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

The rise of Ratanaism

The rise of Ratanaism

Some developments in defining and developing a Maori sphere of polity after the First World War were only partly based on tribal groupings. Others were not at all. These generally fell into one of two categories, intertribal (as with Kingitanga) or supra-tribal. The most powerful of the various pan-tribal movements was Ratanaism, which was not just stridently non-tribal, but anti-tribal. It began as a new strand of Christianity, another in a long line of Maori adjustment and protest movements based on religio-spiritual teaching. Maori churches splitting, or emerging separately, from mainstream Christianity often reflected recognition that traditional indigenous world-views were, by themselves, inadequate defence against socio-political and other types of marginalisation. Given the importance of spiritual practice in the traditional canon — the dominance of concepts such as mana, tapu/sacredness and mauri/life force — the emergence of syncretic religious movements melding the religion of the pakeha with that of indigenous theology and practice was logical.

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Emergent doctrines were often contextualised within a search for new politico-cultural guidelines for everyday values and behaviour, and these frequently ignored or challenged some Crown 'requirements' or pakeha norms of behaviour while accepting others. In the nineteenth century, the politico-religious Pai Marire/'Hauhau' movement had sought, sometimes bloodily, to promote unity of action against Crown and settler encroachment. Resistance prophet Te Kooti's Ringatu Church had remained a focus of opposition to Crown intentions for the Urewera and neighbouring tribes. Kingite resistance to assimilation had been strengthened by its Tariao faith.

Most politico-religious movements, despite the frequency of unity-inspired aims and methods, had not been able to garner more than, at most, a handful of tribal bases. After the First World War, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana founded a religious movement that appealed not to trans-tribal federationism, but to the building of what was envisaged to be a non-tribal movement. This development reflected a growing feeling that traditional socio-organisational structures, and their unity movements, had failed to protect Maoridom from settler and Crown subsumption, and so something more than a mere overhaul of them was needed.

The way of the future was seen to lie in superseding the tribes. Ngataism had originated from a similar perception, but remained largely an elitist, top-down movement whose impact on Maori social life was largely indirect. And despite its supra-tribal beginnings, it had increasingly embraced tribally based solutions to the problems of Maoridom. 'Ordinary' Maori who were disillusioned with daily existence under its uneasy mix of capitalism and tribalism found in Ratanaism a leadership that was in touch with the reality of their everyday lives.

When Ratana took up what he believed to be God's command in 1918 to '[u]nite the Maori people', then, this was not to be brought about by the old method of federating tribes in a form of united front for specific or general purposes. Rather, unity of the 'Maori race' would come about through adherence to Ratanaism of masses of individual Maori — those who had renounced tribalism and opted for guidance by a movement that would eventually call itself 'The Union of the Maori page 141Race'. The popularity of its religious teaching was to have profound implications for both Maoridom and the Crown, especially when its leaders developed more overtly the political dimension that was implicit from the beginning.

For T W Ratana did more than reflect an alternative, holistic religious world-view in his preaching; he also addressed the socio-economic plight of the great majority of Maori, and seemed to understand their immediate wants and needs. In particular, he quickly came to voice the concerns of the poorest and most dispossessed within Maoridom, particularly the many subsistence farmers and contract labourers and their families. Expected by the Crown to assimilate, these sectors of Maoridom had gained very few of the material benefits of 'western civilisation'. Ratana gave them hope in his ringing endorsement of King Tawhiao's sentiments: 'Ko oku hoa, ko te humeka, te parakimete, te watimeta, nga kamura, nga pani, nga pouwaru … /My friends are the shoemaker, the blacksmith, the watchmaker, carpenters, orphans and widows …'86

Government concern at Ratanaism as a political movement increasingly overshadowed initial worry about its spiritual doctrines. Ratana argued that cutting tribal ties, followed by a recollectivised unity of purpose and approach, would create sufficient pressure on the Crown to force it to fulfil its obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi. In short, Ratanaist interpretation of rangatiratanga, and therefore of the state's obligations to Maori, was different from that of tribally based leaders, including those who continued to advocate unity in the sense of transtribal aggregation or activity for specific or general purposes. For Ratanaism, new politico-spiritual leaders would increasingly emerge from the tribal ashes. Insofar as there was collective organisation within the new politico-religious movement, it was the whanau grouping which was important.

