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The Maori Situation

XI—The Renewal of Maori Life

page 86

XI—The Renewal of Maori Life

There was towards the end of last century ample evidence and considerable justification for predictions of Maori extinction, and as has been explained it was believed in by the Maori people themselves. Some of the factors in their regeneration have already been mentioned. As has been indicated, the impulse to survive came from within, as did the devising of the means of economic rehabilitation. Measures promoted by the pakeha Government took the Maori no further than a wretched kind of landlordism, than living on such rents as he received from the leasing of his lands to Europeans. When these were insufficient to support him or when they were non-existent he found work where he could, often only work of a casual or seasonal nature. The present renewal of Maori race-consciousness and of the Maori's faith in himself represent the cumulative result of a number of causes that have been operating for some time, some of which have already been traced and described. This revival of Maori life is also showing itself in a number of ways. Many or most of the outward forms of Maori life have passed for ever, but some persist and some are being deliberately revived. To be really among the Maori people at the present day is still to be in another mental and social world, in another New Zealand. Maori leaders, realizing clearly the position of their people, are consciously aiming at some degree of Maori individuality. This is done, not in any spirit of exclusive nationalism, and certainly not in any spirit of hostility to the pakeha, but as a result of a realistic facing of their present position and only possible self-respecting future. Say what we will, colour, race and culture do make a difference. If, as we are so proud of affirming, there is no colour problem in page 87 New Zealand (and perhaps relative numbers have something to do with this) there is a colour consciousness. Where a difference of colour exists it is inescapable and inevitably operates in all manner of subtle ways. The Maoris cannot really be Europeans, and there is no good reason why they should try. Maori economic life will no doubt more and more approximate to European economic life as the Maoris learn to master European methods of production, but Maori mental and social life will in many ways for long remain distinct. The Europeanization of the Maori is often discussed as though it were something which should or should not happen. Actually it has been happening for more than a century and will inevitably go on happening, presumably for another century. Those concerned with Maori welfare have to deal not with a falsely conceived static situation, or with a condition that policy can rapidly change, but with a dynamic situation, one that will inevitably change, but change slowly, and to which policy should be progressively adapted. At the moment the need is clearly the conserving and strengthening of the Maori people in their newly acquired awareness of themselves and pride of race, and the giving as full a content as possible to their lives as Maoris. Europeanization has not changed and will not change the colour of their skins and they know it, and racial absorption is still a very long way off. Rapid Europeanization has been several times tried in educational institutions and for various reasons by occasional Maori families, only to end almost always unhappily in the production of individuals who hover uncertainly between two worlds, belonging to neither. The Maoris were themselves the first to realize that it is neither possible nor desirable. Their present desire to be “good Maoris” is partly deliberate and partly unconscious self-preservation. There has often been much mistaken criticism of the result of the education of Maoris in this respect. It has been regretted that page 88 some years of schooling, say at a secondary school, either Maori or European, have failed to turn a Maori into a European, or rather into an imitation European. That this should happen has been thought to be due to some defect inherent in the people. They “go back to the mat,” as the misleading and rather offensive phrase has it. The fact is that they go back to their own people because they identify themselves with them and because among them they feel adequate and secure. It is a matter of being socially accepted, not feeling inferior, and having a social background to confirm them and against which to live their lives. Save for some few of special aptitude who may qualify in the professions or enter into occupations which keep them in the towns and cities, the return to their own people in their own communities by the majority of Maori young people who have been at their boarding schools is both inevitable and desirable. Always, however, there will be those living more or less uneasily and unhappily on the margin of the two races and the two cultures.

