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The Maori Situation

VII—Progress on the East Coast

page 48

VII—Progress on the East Coast

The changes and reversals of policy in regard to native lands by successive Governments have already been referred to. From the maze of legislation regarding his land the Maori only too often emerged more and more landless. Certainly no real consideration was given to the question of how he might settle on and farm his own lands. While something was being done in regard to his education and his health his economic welfare was ignored and neglected. In all the Native land legislation passed it was further European settlement which was consistently aimed at. The 1907 Commission on Native Land and Native Land Tenure, in discussing the then unhappy situation and circumstances of the Maori people and their possible future, declared that:

“The position of the Maori people deserves careful and immediate consideration. There are many of the tribes and hapu in what we might term a decadent state. They have lost the habits of industry of their ancestors, and they have not acquired the habits of the European in this respect, and they are looking to the future with no hope. The race in many parts of the colony has declined, and seems vital in only a few parts. What is to become of the Maori people? Is the race to pass away entirely? They are a people able physically and intellectually… The race is worth saving and the burden and duty of preserving the race rests with the people of New Zealand… The Maoris, we believe, can not only be preserved, but also become active, energetic, thrifty, industrious citizens… This is not a matter of speculation. We have seen it in some instances… To our minds, what is now the paramount consideration—what should be placed before all others when the relative values of page 49 the many elements that enter into the Native land problem are weighed—is the encouragement and training of the Maoris to become industrious settlers. The statute-book may be searched in vain for any scheme deliberately aimed in this direction. The Legislature has always stopped short when it has outlined a scheme or method of acquiring Maori lands or rendering such available in different ways for European settlement. The necessity of assisting the Maori to settle his own lands was never properly recognised… The spectacle is presented to us of a people starving in the midst of plenty.”

So far as the Maoris themselves were concerned the obstacles in the way of their becoming farmers were by no means exclusively human, that is existing in the character and will of the Maori people. The big obstacle, reacting of course upon the human factor, lay in the nature of the Maori title to land. The title granted for land which had passed through the Native Land Court made effective use practically impossible. A Maori would possess a series of interests in various blocks of land while actually owning no piece of land which he could work. The obvious solution seemed to be complete individualization, and the Court often took this further step. But the matter was not really so simple. Individualization led to over-subdivision, more or less immediate loss of the land, and chaos. Large areas of native land have from time to time been drastically vested in the Public Trustee or special Boards, such as the East Coast Trust Lands Board, or more recently in Maori Land Boards or the Native Trustee, to be administered for the group of native owners. But in none of these cases, it has been stated, “was the settlement of the Maori upon land a feature of the schemes, and they were not supported by the goodwill of the communities interested.” They provided no page 50 real solution of the economic problem of the Maori; indeed they may be said to have intensified his problem.

New systems had actually to be invented, and what is now to be briefly described, significant for the whole question of the utilization by Maoris of their own land, is in idea and execution almost wholly the work of one man. The first realistic attack on this extremely difficult and complex problem was made by Sir Apirana Ngata who, through a quarter of a century, in his own tribe, planned and experimented and put new ideas into operation in the face of much resistance before successful solutions were finally worked out and embodied in legislation. The ex-Native Minister was speaking the bare truth when he stated simply last year: “I spent the best part of my life developing native land in the East Coast district.”

The Ngatiporou tribe has been fortunate. A number of circumstances have enabled it to retain its vitality and to become adjusted to the demands of pakeha civilization earlier and more successfully than the other Maori tribes of New Zealand. Physical isolation has been an important factor; isolation due to barriers of mountains and to the absence of good harbours on the coast. From the very first this tribe has been spared the worst features of contact with the pakeha. Their isolation has also given Ngatiporou a singularly strong tribal spirit, even though it has led to their being nicknamed Nati, or country cousins. As a tribe, for reasons of their own, they were “friendlies” in the Maori wars, and the strong resentment felt by other tribes and their suspicion of the pakeha were not induced in Ngatiporou. Their outlook remained direct. They actively sought opportunities for education, and towards the end of the century the best of the youth of the tribe was sent off to secondary schools and some on to the University. Much of their land was good and in the northern part of their district they consistently refused page 51 to sell the best of it. They endeavoured to learn from and follow the example of the European settlers who came amongst them, and some of these were themselves extremely helpful. Sheep-farming was first attempted, but through inexperience, by pakeha standards it was not very efficient. The young men of the tribe were, however, keen to farm for themselves but were hampered by difficulties of title. It was at this point that new devices, representing original compromises between communal and individual practices, were introduced. These were two in number, namely, Incorporation and Consolidation. The incorporation of owners was the first device tried out and legalized. When pieces of land were held in common by a group of owners, this group could be declared a body corporate, which would then act through a committee of management and be able to borrow money from private institutions or State lending departments, and so carry out farming operations. In this way the best and most efficient members of the group could carry out the business of farming and yet be in personal touch with all who had an interest in the land concerned. This system enabled a large area of land between Gisborne and Hicks Bay to be brought into cultivation; but it was not a complete solution of a very complicated problem. There was still the question of the interests of the individual in scattered areas of land. This was dealt with by the device of consolidation of interests, initiated on the East Coast in 1911—a scheme which concentrates into one location, or into as few locations as possible, individual interests scattered over counties or even provinces by virtue of genealogical relationships. In place of such scattered interests each owner secures a compact farm, and in the consolidating process opportunity is taken to make the new holdings serviceable so far as boundaries, access, water supply and the like are concerned. This sounds straightforward enough, but it is hard to convey an idea of the immense page 52 difficulty of the process in its early experimental stages, and of the knowledge and patience required to bring about so economically desirable a change. The first basis adopted was, to quote Sir Apirana Ngata, “a system of exchange of interests laboriously worked out, involving endless meetings, conferences, groupings and re-groupings, the breaking down of long-standing ties and overcoming of sentimental opposition—all calling for supreme patience and tact, together with confidence in the essential rightness of the solution offered.” To-day the exchange of interests is secured in a simpler manner by the acceptance of the Government valuation of the land concerned, but the process remains involved and difficult. Nevertheless experience has proved it to be satisfactory and, invented in one district, it has now been extended to others. Reporting to Parliament in 1931 the Native Minister said of the scheme: “Commencing in 1911 with the Waipiro blocks on the East Coast of the North Island, the principle of the consolidation of titles has been extended until it now applies to native-owned lands in five counties on the East Coast and in the Bay of Plenty, five in the King Country, and to practically the whole of the Native lands north of Auckland. It is now a stupendous undertaking. It has had to overcome considerable conservatism in the ranks of the Native Land Court as well as among tribes whose lands have been subjected to it; but wherever it has been applied the Maori communities have been insistent that it should be carried out with speed and vigour. It is doubtful whether any movement ever aimed at the solution of the Native land problem is so deserving of the encouragement and assistance of Parliament.”

