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

The waning of the Maori Councils

page 62

The waning of the Maori Councils

Enthusiasm among Maoridom for the Maori Councils waned, and in the event only six general conferences were ever held. Even Ngata resigned from the system in 1904, in despair at the lack of state support, and after Mair left in 1907 the central administration languished. The Maori Council system, now run from the Native Department (which had been reinstated in 1906), was on a downward spiral. Denied meaningful rangatiratanga, the Councils declined; they therefore became of decreasing significance as agencies of government instrumentalism, and were even further starved of funding and authority.

While some continued to operate, others became defunct or continued only in name. In some Council districts, officially endorsed komiti marae flourished regardless of the health or otherwise of the regional bodies. In others, Maori reverted to customary structures 'untainted' by Crown authority. In particular, Maori would shun the system in areas where pakeha 'excesses' – liquor selling, stock trespass, wahi tapu violations and the like – which the Councils were generally powerless to stop, were rife.

Within a few years of their establishment the resource-starved Maori Councils were manifestly unable to address the concerns of either Maori or state. Attempted revivals by the minister in charge, Ngata, especially by convening a general conference in 1911, did not succeed. After that hui, indeed, no further general gatherings occurred. Nevertheless, activities under Council auspices continued in many areas. When smallpox broke out in the Auckland region in 1913, for example, Maori Councils and their komiti actively aided the police, health and other authorities in restricting travel, vaccinating and monitoring social distress.

All in all, it would be a mistake to echo some modern reassessments that depict the Councils as no more than a typical and successful state ploy to suppress Maori. It should be remembered that they were in fact initially an experiment forced on the Crown by exigencies, that prominent Maori had felt this could bring benefits to their own people in different ways as well as assisting the Crown's agendas, and that there were achievements which benefited Maori. Historians who have tended to page 63blame the Crown's lack of resourcing for the gradual demise of the Maori Councils have equally downplayed Maori agency, ignoring the fact that many Maori organisations not funded by the state had been (and were to be) highly successful. In essence the Councils languished because their primary purpose was not to effect but to contain, even to restrain, rangatiratanga. Maori who had sought to make use of them in pursuit of autonomy found the state's parameters too constraining to do so effectively. But meanwhile they had produced results that both Maori and the Crown had wanted, such as 'play[ing] an important role in the cultural adaptation of tribes to modernity in isolated rural areas'. In fact, because Maori in some areas saw some residual use for the Councils and their sub-institutions, and that suited the Crown too, the latter continued to see some leverage in keeping the system alive.

In the suspicious atmosphere of the home front during the First World War, however, the wielding of Maori Council powers by elected persons was seen as potentially dangerous. In 1916, therefore, by legislative amendment the Councils became Crown-appointed entities. After the war, following enormous Maori casualties in the great influenza pandemic, the government decided for several reasons to concentrate its official Maori energies on health matters. The new 'Health Officer for Natives', Te Rangihiroa/Buck, recommended that the most convenient way to do so was to locate the new programmes in the pre-existing community-based structures of the 1900 system, especially since health had tended to be the main work of the functioning Councils that remained. Such ideas had been mooted since the early years of the Maori Council system, and the politicians now accepted the argument.

In 1919, then, Maori Councils were required to work in close cooperation with the Department of Public Health. Reform went much further in 1920, when the Department of Public Health was restructured. Te Rangihiroa was appointed director of the specialist Division of Maori Hygiene, and in specified 'Maori Health Districts' the Councils were to be defined as Maori Health Councils. The Councils' main official function became raising the health and well-being of Maori, given that they were no longer seen as a dying race.

In terms of either fundamental state purposes or substantive Maori page 64autonomy, neither the Crown nor Maori gained a great deal out of the 1900 institutions and their successors. Many observers, including historians and other scholars who have interpreted both the Maori Councils and the superimposed Maori Health Councils as a genuinely motivated 'compromise' by the Crown, have pronounced the experiment a failure. But by creating the Maori Council system the Crown had considerably defused a late-nineteenth-century build-up of Maori protest. Moreover, the Councils and their committees had played some part in the relative quiescence of Maori as a political force in the first decades of the twentieth. On the Maori side, a degree of autonomy had been carved out considerably beyond that which the Crown had intended, and even traditional cultural and organisational arrangements had secured a degree of clandestine protection – including even the tohungaism so detested by officials and Maori modernisers. Undoubtedly, the Councils' work – especially in health – brought considerable benefits to Maori communities. Some revived sufficiently to continue on through the 1920s and beyond; when the system was superseded in 1945, six remained. In an official chronology of the Department of Maori Affairs, compiled six decades after their founding, the original Maori Councils and their health-oriented successors had disappeared from sight altogether. They deserve greater recognition.46