Divided Issues: the Myth Of the Unified Maori.

Listener 10 June 1995.

Keywords: Maori

Our race relations are troubled by the Pakeha myth of the unified Maori. “Maori” did not exist before the arrival of the European. Since as far as they knew those that lived here were all the people in the world, they did not need a collective name for themselves. (Similarly “Earthling” arose with possibility of others out in space).

When the first Europeans asked, the locals described themselves as “maori”, the ordinary ones. That name has stuck. (They called the outsiders “Pakeha”, a word of obscure origin. In 1840 it had considerable dignity, for Reverend Williams translated the term (British) “subject” into “pakeha” in the Tiriti o Waitangi.)

That the locals called themselves Maori, does not mean they were united. Before the arrival of the European they were fragmented into waka, iwi and hapu, not always on friendly terms, perhaps not greatly different from the miscellany of realms that littered Central Europe at the time.

However the British, who came from a region with less sovereign diversity, expected a similar coherence here. Captain Hobson, in the country for a couple of days, refers to “the united chiefs of New Zealand ced[ing] … the whole country”. Busby, around since 1833, changed this in the final (English) draft to “chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand, and the separate and independent Chiefs who have not become members of the Confederation”.

Even so, the myth there is a united Maori remains unto this day. The humour of many recent cartoons depend upon contradictory statements by the Maori. The inconsistency arises because some Maori argue along one line, and others argue differently. This is not just their relishing vigorous debate on the marae. Maori society like Pakeha society, is deeply divided on many issues: conservatives against radicals, young and old, urban and rural, iwi and iwi …
The government fell into the myth with its fiscal envelope proposal, which implicitly assumed that there was a single Maori grievance. But it was addressing not one Maori grievance, but a myriad of waka, iwi, and hapu grievances, some of which involved counter claims between various Maori groups. There is no practical way a settlement as envisaged by the fiscal envelope could deal with them all. We face a long tortuous process of investigation into minutia before they are resolved. Some can never be, because of gaps in the historical record.

Perhaps a differently oriented fiscal envelope proposal could have settled some of the big grievances, as appears to have happened with the Tainui raupatu (confiscation) claim, but it will be decades before most iwi and hapu complaints will be fully addressed.

One of the odd features about a myth is that it can take on a reality. The fiscal envelope has probably done more to unite the Maori than almost any other measure. The radicals and the conservatives suddenly found themselves agreeing on the perfidy of the government, precipitating some radicals to embark on the occupations of disputed land.

More generally the myth of the unified Maori forces the Maori together, but the solidarity they find is an opposition to what they see as a Pakeha dominated government. (Yes, the Maori – and Pakeha – also lapse into the myth of the unified Pakeha. Ridiculous, you say. Look at all the differences among the Pakeha people. Exactly.)

However there is one area where the Maori seem to have a collective grievance. On virtually every socio-economic indicator – crime, education, health, housing, income, longevity, social deprivation, unemployment – those who describe themselves as of (part) Maori descent are markedly worse off on average than the nation as a whole.

To what extent this is a treaty grievance is debateable. But if at Waitangi the Maori had been told that the path that signing led down involved a markedly inferior socioeconomic position relative to the other inhabitants of the land, there would have been no signing.

Land alienation can cause a decline in relative socio-economic status. It appears that for a decade or two after 1840 the Maori had a standard of living not dissimilar to that of the European immigrant. But as economist Paul Dalziel observed, in the 81 years after 1840 there was a reduction of land holdings by over 90 percent. “Imagine for a moment that the asset bases of Fletcher Challenge of Electricorp were reduced nine-tenths, with no compensation for large amounts of asset stripping… The company performances would be decimated.”

Any cash compensation the government gives for the unjustified alienation of assets will be insufficient to compensate for the subsequent loss of socio-economic status. Instead programs which aim to reduce social deprivation are needed. While some may be specifically focused on the Maori, general ones on the whole deprived population can also be effective because their are so many Maori among them. Even if in a generation or two the specific Tiriti grievances are resolved, but the Maori social indicators have not substantially improved, there will remain a grievance, from a near united Maori people.