Tolerating tribalism as a temporary necessity that, at best, it might be able to use in the meantime, the Crown had developed various mechanisms for coping with tribal pressure. On the surface, it might have been expected to welcome Ratana's anti-tribal teachings. Yet his movement was seen as a serious new potential mode of subversion. Its wish to unite all Maori, especially those who had suffered most from page 142colonisation, on a policy platform that gave them politico-cultural as well as economically redistributive hope for the future was a greater threat to the body politic than the relatively quiescent Kingitanga and Kotahitanga. It also presented the possibility of an alliance with pakeha social-democratic and other organised labour movements. At a time of hysteria over bolshevism, these were considered sufficient threat to the political economy to be under close scrutiny by the intelligence agencies of state. The Ratana movement's desire to unite the poorest Maori was seen as threatening enough, let alone its potential as a new component in a broad left-wing front. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that Ratanaism was viewed with great suspicion by conservative governments.

Some aspects of the Ratana movement suited the Crown, however. Members agreed to abandon elements of their tribal past that were seen by the state and Ratana leaders alike as anachronistic. This boded well for the assimilation agenda, and the government gave a good reception to the concept of Maori renouncing their tribal affiliations. Ratanaism, moreover, shared the antipathy towards tohungaism found in both Young Maori Party and state circles. Although Ratana's fame spread through his faith-healing message and successes, these were seen by his followers as a sign of his divine authority rather than adherence to traditional psycho-medical preachings and practices. The Crown, in particular, welcomed this. While Ngataism focused on the charlatanism which it perceived to have subverted tohungaism in the wake of colonisation, the state was in general accord with Ratanaism that all tohunga embodied outmoded tribally based mores and teachings. There was cautious official acceptance, then, of the Ratana movement's rejection of tohungaism and 'superstitions' (despite the new prophecies and esoteric rituals that replaced them).

But official New Zealand (and Ngataism) remained exceedingly nervous of Ratanaism. Its concerns were several, in addition to anxiety about obvious resonances with the pakeha labour movement. Politicians and officials saw Ratana as a potential Te Whiti, whose attempt to create a mass passive-resistance movement across tribes had been viewed as subversive. Mere Rikiriki, who had raised Ratana, was a prominent supporter of Te Whiti and Ratanaism would adopt some of the policies page 143of the Taranaki pacifist movement. Moreover, for state and mainstream religious authorities, Ratana's teachings and policies were eclectic, puzzling and seemingly contradictory; such people were apprehensive, even fearful, of the unknown. At first the prophet and his followers tried to operate through existing churches, but Ratana's belief that Maori were a 'chosen people', and his assumption of the title of Mangai/God's Mouthpiece, created enormous tension. Eventually, the movement came to stand alone.

Ratana's brand of faith healing reflected a popular international trend from the late nineteenth century, which had often come to the attention of the secular and religious authorities. Spiritual healing-based sects often propagated ideas deemed to subvert the authority of the state and its desired mores. Fraudsters heading or operating within them had frequently been exposed. In New Zealand, unease spread with Ratana's rapidly increasing popularity. Before long Ratana Pa, near Wanganui, had become the centre for faith healing in the country. The prophet's prioritisation of the needs of his own people applied even to his healing prowess, adding to church and state fears of Ratanaist 'race-separatism'. The movement would 'notify our Pakeha friends' in newspaper advertisements that 'you are absolutely barred from approaching our Brother, T.W. Ratana, at present until the Maoris have been treated'.87

The Crown was also concerned that Ratanaism was, at least passively and despite its intolerance of tohunga, resistant to many of the health-based reforms that were central to Ngataism. It opposed, for example, Te Rangihiroa's work as Director of Maori Hygiene. This was partly because Ratanaist spiritual practices were based on faith healing, but there were more profound reasons. In particular, the state-favoured Young Maori Party strand of Maoridom stood increasingly for tribal preservation as well as a 'beneficial' pakehaising of Maori. In contrast, Ratanaism campaigned overtly against iwi-or hapu-based lifestyles and in favour of a national, self-determinationist identity for a 'very Maori' Maoridom. Officials and politicians, of course, sought an assimilationist path that, while tolerating tribalism for the moment, attempted to do so in an appropriable form — a considerably 'lesser evil' than a mass movement of detribalised Maori.

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Not only did Ratanaism increasingly become explicitly left-wing, but its quest for a transformed Maori future based on the actions and wishes of the morehu, the dispossessed and common people of Maoridom, took place within a firm Treaty of Waitangi framework. 'In one of my hands is the Bible; in the other is the Treaty of Waitangi'.' The Treaty, signed with chiefs on behalf of their tribal groupings, was therefore to be used as the symbol for resolving all Maori grievances at a national, non-tribal level. This was a remarkable example of the selective adaptation of an iconic document for means (and ends) that might themselves be seen as subverting the Treaty's original embodiment of tribal rangatiratanga. The movement ignored or opposed any matters which might divert it from a national, supra-tribal Maori struggle for rights and the attainment of a new-style Maoridom.