Throughout the world at the present time one notes significant evidences of a reversal of the policy, now realized to be mistaken, of the deliberate Europeanization and Americanization of native peoples. In South Africa recommendations have recently been made tending towards the rehabilitation of the natives as natives, the reduction of points of contact between them and Europeans, the provision of lands and the promotion of native settlement thereon. The United States of America has recently made a radical change in policy towards the Indian. After more than half a century of deliberately planned effort to turn the Indian into a white man, the fundamental error of the policy has been realized by contemplating its miserable product, neither Indian nor American, and a vigorous campaign is now to be undertaken to restore him, so far as possible, to his status page 89 as a “good Indian.” Central in this new scheme is a reform in the Indian land policy designed to give the Indians a secure economic foundation on the land. A comprehensive planned scheme is to be set in operation to consolidate Indian lands, to secure additional lands for Indians and to provide a system of credit for land development. This is a striking confirmation of the wisdom of the policy already set in operation in New Zealand through the vision and through the effort of the Maori people's own leaders.

The Ngata land development schemes, as should be already clear, are part of a wider conception.

“We have regarded the subject,” wrote their initiator, “in the main as an important feature in the larger problem of the cultural adjustment between Western and Maori culture. It is a simple conclusion to say that success may come from a judicious selection and combination of elements of the two, once it is understood and conceded that much of the old regime still lingers and still influences the Maori in his everyday life, and that the approach to his mind is still largely by the old-time paths.”

Viewing the subject from the wider point of view of the Polynesian peoples as a whole Te Rangihiroa (Dr. P. H. Buck), writing from Honolulu, says:

“Our cousins the Hawaiians are being rapidly absorbed, if not already absorbed, into the Nirvana of American citizenship. Our remote kinsmen, the Samoans, are in the rut of customs so deep that able-bodied men sit round providing cocoanut sennit and parcelling out governing positions among themselves over a mandated country. Between the two there should be a balance that moulds together the assimilable good of each culture. It seems to me, gazing round the Pacific from the metaphorical top of Maunaloa, that the Maori race are the only branch that are struggling to maintain their individuality as a race and moulding European page 90 pean culture to suit their requirements. The tangi, the hui, and Parliament have kept us together, and by providing exchange of ideas amongst the tribal leaders have stimulated tribal ambitions, which, added together, form an ideal for the people as a whole.”

The recent Commissioners on native affairs were required to report on the probability of Maori land development schemes “achieving the results intended, or of their being justified by the benefits they confer on the Maori people.” The Commissioners noted that Maori farming as conceived by Maori leaders was to be the economic basis of a renewed Maori life which was to include the encouragement of, to quote the Commission, “those manners and customs of the Maori which show a tendency to persist and which he desires to keep.” Those manners and customs, they added, “appear to comprise a political, social and artistic life centred in meeting house and marae, the influence of chiefs, and the care by the tribe as a whole of each member thereof.” The Commission was of opinion that these “communal elements” would hinder the development of “good farming” and, if they were encouraged, that Maoris were unlikely to succeed in the industry of “modern farming for profit.” This view most certainly seems to lay the emphasis in the wrong place, and one has no hesitation in challenging it. It may quite well be that Maori farming will never be on the whole as efficient as pakeha farming. The Maori standard and mode of living will probably never be the same as that of Europeans. It will be simpler and it will be different. Does this greatly matter? Need the Maori be imbued as we are with the paramount importance of the economic factor in life? Should those who brought him the gospel that man does not live by bread alone so readily assume that he need be? Apart from any question of values, this argument fails to note that other factors than the economic are vital to the continued existence page 91 of a people placed as the Maoris are placed. The Commissioners seem further to be confusing two things. It is certainly not the persistence of the particular social forms mentioned that has produced Maori characteristics making success in farming or in anything else doubtful. On the contrary, it was the extensive destruction of their own social institutions in general which destroyed Maori character with its once strong habits of industry. Now it is being reintegrated partly in terms of Maori forms of life, partly in terms of European forms. And what becomes of the Commission's argument when it is realized that Ngatiporou, who show markedly a communal and tribal spirit, and display those very customs referred to, are the most successful Maori farmers? The Maori, it is said, desires to keep certain features of his own life which persist. But he does this not out of sentimental attachment to them, not out of sheer perversity, not even because they contain values of their own, but because, whether he consciously realizes it or not, they are a psychological and social necessity. Any people of any spirit desires to persist as itself. But there is more than this involved in the holding to cultural forms. Maoris cannot be brown-skinned Europeans, and lacking their own social forms to give stability and coherence to their lives then they are destroyed indeed. These forms may in some degree interfere with the Maori in the business of “farming for profit,” but they are vitally necessary to his spiritual existence. Maoris have no inclination towards nor aptitude for commerce, and their work of assisting in the white settlement of New Zealand is over. While a scattered few may enter into a variety of everyday town occupations and live a semi-European life in towns or cities, one sees no future for the people as a whole save a life based on the land, and the continuance and extension of native land development schemes thus becomes of the greatest significance for their welfare. But page 92 whether we like it or not, if they are to flourish as a self-respecting people their farming must be but a basis for a social life characteristically their own. Otherwise they will gradually become, certainly not successful farmers, but a lost and aimless remnant and a charge on the white community which has destroyed them. This is not a matter of sentiment, but a matter of facts which are no less hard because they are psychological and not economic. The Maoris have, compared with many other peoples, proved themselves remarkably adaptable, and they have not been utterly destroyed, but there is certainly a limit to Europeanization beyond which, while they retain their race, they cannot go. Very gradually this limit will be extended and its extension will coincide with the actual merging of the two races; but this is all a long way off.

