Maori Melting Pot

Wira Gardiner’s Return to Sender and some other books about the Maori
Listener 16 November, 1996.

Keywords: Maori

Hey, Pakeha. Ever been to a hui? You probably walked onto the marae at the back of the manuhiri. You were welcome, the Maori always make you very welcome on their marae, and they will feed you well. Later you sat quietly at the back.

The debate was a bit difficult to follow. It was not just that some of it was in Maori. Even the bits in English did not seem to be connect properly. It was as if you came in late to various of discussions that had been going on for generations.

Then the man next to you began to comment. That speaker, who seemed to be hardly anyone, was a man of great mana, who would be listened to carefully. That one, despite the rhetoric, would be hardly listened to. Her, she is young, but has a good whakapapa, is very well educated, knows the tikanga, and will go far. “You see.”

As the kaumatua whispers in your ear, the debate begins to take shape. It seemed a straightforward enough proposition, but other matters cut across. A couple of hapu were quarrelling. There is an alliance with this iwi, and antagonism with that. Hone and Tama are contending for leadership in the next generation. You guess the kaumatua has his own perspective, but you are damned lucky to be given it. You begin to relax, and laugh with everyone when one of the young men, brings in a ladder, climbs up it, and berates the government, as he looks down on their representatives. There is a lot of theatre on the marae.

Perhaps you have never had the privilege of such an experience. But you almost can. Read Wira Gardiner’s Return to Sender, which is an account of the thirteen hui the government and Maori in 1995 held to discuss the fiscal envelope proposal to settle the past Maori grievances within a fixed sum of one billion dollars. It was inevitable that the Maori would turn it down. Hirini Meade of Ngati Awa caught the Maori mood precisely when he said his iwi would “accept all down payments”.

Gardiner, as chief executive of Te Puni Kokiri the government’s Maori advisers, is a far from independent observer. His vast knowledge was backed by those in the department, while the account seems based on departmental records as well as his memory. One interest is his descriptions of the government organization of the hui. But the privilege is to be there, as if you on the marae, listening to the debate, with such an admirable guide. My one grumble is there is no index. The Maori often relies on memory for personal detail, this pakeha needs a hard copy prompt.

For me the chief lesson of the book was not so much about the envelope proposal, but the enormous diversity within Maoridom. The Pakeha tend to treat Maori as united, and are astonished when cleavages surface. In fact the Maori are as divided on most issues as a similar sized group of Pakeha – perhaps more, for they have more history. Sure they tend to be united when confronting the government over a grievance, the situation we are most likely to observe them in public. But your hui experience, or the book, tells another story.

And while I recommend the book if you want to understand more about Maori politics, Gardiner has his own agenda, which includes a robust defence of his staff against some of the sillier criticisms of them. For a different perspective read Ranginui Walker’s Nga Pepe a Ranganui: The Walker Papers. Of course Ranginui and Wira dont agree on everything – they are Maori.

Like the rest of us, the Maori live in families. Again you may never share life with a Maori whanau, but if you want some glimpses, Read Dame Joan Metge’s New Growth From Old: The Whanau in the Modern World. Joan – every one calls her “Joan” – is not a Maori, but she has been studying Maoridom over five decades as an anthropologist with considerable empathy for her subjects. Her latest books takes you through the research literature on Maori families, in a sensitive and informed – and wise – way. There are numerous insights. One I cherish was the Maori approach to child rearing is that the whole village brings up its children. When a pakeha advises the Maori parents that they saw their children up to mischief, the reaction is “why didn’t you tell the kids off?”

The portrait of the family in the book may be a little out of date. With urbanization and under economic pressures, Maori families are in transition (as are Pakeha ones). But if you want to understand what is happening to the whanau reading this book is a good place to start.

This is a book oriented for an academic/specialist audience. Inside there is a super book for the general reader. Another version, edited to about half the length (with photographs by Ans Westra), would be valued reading by New Zealanders with a Maori family in their village or on their street.