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



There was an international as well as a national context to such hopes. Although the British Empire was at its territorial peak at this time and New Zealand remained a socio-economic and hegemonised colony of the 'Mother Country', in some quarters the old ties to empire were increasingly under scrutiny. While a postmodern identification of 1931 as the end of the period when the 'Empire was clearly the dominant state of mind' is premature, its selection reflects the entry of protonationalism into public discourse and a tentative and empathetic pakeha discovery of 'Maoriland' – the New Zealand 'Other'. Such perspectives, although unwittingly replete with the imperialist implications of what much later became known as 'orientalism', did move outside assimilationist assumptions about the future of Maoridom. While still operating within the hegemonic parameters of 'settler New Zealand', the Labour government notwithstanding, belief systems were gradually changing.101

This partly reflected the fact that Maori were painstakingly reestablishing a demographic, political and collective base from which to page 181pressure the Crown to concede the rangatiratanga promised in the Treaty. Alongside and inside the pakeha world, and influencing its ideological direction, they were undoubtedly, if very gradually, becoming more empowered. But increasing numbers saw an implicit tension between social democracy's 'egalitarian' intentions and Maori aspirations to confirm and strengthen the cultural differences between their world and that of the pakeha. In retrospect, the two perspectives are not necessarily incompatible. Most Maori, for example, aspired to rather than rejected the material culture of mainstream New Zealand, and so aspirations for political or other autonomy did not necessarily mean rejection of Labour's welfare state. But, at the time, the relationship between Maori rangatiratanga and pakeha social democracy appeared to many from both cultures to be, at the very least, inherently troubled.

The Labour government did retain Maori support, however much that was tempered by dashed expectations. For it continued generally to work towards placing Maori on equal footing with pakeha and raising living conditions for both. That this should be done ideally without differential treatment between them lay deep in the roots of Labour ideology. Prominent Labour politician H G R Mason, who would later take charge of Maori Affairs, remained till the end of his life hostile in principle to any race-based proactivity by the state. Yet raising the living conditions of the poor required, by definition, disproportionate attention to Maori. And therefore, whatever the personal feelings of politicians, the state did attempt to address the marginalisation which colonisation had produced. Many Maori interpreted these as steps, however inadvertent on the Crown's part, towards state recognition of rangatiratanga and mana.

Such steps included, as well as rural land development, spectacular health improvements and developing educational policies. Under the guidance of the Senior Inspector of Native Schools (D G Ball) and of educationalist Dr C E Beeby (who became, in 1940, Director of Education), for example, the Education Department gradually moved its Native Schools policy away from the previous fully assimilationist approach. The strategy of producing replicated Britons having clearly failed, the schools were now increasingly covering subjects relevant to page 182Maori life and culture, including indigenous 'history' – albeit filtered through western notions such as racial hierarchy. The new approach, to be sure, focused on the practical relevance of a Maori workforce within a pakeha-dominated economy and culture, assuming, as with Labour's focus on the land, that Maori would continue to be rural dwellers. As the Director of Education had put it in 1931, the state aimed to produce for Maori 'a type of education that will lead the lad to be a good farmer and the girl to be a good farmer's wife'. When Native District High Schools were established from 1941, they concentrated on 'useful' agricultural and technical subjects for the boys and homemaking to prepare girls for servicing the desired social unit, the nuclear family of the pakeha social order.

While agricultural skills and other subjects were geared to perpetuating 'the race' at the bottom tiers of the political economy, the new emphases did recognise Maori as a distinct people rather than classifying them as aspirant brown-skinned whites, particularly when the Native Schools syllabus was broadened not only to include traditional Maori arts, crafts and culture but to involve the whole Maori community. Such developments did not happen in a vacuum. Some assumptions of the 'civilising mission', for example, had been challenged under the impact of Ngataist cultural resurgence. The state had now, therefore, to accommodate, and if necessary contain, the latter. This would give it time to work out subtler, longer-term strategies for assimilation.

These were ultimately conditioned by demographic and other developments within Maoridom. Complementing the official land-based prognosis for Maori, the indigenously oriented aspects of the syllabus in Native Schools reflected a tribally based 'differentness' that would soon become anachronistic for many Maori – and which would in time be modified. Factors such as the rapid rise in the indigenous population, Maoridom's small land base and deficiencies in the development schemes were resulting in not only a decreasing proportion of Maori working the land but also a migratory drift towards the towns and cities. It was noted at the 1939 Young Maori Leaders Conference that this trend was already being reflected in greater rates of offending and imprisonment. It was to increase considerably during and after the Second World War. The Crown page 183was, however, slow to develop its new strategies. Even after the war, Education Department reports continued to opine that land was of the most 'vital importance' for the Maori future, and departmental assumptions generally ignored the wartime exacerbation of the 'urban drift'.102

That the state's education sector, and others equally important, was out of touch with significant aspects of the Maori experience did not bode well for Crown-Maori relations. Eventually, when officials and politicians realised that a land-based orientation for Maori policy was increasingly out of kilter with both the opportunities available in the countryside and the migration demographic, the resultant reorientation was not generally conducted through consultation with Maori. Unilateral measures included Crown encouragement of relocation to urban areas, where cheap Maori labour was needed for urban-based manufacturing expansion. Most fundamental, officialdom came to regard internal migration by Maori as a chance, at long last, for them to assimilate to a degree they had resisted when they had stayed largely in rural areas. In particular, it was seen that on the urban streets they would be far from the purview of tribal authorities and customs, and so collective bonds among large sectors of tribal membership would be loosened.

Urbanisation did, in the event, lead to a weakening of tribally based rangatiratanga. Maoridom, along with official New Zealand (albeit belatedly), had to adjust to the realities of population growth and socioeconomic demands and opportunities. Its leaders increasingly realised that, however much their culture and aspirations were wedded to turangawaewae, the fact that the location, employment and lifestyles of many of their people were beginning to change fundamentally meant that the quest for autonomy needed restrategising. Wartime events had postponed full discussion of the ramifications of rural demographic overload and urban migration. But they were also to contribute significantly to shaping Maori politico-cultural adaptation to post-war industrialising New Zealand.