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

Maori Health Councils

Maori Health Councils

The 1930 development also, however, helped the bureaucracy establish an even tighter control over Maoridom. Bureaucratic controls had remained tight for even the supposedly semi-autonomous Maori Councils/Maori Health Councils. In 1920, full administrative control of these passed from the Native Department to Te Rangihiroa's division of the health system. The Council apparatus had by this time become mostly absorbed within the government bureaucracy, a logical conclusion to its origins and evolution. The Maori Health Councils were to advise the District Health Officers and their superiors, and assist them with sanitary policies and operations. Te Rangihiroa reorganised many of the Maori Councils still in existence, and by April 1921 had established 20 Maori Health Council districts in the North Island. In 1922 the Health Department was assigned responsibility for appointments to the Councils, the Native Department having wished to divest itself of remaining responsibility for organisations which had only marginal relevance to its work.

Te Rangihiroa and his staff worked on new model bylaws, and supervised revival and reorganisation of the new-look Councils and their village committees. There was appreciation that community-based health workers and local Maori leadership support could play a significant role in achieving health goals, but the structure remained centralised. This was in line with a number of precedents: the Health Department's 1911 establishment of a tightly controlled Native Health Nursing Service, for example, rather than giving more resources to the combination of inspectors and volunteers within the Maori Councils (although the page 151department was content to allow the voluntary Plunket Society to handle pakeha infant welfare).

Despite disincentives for local initiative, by 1923 all of the North Island Maori Health Councils were reportedly in good working order. Their brief included cultural and anthropological matters, with Maori health being interpreted on one level as 'working for the proper understanding and betterment' of the race. Shortages of funds, however, were chronic, especially when the Councils lost the power to collect dog-registration taxes and fines. There were also allegations that the bureaucrats had not ensured proper tribal coverage in appointments. But the system was deemed by the Health Department to be valuable enough to retain, and Maori continued working with and for it. Indeed, the Maori Health Councils were selected by Ratanaism as a site of contest, and state officials attempted to counter the movement's influence on them. In 1926, for example, the year before he left the department, Te Rangihiroa arranged with Native Health Inspector Takiwairoa Hooper for the revived, but Ratanaist, Kurahaupo Council to be supplanted by one comprising state nominees.

While the increasing officialisation of the Maori Councils/Maori Health Councils did not bode well for the Maori quest for recognition of rangatiratanga, Te Rangihiroa did provide inspiring leadership that promised concrete benefits for Maori. But the problems which had underlain the lacklustre performance of the Councils, even within their own spheres of reference, remained: constraints on initiative, and lack of government resources (including for training professional nurses). In 1927 a disillusioned Te Rangihiroa left the division he had created, but his work continued. By 1929, when the four South Island and Chathams Maori Health Councils were finally gazetted, virtually a national network existed, with only Waikato Maori holding out against jurisdiction by a Maori Health Council.

When Te Rangihiroa's successor resigned in 1930 the Maori Hygiene Division was abolished. The work of the Maori Health Councils was less appreciated after this action, forming as it did part of a restructuring intended to take an integrated national approach to health issues. When the division closed, it is said, '[w]ith it went the likelihood of a Maori page 152health workforce closely linked to Maori communities, skilled in Maori approaches to health, and able to offer effective Maori leadership'. But the Maori Health Council institution was still assessed to be worth continuing, partly because of its flax-roots strength. In 1931, 260 village committees were operating under the Councils. The Director of Maori Hygiene, Dr Edward Pohau Ellison, described the network as comprising over 1400 'Maoris ever ready to assist in any emergency or cause the department may think necessary'. With some of the Maori Health Councils and their offshoots operating effectively well into the 1930s, it is too harsh a judgment to join most commentators in declaring the system a failure. In the later 1930s, indeed, the government considered reviving the Council movement, which it would scarcely have bothered to do had the existing system not had a viable base.

Caution won out, however, partly because of flax-roots robustness. Maori Health Councils that were flourishing often ignored their official limits and pursued their own independent agendas. Ngati Raukawa still operated its system of local governance in conjunction with the Councils, for example, and had even contemplated establishing a tohunga clinic – such was the resilience of tribal ways in the face of Crown wishes. In view of this as well as other factors, the state concluded that it should not revive the system – and meanwhile, had not made any sizeable investment in it. And so, except in the self-determinationist pockets, the original Maori Council cycle was repeated with the superimposed Maori Health Councils: decreasing numbers of Maori worked within the system and the Crown regarded it even more as of residual importance, starving it further of authority and resources.

New developments filled in some of the gaps which, as a consequence, opened up. Maori Women's Institutes had been established from 1929 in rural areas, for example, and from the early 1930s local health committees were formed in the Rotorua area, working closely with the local marae and hapu. In 1937 these formed the basis for the Maori Women's Health League/Te Ropu o te Ora, which had a higher professional nursing input than the Maori Health Councils. It soon spread into other rohe. Branches set up under its auspices tended to take over the functions of residual Councils, making the latter that much more page 153marginal. Moreover, in another recurring pattern, these branches would themselves foster Maori cultural and other developments over many decades.

For Maori, the Maori Health Council system had played a not insignificant part in health, sanitation and other welcome reforms. Various tribes and regions had also used it to forward their aspirations for control over their own lives. The mere existence of the original Councils and their health-oriented equivalents, however truncated their powers, provided some hope that greater autonomous powers might be attainable even within an assimilationist paradigm. Moreover, despite their regional base and their supersession of Kotahitanga, the co-operation between and within councils may have assisted in forging the 'sort of proto-national culture' and intertribal cooperation among Maoridom that was to be highly significant in the future. During the Second World War the remnants of the Council system formed part of Maoridom's, as well as the Crown's, strategic adaptation to the dramatic circumstances of another international conflict. This was to be the final work undertaken within the Council system, and it was not insignificant.92