government and land institutions: the one-off tribal deal between the Crown and the Urewera people. But its statute-based 'self-government' regime, within a revealingly titled 'reserve', was firmly and increasingly under Crown tutelage. While title of tribal lands could be divided up hapu by hapu (rather than be awarded to individuals), this was only after investigation by a government-appointed commission. The latter's Native Land Court-style operations would feed into a pre-existing system of strategic land purchases by the state, with land-sellers' awards becoming beach-heads for Crown purchases of desirable adjoining lands, for example. Yet there were advantages for the iwi. Tuhoe and other regional groupings were not only free from armed Crown incursion aimed at suppressing their autonomist aspirations, but also had gained a new, state-implemented institutional means of resisting some of the Crown's more draconian aims. A new site of engagement for their struggle for autonomy had been opened up.

This site never constituted the actual autonomy depicted by 'wishful thinking' and other scholars. The state, moreover, broke its own rules as soon as the tribes were seen to be too assertive. It has been assessed, in fact, that even the degree of autonomy embedded in the Urewera District Native Reserve Act of 1896 was 'honoured more in the breach' than otherwise. When appeals against the decisions of the 'First Urewera Commission' (1899–1902) were heard by the second commission between 1906 and 1914, Tuhoe representation had been dropped. It had been intended that the general committee provided for under the page 891896 Act would approve all land sales. When that body was finally established in 1909 (a development spurred by the Stout–Ngata Commission), the Crown was able to undermine it through new legislation by which the Native Land Court regained jurisdiction in the Urewera. The agreement of 1896 already meant little. As in so many other areas, any faith Maori had put in legal processes was very quickly countered by the harsh realities of power dynamics.

From 1910 the Crown began buying interests in Urewera land. Eventually the purchases would often be from individuals, many of them induced to sell by poverty, rather than through any process of collective decision making by combinations of owners. An equivalent of the imperial 'divide and rule' strategy, a feature of land acquisition throughout much of the colony, was being applied to an allegedly autonomous zone. The Crown had delayed establishing the general committee in the knowledge that it would scarcely be willing to endorse widespread purchasing, a correct surmise given its concerns to safeguard the tribal patrimony. But its very functions ensured that it came to play virtually a facilitating role in extensive sales. It was given the task of identifying areas that should be set aside for collective purposes, for example. Although the committee complied in order to ensure retention of crucial areas of turangawaewae, in so doing it implicitly sanctioned Crown purchasings elsewhere within its tribal boundaries. This was important in the Crown's plans to impose productivity on all usable 'idle' Maori land nationwide: with the 'the last frontier' making 'use' of hitherto non-producing land, a powerful symbolic message would be sent to Maori and pakeha alike. This was intimately connected with the colonising enterprise – as late as 1919 an observer stated that 'even today the Urewera Country is foreign territory'. Because of such perceptions, in the final analysis, the state was determined to 'tame' it as quickly as possible, including through settlement of cultivable lands within the region.

This process took precedence over the 'autonomy agreement', from which the Crown continued to depart. Acquisition of interests in land from individuals was eased by general 1913 legislation which further marginalised the general committee, and from late 1914 the land purchase authorities set about buying land direct from individual owners in the page 90Urewera without reference to it. When the first sale sanctioned by the general committee was finalised in 1912, it had been sought by the generally anti-selling prophet Rua Kenana. His purpose was to gain capital to promote his own self-sufficiency enterprise, itself a quest for autonomy that lay outside the Crown-imposed parameters of the Urewera arrangement. By 1916, the year of a bloody invasion by armed police of the prophet's stronghold at Maungapohatu, the state had so violated its own rules that retrospective legislative amendment was needed. This legalised past Urewera Reserve transactions, and also regularised the status quo by allowing the Crown to purchase any interests without reference to the general committee.

By the following year the general committee was so moribund that the Native Minister, William H Herries, did not know if it still technically existed. When considering a request that it be effectively re-established, he opined that its 'criteria' might be a 'hindrance to purchasing'. The Crown was determined to remove all impediments to 'taming' the Urewera. Since 'cutting out' its existing interests in blocks would lead to unwieldy 'patchworking', it would push on with purchasing until it had a greater number. It would then secure partitioning out of interests, setting the scene for a Ngataist 'consolidation' under the 1909 Act. Ngata had been urging this 'solution' since 1916. While consolidation would potentially benefit non-sellers as well as sellers, meanwhile those non-sellers who held interests in areas desired for pakeha settlement faced considerable Crown pressure to sell.