Some ten years ago certain younger members of the Ngatiporou tribe urged that dairying was now the most economic form of farming, in view of the smaller holdings resulting from the process of consolidation and the increasing pressure page 53 of population on the tribal lands. Dairying was a new thing to the tribe, and the proposal was, in characteristic Maori fashion, actively debated at tribal meetings. Opinion was divided. Some thought that the Maoris “would not stick to it” at such exacting work as milking cows. Others pointed out that there were successful Maori dairy farmers in other parts of New Zealand. Eventually the elders of the tribe were appealed to, because, it was said, “although they know nothing whatever of the new mode of farming, they have the wisdom of those who have lived long in the world and have acquired ripe judgment in determining matters of tribal welfare.” The judgment of the elders was delivered in these terms:

“We understand that the matter under debate relates to the production of food. This is a pakeha method of producing food, butter, to send to London, where the people of England may buy and eat it. Very good. Your ancestors cultivated taro and kumara with great care and patience, and knowledge. It is true that in some seasons the crops were plentiful, and in others they were poor. But they went on cultivating because it was necessary to their life. We sent you to school and out among the pakeha to learn his way of doing old and new things, and to bring the knowledge back to your villages. You are now called upon to use it. The rest you have in you from your forefathers. Therefore we say—go ahead.” This settled the matter. A co-operative dairy company was organized and the tribal nickname “Nati” taken as trade mark and brand for its butter. A factory was built at Ruatoria; the largest single consignment of dairy cattle that had ever left Taranaki was transported to the East Coast, milking sheds were built and, in the case of the larger farms, machinery installed; houses had to be built on the new holdings; all this had to be done by Maoris who, when they started, had no knowledge or experience of dairying whatever. Here again inspired leadership played its part, and Sir Apirana Ngata's page 54 “Cream Song” was one minor touch of ingenuity in the whole process of weaving the new activity into the old tribal pattern. The Company, given six months by those who “knew the Maori,” has some three hundred suppliers, practically all of them Maoris. Its product has been favourably commented on in the London market, where it secures the top prices given to the leading brands.

The Ngatiporou had much earlier made a venture into commerce. In 1911 the Waiapu Farmers' Co-operative Company was organized because the Maori farmers found themselves exploited by pakeha storekeepers. It is still operating successfully. In both cases pakeha co-operative principles have been successfully fitted into Maori communal patterns. Among the farmers there have been very few failures, and as time passes and population increases there is the probability of reversing the process of last century and reacquiring land from Europeans. Many have of course still to find casual and seasonal work and needless to say at the moment many are on relief work.

In two brief trips through the territories of the Ngatiporou as their guest, the writer was impressed by the vitality and vigour of the people and the reality of their economic progress. The tribe having committed itself to a new activity tribal spirit has seen to it that efforts were made to learn how to carry it out successfully. Much has been learnt in a very short time and there is keen competition and emulation in farming success. The movement out from the crowded and often insanitary villages to small farms has undoubtedly had a marked effect for good on the health and numbers of the people. Ngatiporou lead an active and characteristically Maori social life. Though much more individual than of old in economic organization, in social organization the people are still largely communal. The ceremonial forms of Maori social life are well maintained and give coherence and stability to page 55 the tribe. At a tribal gathering the ceremonial forms of welcome, speech-making, song and feasting are still maintained. The visitor feels that he is encountering well-preserved, well-understood and genuinely felt social forms. The oral tradition persists. There are no Maori newspapers and tribal affairs and affairs in general are discussed together at occasional gatherings, of the real inwardness of which the casual pakeha onlooker has no idea. The people come in from their outlying farms to the marae, with its meeting house, dining hall, church, football grounds and tennis courts, and feel that they have a social background against which they can live their lives. There are plenty of European externals, but much that is Maori in the forms of social life, while the “inwardness,” as already observed, is still truly and fundamentally Maori. And so it undoubtedly will be for many years to come. On the recent occasion of the visit of a party of Rarotongan chiefs and entertainers who visited its territories, the whole tribe was on tiptoe. Tribal spirit was keenly aroused, and at Tokomaru Bay, where a new carved meeting house was opened by the Rarotongans, some twelve hundred Ngatiporou gathered to welcome their island visitors and to do honour to them with all the characteristic Maori forms: speech, song, dance, feasting and gift-making. At this and other gatherings on the Coast one was impressed not merely by the general health and vigour of the people, but by the aspect of every generation—the elders, some fine Maori types, full of character, the lively and attractive young people, and the swarms of happy children.