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


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This book has stressed the resilience and adaptiveness, in the face of great odds, of Maori political and cultural forms and aspirations. It has focused on the enduring Maori quest for Crown recognition of rangatiratanga, and the Crown's responses to this. Ever since 1840, whenever Maori demands for autonomy were asserted with any strong organisational backing, the colonial and post-colonial state sought to defuse or deflect them. Frequently it did so by incorporating organisational and ideological aspects of such movements into its own structures and apparatus – from officialised runanga, komiti and other Maori institutions in the nineteenth century through to the Maori War Effort Organisation and its successor towards the middle of the twentieth.

Crown acceptances or incorporations of degrees of tribally based organisational and cultural revival and development represented strategies and tactics in pursuit of its hegemonic goals. In turn, Maori used the state's offerings and institutions to promote their own autonomist aims and aspirations. The first half of the twentieth century witnessed an endemic clash of cultures and misapprehensions between disparate world-views in New Zealand – as had occurred before 1900 and would continue after 1950. But the leadership of the two major peoples knew in general what each other wanted, and strategised to maximise their own position in such knowledge. These manoeuvrings involved accommodations and compromises as well as confrontations.

In their complicity with the colonising gaze, generations of 'traditional' historians missed the fundamental point that the state possessed overwhelming power and would always use this to pursue its own agenda; and that its goals had little connection with issues of indigenous justice page 267or rights – unless policies which appeared to be empathetic to these happened to suit it at the time. Nationalist historians and many later revisionists, among them members of the 'wishful thinking/lost opportunity' school, have also failed to address adequately the relationship between the state and indigeneity. It is timely to appreciate that the colony of New Zealand was, whatever its particularities, an integral part of a global imperialism that possessed great expertise in modes of socioracial control and assimilation; that the Dominion of New Zealand applied the same general assimilationist policies from its establishment in 1907; and that the application of hegemonic policies not only continued but intensified after New Zealand became constitutionally independent from Britain four decades later.

Historical revisionism has correctly overturned a previous tendency to highlight and laud the Crown and its personnel and actions, but in rescuing 'the people' from obscurity it has tended to overlook or deny the essentially coercive and hegemonic might of the state. By channelling itself into inward-looking race (and gender, and a few class) studies, much revisionist work, insofar as it relates to the state, has had a tendency to throw out the scholarly baby with the decidedly dirty bathwater. The consequent scholarly loss has included any great capacity to perceive the fundamental nature of, and interrelatedness between, resistance and that which was resisted. The task of revising revisionism must, therefore, emphasise the continuingly powerful role of the state and its unswerving determination – whatever the temporary concessions along the way – to pursue its hegemonic agenda.

Scholarly neglect of the coercive power of the state and the interests it primarily represents, and of its hegemonic aims and strategies, has often manifested itself in a lack of understanding of the sheer pervasiveness and intensity of the Crown's assimilationist mission – which prevailed until the last quarter of the twentieth century, and perhaps beyond. A modern historiography that at least implicitly rehabilitates Maori resistance to acculturation and subsumption, but makes only uneasy murmurs about assimilation, actually underplays the enormous determination of that resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. Conversely, such work underestimates the subtleties and efficiencies of the state's strategies and page 268tactics of control. It thus conspires, albeit inadvertently, in the official view that the Crown is a body that is not intentionally antithetical to rangatiratanga. While the state is seen to get almost everything wrong (whether by accident or inefficiency) in a series of missed opportunities for 'partnership' with the tangata whenua, it is believed to have been at least potentially full of good intentions towards Maori and their aspirations.

In actuality the state, in its various manifestations, has been highly instrumental in imposing and implementing strategic and tactical policies to effect its own definition of the 'national good'. As has been stressed, from the beginning the Crown's key Maori policy – resonant with an attitude shared by most pakeha – was that tangata whenua should assimilate fully to 'superior' European mores, beliefs and ways of doing things. Whatever the retrospective longing of many a scholar, while indigenous customs and institutions were often tolerated or incorporated from 1840, this was seen as a temporary expedient until Maori had been Europeanised. This latter process entailed subjecting Maori fully to the will of the Crown: removing practices deemed to be 'repugnant to morality', stripping the tangata of most of the whenua, coercing and socialising Maori into appropriate ways of thinking, seeing and doing. While such policies and actions were continually adapted to changing circumstances, they essentially continued to the end of the nineteenth and throughout the first half of the twentieth centuries, and beyond.