In some districts, notably the East Coast, the Maoris are geographically self-contained. Further European settlement seems impossible, in fact it may diminish as land falls back into Maori hands, and the successful combination of reasonably efficient farming with a Maori social life which anyone interested or anyone who doubts its reality may go and see for himself, seems likely to continue for a very long time to come. A significant incident is recorded of a visit made several years ago by the Waikato chieftainess Te Puea Herangi and a party of her people to the Ngatiporou tribe. After being shown the evidences of their economic progress Te Puea said: “These people have surely become pakeha.” But having experienced the traditional hospitality, felt the strong tribal spirit of Ngatiporou, and seen their persisting pride in Maori culture in spite of European externals, Te Puea finally said: “These are indeed Maoris still.”

The revival and extension of Maori farming is coincident with the renewal of a number of features of Maori life all helping to fill in the mental and social background of the page 93 people. These are not so many relics, but of practical and living significance in enriching and sustaining Maori life. The revival of Maori carving is an excellent case in point. In 1926 there was established the Maori Arts and Crafts Board “to foster and encourage the study and practice of Maori arts and crafts.” The Board established a school of carving at Rotorua, and Maori carving, once so splendid, after having survived in museums, and, in practice, on pipes and walking sticks and even more trifling objects, is again being executed on a really impressive scale. Young men from the various tribes come to the school, bringing with them some remaining knowledge of their own characteristic tribal patterns, and there learn to execute carvings on a large scale which will bear comparison with the ancient work. Steel tools, of course, reduce the labour of the artist to a fraction of what it originally was. These carvings are for use. They are designed to decorate the new Maori meeting houses, the building of which has been a most significant feature of recent Maori activities. Towards the end of last century Maori meeting houses, once, as has been said, the most elaborate and beautiful structures in the Pacific, had greatly degenerated. The new ones erected in the last few years are again beautiful structures, characteristically Maori, though necessarily incorporating some modern building materials. Perhaps the best is still Te Poho O Rawiri, at Kaiti, near Gisborne. This building, representing within a vast amount of skilled work patiently executed by Maori young people, is fully decorated with carved panels, plaited reed work and painted rafters. All these features are authentically Maori and the result is a beautiful interior which makes one realize afresh the excellence of Maori art. The Maori soldiers' memorial church at Tikitiki is another striking example of the renewal of Maori carving and of Maori art forms generally. There are other new meeting houses at Ngaruawahia page 94 and Tokomaru Bay, and the building of one is proceeding at Waitangi. A set of carvings for the memorial hall at Te Aute College has been completed and will shortly be placed in position. The quality of the carving is improving all the time, and the Tokomaru Bay house, opened with full ceremonial at the beginning of last year, contains a wealth of massive carving of typical East Coast design. To the Maori people these buildings are not just curiosities. The tribes concerned have contributed eagerly to the cost of their erection and they stand to them as symbols of their social life and as actual social centres. At the moment the school of carving cannot cope with all the demands that are being made upon it. A truly remarkable movement for marae improvement is proceeding. New buildings are being planned and erected and old ones renovated. This is highly significant as indicating the progressively returning sense of social reality among the Maori people.