By late 1919 the Crown's land interests in the Urewera Reserve were sufficient for it to begin planning the consolidation, and by 1921 it had purchased two-thirds of the interests, even though most owners' meetings had rejected selling. Without reference to the general committee, in that year the Crown convened a hui at Ruatoki where Herries' successor, Gordon Coates, presented the case for consolidation. The nature of the occasion can be seen in the fact that government representative Ngata was selected to look after the interests of non-selling Maori. Shortly afterwards, an Act repealed all legislation governing the operation of the Urewera Reserve. 'Ordinary law' was to prevail in the area, and Tuhoe were obliged to help finance consolidation by paying roading costs. The page 91consolidation commissioners paid little heed to the wishes of non-sellers to be awarded the lands of their sacred places and ancestral ties. Coates, moreover, rejoiced that 'tribal holdings are gone', for after non-sellers' exchanges with Crown interests 'family allotments' replaced hapu-based communal holdings. The consolidation, together with an ongoing alienation that would eventually lead to three-quarters of the Urewera passing to the Crown, removed any lingering illusions of a 'state within a state' based on ancestral landholdings. Substantive 'colonisation of Tuhoe' had been achieved.

Some tribes drew specific conclusions from the Urewera experiment. One was that, as Tuhoe memory has put it, the setting up of Crown-endorsed structures had acted to inhibit 'tribal administration'. It was noted that the subsequent processes had led to a faster and more cost-effective system for the Crown's alienation of land for settlement, saving it the costs of court procedures and coercive control. They had also resulted in some decommunalisation of lifestyle. Another conclusion related to the fact that Tuhoe and associated tribes had pursued their autonomy aspirations, whether sanctioned by the state or resistant to it (in the case of Rua's 'rival sovereignty' movement), without reference to Maoridom in general. The route Tuhoe had taken in conjunction with the Crown, therefore, meant that it did not link up with pan-tribal movements. Lacking outside support, a stand-alone tribal effort at self-determination had in practice been overwhelmed by the imperatives of a vastly more powerful government. Conversely, the Crown's dealings with Tuhoe at iwi level helped marginalise Urewera groupings which asserted their rights to be regarded as separate, primary entities with their own rangatiratanga.62

The Crown, regarding itself as possessing supreme sovereignty in domestic and international law, felt able to act in any fashion it wished to pursue what it saw as the public good. Its perspective on indigenous issues remained influenced by the 'dying Maori' belief. While 'the race' might not be physically disappearing, prevalent 'Social Darwinist' views required that, as a socio-cultural phenomenon, Maori were (as an archdeacon wrote in a work on 'The Passing of the Maori' in 1907) 'already potentially dead'. The remnants would assimilate, gaining all page 92the benefits of 'civilisation', albeit in a marginalised position. In the Urewera, this process required political detribalisation and 'scientific farming'. The latter was preferably to be carried out by pakeha, for even post-consolidation Maori family plots were not expected to match European results. Figuratively, in the words of a contemporary official, the aim was to 'Kick the Maoris out'.

Realising the relentlessness of the Crown agenda, many Urewera Maori abandoned any attachment to their increasingly irrelevant 'self-governing' machinery. Rua's 'kingdom on earth' ideas attracted some of them, boosting the Crown's willingness to initiate its only armed encounter with Maori during the First World War, the 1916 invasion of his rival sovereignty base. Even after this last battle in the 'wars of sovereignty' between Crown and autonomy-seeking Maori, and Rua's imprisonment, the prophet gained new followers in the Urewera. In effect arguing that autonomy did not in the end depend on retaining a significant land base, other tribespeople campaigned to be allowed to sell their land to private purchasers. This way, market prices could be gained. In one interpretation, unfettered selling capacity would have constituted a greater exercise of autonomy than the structures provided for by the Crown, although many countered with the argument that selling, however much forced by economic plight, amounted to acceding to state pressure or propaganda.

The Crown's interests in such a remote region at this time were primarily to assert its substantive sovereignty; this was a prerequisite for ultimately harnessing the region for the 'public good'. If there were to be a degree of Maori autonomy, it would be firmly under the auspices of the state. The Crown and the interests it represented would need, in other words, to have potential benefit from it. In the event, a great deal of the Urewera was to remain of little use to pakeha farming or other interests, Maori-owned land often continued to be unproductive even after the consolidations, and leadership problems were rife within a tribe divided by the Crown's actions. Much of the territory secured by the state would be used not for 'national production' but rather within a broader definition of the public good, including 'climatic and water conservation' services and the Urewera National Park. Meanwhile, a long quest for compensation for concrete losses from the Crown's breaches page 93of its promises had begun. Other tribes took note of the fate of the Urewera experiment.63