But even the Maori milieu deemed to be the most accommodationist of all, that of the Young Maori Party/Ngataism, believed that Maoridom should preserve appropriate elements of its own culture and institutions at the same time as taking up the many desirable ideas, technologies and lifestyles of the pakeha. Far from being fully assimilationist, then, the Young Maori Party programme of mutual self-respect between the 'two races' of Aotearoa/New Zealand included preservation and enhancement of key aspects of Maori ways and culture. There should be, in Ngata's words, 'an experiment in cultural adaptation' that melded the best elements of both cultures and polities and included some concrete form of rangatiratanga that the state could recognise and work with and alongside. Other Maori movements in the first half of the twentieth century attempted to progress autonomy in many, varied and often more forthright ways.

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Great hope was raised with the Labour–Ratana alliance and Labour's accession to office in 1935. Maori leaders and institutions became quickly aware, however, that their campaign for autonomy needed to take into account that, at that time, the ideological configuration of the dominant culture's political leadership had changed. The triumph of social democracy meant that notions of socio-economic levelling upwards, or at least of reducing the glaring disparities between groups and classes in society, were in the ascendancy. These coalesced neatly with the material and social aspirations of Maori, both of 'ordinary people' wishing for a better life and of leaders who emphasised Ngataist, tribalist or Ratana policies, but official concentration on such labourist aspirations did not allow much room for enhanced recognition of rangatiratanga.

Maori autonomy seemed closer when, during the Second World War, a state effort was made to harness the energies of 'the race'. Maori people and their leaders gained greater Crown-endorsed power than ever before in the history of the nation. But hopes that the wartime gains made for rangatiratanga would be extended substantively into peacetime were dashed. The post-war welfare organisation did provide some capacity for Maori empowerment, but its flax-roots committee system was tolerated only because something like it was regarded by politicians and bureaucrats as temporarily unavoidable.

Moreover, it was established in such a way as to have the potential to divert Maori energies away from 'undesirable' socio-political pursuits and towards safer activities – preferably those that would advance state policies. These would, in turn, lead Maori towards an assimilationist future, one in which the welfare organisation and all its parts would become redundant, along with tribal collectivism and even Maoritanga itself. In the post-war period, as previously, Maori resisted such an agenda, and that resistance included the familiar pattern of using tools provided or endorsed by the state – the welfare organisation itself, for example, or the women's welfare committees.

Whenever Maori progressed towards powerful autonomist forms that the Crown would not easily be able to counteract, then, the state would seek to appropriate their energies to further its own goals; and, in turn, the continuing Maori search for Crown recognition of rangatiratanga page 270would include efforts to reappropriate the appropriated modes of organisation. By 1950, however, despite the gains of the war years, Maori collectivist institutions, vibrant and adaptive as many of them were, remained embattled within the wider polity of New Zealand and at a grave disadvantage in relation to the strength of the state. The general subsuming of Maori matters reflected many socio-economic, cultural, demographic and political factors, including loss of land and an intense Crown desire for the disappearance of all things indigenous (except perhaps for some 'cultural' and tourist-oriented marginalia).

Yet despite the state's ultimate aim for Maori, and whatever Labour's reliance on equality policies and National's extreme aversion to 'separatism', politicians and officials could see that collectivism remained the key organisational mode (however altered by colonial and other experiences) of the tangata whenua and the foundation of their aspirations. Certainly, both Maoridom as a whole and its various organisational expressions could not be wished away. The 'Maori race' had not faded or disappeared, as expected; the 'Race That Would Not Die' was still there, insistently and interactively so, constantly engaging with new sociopolitical and cultural developments and adapting its organisational forms to suit the times.

In 1950 the path that the quest for meaningful exercise of rangatiratanga would take was unclear. Ngata died in the middle of that year, while Labour and its Maori allies were still adjusting to being in the political opposition; Ratana had died long before, and Te Puea would die two years later. While Ngataism, Kingitanga and Ratanaism continued strongly, some of the ways and teachings of their former leaders were seen to be no longer appropriate. Their successors, along with many other Maori leaders and rank and file, sought to develop new ways of expressing rangatiratanga in the greatly altered circumstances of a postwar New Zealand in which Maori were rapidly urbanising.