Those who speak of the communal features of Maori life are probably not always clear as to exactly what they mean, but the emphasis on the common meeting house is in really manifest contrast to European ideas. The Maoris have only partially accepted the individualistic conception of “home,” so familiar to the Englishman that only with the greatest difficulty can he think of social life in any other terms. In the Maori kainga the people shared in the general and open life of the village and participated in one another's feelings and experiences to a degree usually quite unknown to Europeans, or at least unknown to them outside the immediate family circle. This contrast was neatly put by Sir Apirana Ngata in his speech in Parliament already referred to. “If we had the Native Purposes Fund administered by pakehas,” he said, “what would they decide to do if cottages and carved meeting houses had to be built? The pakeha would choose the cottages—that would be his natural reaction—but the Maori page 95 would reason like this: He would say that a cottage would be used only by one man, but a meeting house would be for everyone.” Much of this intimate sharing of life and experience still persists. Maori character is still integrated largely in terms of it; it thus has psychological value and it cannot be ignored by those administering Maori affairs. Another feature of Maori life which serves to illustrate it further is the tangi, in which grief and respect for the dead are shared not only by members of the tribe, but, in the case of persons of rank and influence, by members of other tribes as well. Mankind is everywhere notably conservative in regard to customs relating to the dead, and here in New Zealand the formalized tangi persists with astonishing reality. One occasion comes back with particular vividness to the writer's mind. While the party of Rarotongans, which some time ago visited New Zealand, was on its tour of Maori centres, a brief halt was made at a small kainga near Gisborne, where a tangi for a dead woman was in progress. The reception of the visitors, Rarotongan and Maori, revealed a deeply felt social form. As the visiting party approached the meeting house, where immediate female relatives kept a vigil of wailing round the coffin of the dead, the people of the kainga were drawn up in solid and ordered phalanxes, the women waving green branches and swaying rhythmically as they chanted a welcome. Then followed the haka of challenge and defiance by the men. This gave place to ceremonial wailing, an extraordinary and deeply moving concerted sound. The visitors stood with bowed heads and wept in sympathy. Gradually the wailing women gave way and speeches of welcome commenced. These exemplified Maori oratory, always an impressive characteristic of the race, with its picturesque forms, partly traditional, partly spontaneous. The speeches of welcome were replied to and the visit, with its exchange and sharing of sorrow and its tribute of respect, page 96 was over, there being no time in this instance for food to be offered. The whole was an extremely impressive, well-ordered and well-understood social form. Such institutions cannot be suddenly lost by a people without serious social disintegration. The Maori has lost enough already. Formerly the tangi was characterized by a number of unhygienic and, when the people were at their lowest ebb, even degrading features, but these have now been removed. Generally the gathering ends with a discussion of current Maori affairs and serves as an opportunity for leaders to bring before their people matters relating to their welfare. The average white New Zealander, though he may notice casually some of its external features or have his attention momentarily caught by a newspaper paragraph describing some Maori gathering, is for the most part quite unaware of the inner reality of that other form of social life which has survived and is still proceeding in this country.

