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The Maori Situation


page 1


The Maori population of New Zealand is increasing rapidly. The latest estimate of its number places it at seventy-five thousand, and its rate of increase is now somewhat greater than that of the white population. This represents an astonishing change from the position at the end of last century, when the number of the Maori people fell as low as forty thousand and the extinction of the race was freely predicted. The change, moreover, is by no means one in numbers only. The outlook of the Maori people and their hold on life have also most markedly changed. Though the total Maori population is growing it seems unlikely that the number of those of pure Maori descent is increasing and at the present time probably no more than half of the accredited Maori population is of pure Maori blood. The remainder represents varying degrees of mixed racial descent. This mingling of the two races is no recent thing and is of course likely to proceed. The pure Maori population will eventually be supplanted by a population of mixed bloods. This is inevitable. But it does not mean, as is often assumed, that the Maoris are going to be rapidly absorbed into the general population of this country. The process of mingling and merging will be a gradual one. Much evidence could be brought to show that the Maori people is likely to remain and even increasingly to become an integral and distinct if minor factor in the life of New Zealand. There are two races in this country and there are likely to be two for a long time to come. One has no doubts at all as to good relations between them but more appreciation of the human realities of the situation needs to be shown. The State is to-day called upon to deal with a living and increasing people and not with a page 2 decadent or museum race or a mere tourist attraction. Had there been a more general understanding of Maori realities, which are peculiarly human, the harm to the Maori people caused by the recent Native Affairs Commission, much of it most unnecessarily caused, might have been avoided. Sensitive to a degree in their newly found assurance, and still all too ready to feel inferior, they were made to feel themselves on trial and, what is more, found guilty. At the moment they are confused and wondering what the white population of New Zealand really thinks of them.

And what does it think of them? If the average white New Zealander takes the Maori seriously as a human being, he is usually rather too ready to blame him for characteristics which more careful study will show not to be inherent at all but actually the result of the coming of the Europeans themselves, the extensive destruction of Maori life and the virtual dispossession of the Maori people. Little attempt is commonly made to understand the causes which produced, for a time at any rate (for they are passing) those Maori characteristics which have become almost proverbial amongst us. To put it frankly, we blame the Maori for becoming what we have made him. It is interesting to realise that similar circumstances of the contact of peoples have occurred before, and in view of the people referred to there is one instance which it seems particularly fitting that we should bear in mind. The instance comes down to us from the days when another great Empire, an ancient one, was civilizing native peoples. There is on record a letter from a wealthy Roman landowner to his agent in Britain telling him to ship no more British slaves “as they are so lazy and cannot be trusted to work.” Similar causes produce similar effects; we should be less ready with hasty judgment and hasty blame. There is a widespread belief, and it is one certainly cherished by the average white New Zealander, that no native people have page 3 ever been so fairly treated by Europeans as have the Maori people. As a matter of fact, if it is fully and frankly told, the story of the contact of Europeans with native peoples is much the same everywhere. What we have are so many varieties of what a leading anthropologist has recently termed “the tragic mess which invariably results from the impact of white upon aboriginal culture.” It is true that the Maori people have survived, but this, on careful analysis, proves to be very largely due to their own qualities and their own efforts rather than to any specially favourable mode of treatment. If we are honest there is little ground for pakeha self-congratulation.

Within the last few years many interesting and significant things have been happening among the Maori people. A new form of life for the Maori has been in process of creation. After observing many tragic blunders it is now being realized by the best scientific opinion throughout the world that the wisest policy for a native people in contact with a civilized one is adaptation of civilized institutions to its needs rather than complete imitation. This is the policy on which the Maoris themselves, partly deliberately and partly unconsciously, have necessarily and wisely decided. Whether they wish to abandon altogether their own forms of life or not, people with brown skins cannot really be Europeans and they know it. We are fond of saying and of hearing it said that there is no colour problem in New Zealand. In a sense this is true. It is true for the pakeha. But if there is not now a colour problem for seventy-five thousand men, women and children with brown skins there very easily could be. Maori individuality, with a blended culture partly European and partly Maori, is the only means of self-respecting survival. Just how far this process of adaptation and blending has gone and the challenge that it presents to the sympathy and the generosity of mind of white New Zealanders will be page 4 described in the following pages. But first a brief retrospect will be necessary.

Most of those who live in this country take much too simply what actually has gone on in it during the course of the last century and a half. The story of New Zealand is not altogether or only that our pioneering forbears came and conquered the wilderness, built the towns and established the young nation. Our history is currently told much too exclusively in terms of one race only, in our own terms. Perhaps a Maori historian will one day appear, who will do justice to his people and tell the full truth regarding what has happened to them in this country which was once their own, and express the bitterness that has subsequently been theirs. In fairness it should be done. In the many speeches regarding Maori and pakeha made at the great gathering at Waitangi at the beginning of last year one was amazed at the ease with which ninety-four years of history was simply ignored. We were expected to pass directly from Captain Hobson to the present day. It may be argued that the tragedy of the intervening time is better forgotten. But wrong and injustice—and there have been both in our treatment of the Maori people—are much more readily and cheerfully forgotten by those who have committed them than by those who have suffered them. No one wishes to revive old wrongs and grievances for the sake of reviving them, but apart from any reverence for what is called truth, both peoples would be the better for a greater frankness. Good relations between two peoples cannot really be maintained on the basis of any kind of falsehood, which is what many shallow platitudes about the relations of Maori and pakeha really amount to. Maori self-respect would be enormously enhanced and their assurance of the reality of our goodwill greatly increased if we could bring ourselves to speak the full truth about our treatment of them. The current legend of our treatment of the page 5 Maori people will be convincingly dispelled for anyone who cares to read a small book published in 1888 and unfortunately now rare: G. W. Rusden's Aureretanga—the Groans of the Maori. A good example of New Zealand history as it is usually complacently and simply conceived appeared not long ago in a leading English newspaper, which took occasion to publish a leading article on the remarkable progress of New Zealand during the last sixty years. Progress, it said, was checked in the North Island by expensive intermittent wars with the Maori tribes, but “thousands of British and colonial troops… gradually wore down the resistance of the Maori warriors. Then followed the scarcely less formidable task of opening up the country.” How many, in this land itself, will question the simple sequence of the wearing down of Maori resistance and the subsequent opening up and progress of New Zealand; or stop to ask if any kind of right belonged on the side of the resisting tribes? How many are aware that the General commanding the ten thousand soldiers of the regular army in New Zealand openly accused the Government of the day of using Imperial troops to rob natives of their lands? The present writer is not an historian; but if the Maori people are to be understood and fairly regarded to-day, some account must be attempted, in predominantly human terms, first of the form of life which was their own, and then of what has happened to them since Europeans came amongst them and decided that Ao-tea-Roa was a desirable land in which to live.