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

Continuing setbacks for Maori

page 84

Continuing setbacks for Maori

While the Stout–Ngata recommendations fell short of ideal from a Maori perspective, being encompassed within a directive Crown system, they seemed to hold out prospects for significant retention of Maori ownership and control of land. A mix of leasing out and Maori-run development could lead to increased production in the 'public interest', and the Crown might well have been expected in turn to ameliorate its compulsion and purchasing regimes. But a government increasingly pressured by settlers for freehold access to land believed that the commission had been too protective of Maori interests. The Native Land Settlement Act, passed in 1907 against considerable Maori opposition, reflected few of its interim recommendations. Instead, the legislation embodied many of the Crown's preoccupations with 'opening up' the countryside.

Section 4, for example, allowed Maori land deemed 'surplus' in any Maori Land District to be compulsorily vested in the Maori Land Boards, for both sale and lease. Moreover, the Act overturned the 1900 principle that lands which had been voluntarily vested could not be permanently alienated. Additionally, from a Maori point of view the success of the Stout–Ngata recommendations on incorporation and consolidation depended on state assistance for procedures already available, and the Act did not provide for this. The Western Maori MP depicted it as a 'trampling-upon the mana' supposedly assured to Maori by the Treaty of Waitangi'. If that document meant anything, he stated, it was surely that the tangata whenua had the capacity to control their own lands.

While the Act reflected some Stout–Ngata recommendations, then, its spirit was generally against that of the commission – which itself had fallen short of Maori aspirations. Ngata joined fellow politicians and other Maori leaders in coming out very publicly against the thrust of the legislation (although he voted for it when some concessions were gained). But the interests of the settlers were steadily gaining powerful momentum. The Native Land Settlement Act was followed by other legislation which also went against the grain of Stout–Ngata recommendations in particular and Maori aspirations in general. The Maori Land Boards became ever more central to land alienation processes. One historian has bluntly page 85dismissed the Maori Land Councils and their successors as 'bodies that wholly served European interests', and it is hard to modify this with reference to the boards. For decades to come, the Maori Land Boards were to control and decide the fate of Maori lands.59

Yet the negotiations and legislation at the turn of the century had enabled Maori to force themselves further into the political and land-use discourses and processes, complementing (and to a degree feeding into) their demographic revival. In that sense the land policies which gave them some initial benefits, however constrained and short-lived, provided a concrete illustration that it was possible to make some gains for rangatiratanga in the most adverse of circumstances. This strengthened Maori resolve. Reactions to the inexorable whittling away of the limited degrees of collective autonomy that had been granted were increasingly forthright.

This could be seen in the follow-up to a 1906 Crown 'settlement' with Ngai Tahu, after decades-long protests over their landed and political marginalisation. The South Island Landless Natives Act, which embodied the settlement, had provided for shares in reserves to be awarded to 'landless' tribal members, and this appeared to endorse Ngai Tahu's rangatiratanga. But, among the resulting problems, the areas eventually selected for the reserves turned out usually to be not only economically poor or 'useless', but also far from their tribal lands. The awards therefore provided 'an almost totally unsatisfactory resolution to the problem' experienced by the tribe in the first place. From 1907 Ngai Tahu began to formulate claims which amounted to a quest to regain Crown acknowledgement of its rangatiratanga. The iwi persisted with Te Kereme/The Claim throughout the century, in a complex and changing relationship, finally settling over the Crown's breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1998.

Other tribes had equally long and troubled relationships with the Crown, all shaped to some degree by the developments of the early years of the twentieth century. The Crown's propensity to examine grievances when under great Maori pressure held out hopes of progress that in turn fed Maori resolve. There were various parliamentary and other inquiries into such matters as Taranaki kupapa claims to land, the page 86terms of leases on Maori-owned timberlands and the Crown's non-fulfilment of obligations on properties gifted for educational purposes. Overall, however, very little progress was made in satisfying Maori aspirations. At this time some Maori leaders came to realise that hopes for significant land-based rangatiratanga might well be unrealistic.60