The great Maori gathering at Waitangi in the early months of 1934 did much to make the New Zealand public aware of the Maoris as Maoris and of their lively activity in their songs, dances and forms of entertainment. Certain criticisms were made concerning this gathering, but the criticisms should not have been levelled at the Maori people. They were making their fullest possible response in appreciation of the generous and to them highly symbolic gift by Lord Bledisloe of the site of the signing of the Treaty. They undertook a vast amount of work in connection with the meeting and provided enormous quantities of food for their own numbers and for their guests. Their interest in the occasion was intense. The Treaty of Waitangi, though now clearly not a matter of practical politics, as indeed it was never permitted to be, is still naturally and rightly a very real thing to the Maori people. One small item in evidence of this may be given. In 1881 the Maoris erected at Waitangi a monument to commemorate page 97 memorate the signing of the Treaty. During the recent gathering the writer was living in a small marquee near this monument, and was interested to observe a constant stream of Maoris, early and late, wet or fine, coming to read and copy down the terms of the Treaty there inscribed. One saw none of the Ministers of the Crown nor any of the many members of Parliament present, similarly engaged. Once again the Maoris thought that the white man meant it. Though some thousands of Europeans were present at this gathering, and though it was very fully reported in the Press, there was much that took place that was lost on European observers. The coming together of tribes long separated and even hereditary enemies, had a significance for the Maoris which Europeans would hardly appreciate. The arrival and welcoming of tribal delegations was going on for several days prior to the main days of the meeting, and its meaning for the Maori people themselves was profound. This gathering undoubtedly did much towards the achievement of Kotahitanga, or national one-ness of which Maori leaders had long spoken, and towards the heightening of Maori national feeling. The mode of conducting the Native Affairs Commission later in the same year did much, however, to dash the Maori assurance of pakeha goodwill.

The display of Maori dancing given at Waitangi to the Governor-General and to members of Parliament was remarkably effective. It is true that Maning, author of the excellent Old New Zealand, said in the 'sixties that no one would ever again see a Maori haka. But of this characteristic feature surprisingly much has survived. Months of diligent practising had preceded the Waitangi meeting and considering that many of the young people had only recently taken them up the dances were carried out with a fine spirit and precision. While to European eyes one Maori haka may seem very like another, this is certainly not the case to the page 98 Maoris themselves. There was in the hakas presented by picked teams from the various tribes a wealth of meaning in words and actions fully appreciated by the Maoris present. Some were ancient, some topical and referring to events of the present day, and Europeans saw far more than they knew in haka and poi alike. Tribal interest in the Te Rehia cup, presented by Lady Bledisloe for excellence in dancing and singing, was keen. On the night before the main reception, all over the huge camp the teams of young people were for hours diligently practising their dancing and singing under the critical eyes of their elders.

It seems likely that the actual rendering of the ancient Maori songs, sung within a very narrow range and using very small musical intervals, cannot survive and will gradually die out. Fortunately many of them have been recorded, both mechanically and in writing, and Sir Apirana Ngata has, though very few know it, collected, annotated and published a very large number of songs of various types. His volumes represent a vast amount of careful research work, and there is no one in New Zealand who can compare with him as an authority in this field. But the younger Maori generation, for the most part, do not know these songs as their elders did. The late Elsdon Best collected one hundred and fifty of them from one Maori couple. Nevertheless the action songs of the Maori young people, hybrid as they are, being related to their life at the present day and in fact arising directly out of it, have a cultural significance far beyond that of the average European “song hit.” And they have a greater significance than what is sometimes imposed on the Maori children in the native schools. The writer has the most vivid recollection of a class of delightful Maori children, in an isolated village on the Wanganui river, appropriately costumed by their teachers, page 99 singing, of all things, the Scottish fish-wives' song, “Caller Herrin'.”

With the present very real renewal of racial assurance and pride there is a growing interest on the part of the Maori in himself as Maori, in his own past and his own traditions, about which he is eager to learn. Since he has rightly decided that he must be, as fully as he now may be, a Maori or nothing, there is scarcely anything that could aid more in the development of self-respecting character than such knowledge, and one could wish that texts of Maori traditions were more readily and cheaply available to him.