Traditional tribal leaders resisted such a Treaty discourse, but so did the Crown, which — however much it endorsed the detribalisation message — preferred that the Treaty remain sotto voce. Notwithstanding this, Ratanaism attracted great publicity and continued to situate its various activities under the umbrella of its own interpretation of the Treaty. While making many demands on the state for redress of grievances, at its outset Ratanaism was careful to resist any sign of collaboration with the Crown on not just health but other issues too. It even declined to engage in any activity that might potentially be appropriated for state purposes.

All this created difficulties not only for the Crown, but for other Maori groupings. Ratana rejected, for example, Maori participation in the Ngataist consolidation and development schemes. In opposing the tribally based rangatiratanga on which most Maori leaders of the century had built their bases and their hopes, Ratana was from the beginning as implicitly political and challenging inside the Maori as the pakeha world. For this reason, for a time radical Kingite forces led by Taingakawa attempted to forge an alliance. By emphasising mass pressure as the main weapon to bear on the Crown, the Ratana movement offered a new means of deliverance from subordination, a rekindling of hope for recovery of what had been lost — or what, for at least some morehu, they had never had. As early as 1922, Ratana was well on the way to full appreciation that forcing the Crown to provide a better deal for the page 145Maori masses required supplementing spiritual with temporal actions. This meant modifying his initial policy of total non-engagement with the Crown. The movement petitioned the Crown and demanded that the Treaty be incorporated into statute, and Ratana leaders attempted to meet the King in England in 1924.

As politicisation progressed, the demands of the Mangai and his followers became increasingly radical. There was a bid, for example, to persuade the Crown to authorise the establishment of a unified Maori self-government regime. The movement quickly became the largest and most unified political movement among tangata whenua, reportedly touching every Maori community. In 1927 the Mangai estimated (and Ngata agreed) that Ratana membership was 21,500, or a third of all Maori. With many Ratanaists retaining tribal links despite the movement's teachings, its following is hard to calculate, but even official figures placed the percentage of adherence among Maoridom at around a fifth. Whatever the actual membership figures, it is clear that Ratanaism's flax-roots strength was enormous. That year William Baucke noted its intentions: 'The Ratana Movement has come to stay until the white man redeems his trust.'88

In the quest for such redemption, in 1928 the Mangai formally subsumed his spiritual mission beneath his temporal one. This decision included seeking engagement with the Crown at a parliamentary level. Many people, Maori and pakeha, had come to view the four Maori seats in the New Zealand House of Representatives as dominated by a complacent Maori elite. T W Ratana, in particular, had made very clear his opinion that the Maori MPs had, in recent times, been neglecting the interests of Maori, especially the morehu. At least three of the incumbent Maori MPs were felt to need replacing, so that the power the special seats were believed to have once had could be revived. Champions of indigenous rights could thereby 'find a place in the system of government and policy making which could help satisfy Maori needs and expectations'. Ratana's engagement in such debates had brought him round to the view that his extra-parliamentary movement might be able to concentrate its mass power through control of the Maori MPs in the 'pakeha parliament'.

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While not rejecting the thrust of his founding methodology, then, the prophet added a new dimension: an attempt, on Ratanaism's own terms, at an accommodation with the pakeha political system. The movement would continue to concentrate on building its popular base but aim to use it as a lever into the pakeha political world. Ratana vowed to secure the Maori parliamentary seats for four chosen followers. The aim of this Four Koata/Quarters policy was integration of 'both grass roots representation and elite nationalism into a new form of group politics'. From 1928, then, Ratanaism came to refocus some of its energies on making its people-backed power more effective by gaining a voice in Parliament. At that year's election Ratana announced the fundamental policies of his parliamentary candidates: first, honouring the Treaty, and 'Secondly the Maori Self Government'.

The strategy was to work at first within the state system of indivisible sovereignty, and then ultimately to move outside it, in a way and to an extent not yet fully conceptualised. Along the route to power, the leadership realised, modifications would be needed. One came quickly, with Ratana and his advisers appreciating that, whatever the truth or otherwise of the Maori MPs once having wielded great influence, a minority voice in Parliament could do little on its own. The movement began, therefore, to explore the implicit linkages that its concerns for the poor gave it with the predominantly pakeha Labour Party. Increasingly, as a result, it would work towards a coalition with the party of the pakeha morehu.89