Internal migration to the urban areas gave official New Zealand new cause to believe that the aspiration for rangatiratanga could finally be assimilated out of existence. Decision makers had long been searching for signs that this terminal process was about to begin. Officials had seized on such sentiments as Te Puea saying to her followers: 'Our page 271relationship between the Maori and the Pakeha is such that we are basically one people.' But, as so often, this was a 'talking past' situation, and the Kingitanga leader's comments needed contextualising by her follow-up statement: 'In the future, remember, we are to walk side by side with our Pakeha friends.' What was sought was far from assimilation, but rather separate ethno-cultural identities and polities interacting and co-operating with each other – in general terms, 'two peoples in one nation' based on (using later terminology) an exemplary 'bicultural partnership' between rangatiratanga and the Crown.127

Whatever the specific types of autonomy desired by the various Maori movements, however, these seemed particularly far away at mid-century. Even 'equality' had not yet arrived. To take one example, it was not accidental that almost all police were pakeha. Maori were not considered to have a responsible enough 'temperament' to do such an important job. The state believed (in the words of a senior sergeant in 1950) that the 'average European would strongly resent being corrected or reprimanded by a Maori'. One thing that all involved in the interface between the two peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand could agree on was that the way ahead in 'race' and Crown-Maori relations would be far from unproblematic and untroubled. This was no small matter in what was officially and popularly considered to be one of the most tranquil societies in the world – perhaps the most peaceful of all.

Yet, although the two major peoples of New Zealand often 'talked past each other' over the next half-century, dialogue did continue and results of sorts did occur. Organisational developments tended to conform to the long-established pattern: significant exercise of Maori agency would be followed by Crown appropriation, and this in turn would be succeeded by Maori attempts to reappropriate the appropriation. All the while, despite the discrepancy between the enormous coercive and hegemonic power of the state and the relative lack of resources of Maori organisations, discussions, debate and sometimes consultation or negotiations occurred. Such engagement continued through a period of increasing, urban-based intermarriage, and gathered momentum during the 'Maori Renaissance' of the 1970s and 1980s, when pakeha and governments had scant choice but to listen more closely to the raised voices of Maoridom and respond page 272in various ways to its autonomist strategies and the tactics it was developing to pursue them.

What they were hearing was, in essence, what Maori had been saying throughout the first half of the twentieth century – indeed, since the beginning of colonisation. In turn, the Crown, at least until the 1970s– 80s, and in some interpretations also thereafter, sought what it had always aimed for: a society of fully assimilated Maori (and other non-pakeha ethnicities). While the two visions might be ultimately incompatible, the search continued for a modus vivendi – in the Crown's eyes a temporary one, but in Maoridom's eyes a lasting one which would entrench state recognition of rangatiratanga. Interactions between Crown (and more broadly, pakeha) and Maori remained, accordingly, highly complex.

The state continued to attempt to defuse or deflect autonomism, often using methods which engaged with and incorporated the organisational and other manifestations of rangatiratanga. Despite both this and urbanisation, Maoridom continued to focus on achieving autonomy, often borrowing from pakeha modes, concepts and structures along the way, and sometimes working to 'take back' (or at least make use of) Maori-based institutions which had been officialised. Despite its strength, and favourable demographic and other factors, the Crown was unable to effect its grand strategy of fully incorporating and then superseding rangatiratanga.128

All through the period under review – and well into the future – Maori collective organisation, in its myriad of tribal, pan-tribal, subtribal and non-tribal expressions, adapted and flourished in the face of great odds, and Maori culture survived, adjusted and revived as demographic recovery proceeded. Maoridom had not, as the Crown wished, withered away, however bleak its future had seemed as the twentieth century approached. Despite urban migration and state containment, it remained vibrant in 1950, and the Crown, whatever its assimilationist vision, had no choice but to continue to engage with Maoridom's aspiration for full exercise of rangatiratanga. The struggle had no end in sight for either of the signatory parties to the Treaty of Waitangi.