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

Institutions of indirect control

Institutions of indirect control

The imperial reality was generally that the Crown could only gradually extend its sway over the territory over which it held nominal sovereignty, and New Zealand was no exception. Until it gained first physical and then full hegemonic control over all the colony's inhabitants, the Crown had little choice but to allow chiefly institutions and Maori customs to continue. These needed, however, to be subject to controls, including the franchising of chiefs to keep a degree of 'law and order' on its behalf in buffer or even outer zones. Both within the areas under direct state control and in liminal regions where it had temporarily devolved authority to chiefs, the state would establish control institutions based on, derived from or equivalent to indigenous structures. These were not, despite the retrospective optimism of some historians, either designed to be or page 32operated as concessionary organs of self-determination.

The official runanga institutions of the 1860s, for example, were quickly abandoned by the Crown when they proved to be no longer useful as institutions of socio-racial control of Maori. While the state presented a unified stance at any given time, within it such matters as enfranchising indigenous institutions as modes of state control were contestable. In settler colonies, in particular, indirect control methods were far from universally popular among colonisers and their political representatives. When Native Minister Donald McLean proposed in the 1870s that 'Native Councils' could manage Maori areas, this was rejected by Parliament as too concessionary, even though they were to be headed and directed by pakeha officials. All the same, proposals for indirect control continued to be floated, partly in response to Maori organisational initiatives, which in turn partly addressed government intentions and actions.

Also in the 1870s, for example, Maori developed their own komiti/committees, reviving the old runanga institution in a new form which constituted one of the post-war strategies of resistance to the Crown. In some regions a komiti-based government and policing system arose beside that of the state — in Rotorua, Wanganui and the Far North, for example. The Crown could temporarily tolerate such developments, so long as they met state requirements. Komiti could not, for example, enforce their local or regional laws on pakeha, even when tikanga/customs or livelihoods were adversely affected by such matters as desecration of taonga (treasured items or places); this had happened at the internationally renowned Pink and White Terraces, for instance. Moreover, while some komiti remained resistant to the Crown and to colonisation, many came to grips with the inevitability of settlement. They calculated that by helping regulate it they would retain at least some tribal influence over events. Some groupings helped open up regions to settlement, including areas from which Crown personnel and settlers had been forcibly excluded.

The Maori MPs (themselves representing a supposedly temporary measure, pending assimilation) were often in the forefront of collaborative efforts aimed at ameliorating the effects of settlement. In 1883, for example, they secured the Native Committees Act to enable establishment page 33of officially constituted komiti, believing this would benefit Maori as well as the Crown. But the compromises involved in procuring the legislation were great. The Crown's aim was to ward off separatism by encompassing it. The final product, which was therefore far from their original idea, typified appropriative attempts by establishing a system that was toothless for Maori.

In the twelve large areas of the North Island designated under the legislation, the committees had few meaningful powers. They were denied, for example, the right to issue summonses. The committees were, moreover, to be used to promote government policies for investigating and individualising communal Maori land tenure. Yet even co-operation for limited objectives, such as providing advice to the Native Land Court, proved to be of little value, for the court would often ignore their deliberations. Maori soon found that their own informal komiti remained far more useful to them than those franchised by the Crown. A series of hui (meetings or assemblies) that called for real powers to be given to the official committees was ignored, and the system thereafter languished.

Such dashed hopes did not deflect Maori from their struggle to find an independent place within the pakeha-dominated polity. Their spokespeople, official and unofficial, consistently stressed that 'autonomy was fundamental', expressing this in many ways through time. Mihipeka Edwards, for example, has noted the struggle of Maori to establish that they were a 'people with our own dignity, pride and mana'. Even towards the end of the nineteenth century, when most pakeha believed Maori to be a 'dying race' which had lost its social control mechanisms, tribal control structures were still very much alive and new politico-cultural preservation techniques were being developed.26