We Must Avoid Treating Māori As Living Fossils.

There are times when tikanga needs to be broken for tikanga to survive.

I recently gave a presentation on Māori economic history based on my Not in Narrow Seas. Its most important message was that Māori proved to be a very adaptable people continually evolving as new opportunities arose. The European tradition recalls the Duke in the novel The Leopard, telling his nephew ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ Māori have a parallel whakatauki ‘Me whati te tikanga, kia ora ai te tikanga’; there are times when tikanga needs to be broken for tikanga to survive.

The presentation discusses the great Māori postwar urbanisation (also covered in my Heke Tangata). In the earlier part of the twentieth century, many Māori were living in rural subsistence conditions. As Apirana Ngata described them in 1940:

‘There are Māori communities which are satisfied to live on minimal reserves, where they grow the vegetables they require, from which they make seasonal excursions into the labour field to obtain the minimum resource for the purchase of clothes and food, and where they rusticate [live a country life] between periods of employment.’

The urban transformation has been dramatic. Māori were 71 percent rural in 1951; by 2013 only 15 percent of Māori lived in the countryside. Around 10 percent of Māori lived in the main cities in 1926; by 2013 this proportion had grown to 66 percent, not too different from the non-Māori figure of 75 percent, which had crossed the 50 percent threshold before 1926.

Māori were ill-prepared for the urbanisation They had little wealth to bring with them and they lacked education. Rural education tends to be inferior to urban education, but Māori rural education was even worse. The required skills for countryside farming, fishing, hunting and labouring are not those which schools teach easily. Modern education arose because industrialisation and urbanisation required literacy and numeracy. (Interestingly, Māori women seem to have adjusted to the urban economy better than men – presumably reflecting different skill sets and demands for female labour.)

Because a critical element in educational attainment and employment prospects is the transmission between generations, underqualified and underemployed parents means underqualified children who as adults have lower incomes and poorer employment prospects. Society needs to make an enormous effort to break the vicious cycle. New Zealand did not.

I could go through, as my books do, the sad indicators of the resulting outcome – for instance the higher unemployment rate. The evidence is that there has been a very slow socioeconomic convergence between Māori and Pakeha. (If the trend continues it will be decades before they will be close to equality.) But in the course of the presentation I was struck by another phenomenon which is discussed in the book and also my Heke Tangata.

What do we mean by Māori, for it no longer has the meaning that it had when they were primarily a rural people?

We have even changed the statistical definition of Māori. Up to the early 1980s, Statistics NZ had used what was jokingly called a ‘hydraulic’ definition: the proportion of Māori ‘blood’ (or descent) compared to proportion of non-Māori ‘blood’. This objective descent measure has been replaced with a subjective ethnicity measure of how an individual wishes to describe themselves. People often mix the two notions but formally, data is usually collected on an ethnicity basis. (The Population Census asks a question about people’s ethnicities, although there is also a question about Māori descent – but for no other descent group. This is necessary for calculating the number of Māori electorates; subjective ethnicity would be impracticable for legal purposes.)

Presumably someone with one of their thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents Māori ticks the ‘Māori descent’ box in the census, but what might they do to the ethnicity question: ‘Māori’? ‘Pakeha’? or both? About half of those who give a Māori ethnicity also give a second one. Let us call those who tick both boxes ‘Māori-Pakeha’ to distinguish them from sole Māori who tick only one. (A few tick other ethnicities such as Māori-Pasifika.) In which case those of Māori-Pakeha ethnicity would be our third largest ethnic group; they may be second largest in 2023.

A person of Māori descent may choose to register on the Māori electoral roll or he or she may not. Only about a half do.

Once we move outside the statistical data base, our knowledge is even murkier about what – and how – people classify themselves. Some may do so differently in different circumstances and their classification may change over time. For instance, the Health Inequalities Research Programme at the University of Otago’s Wellington School of Medicine found that the ethnicity on a death certificate did not always correspond to the census-reported ethnicity. The discrepancy was sufficiently large to modify some of their findings.

One further research finding (from the HLFS) which adds to the puzzle is that comparing socioeconomic status between those who report ‘sole Māori’ and those who report ‘Māori-Pakeha’ shows major differences. Here is an example using employment participation rates by ethnicity and gender. (The female participation rates are just over 10 percentage points below the male ones for all ethnicities.)

Employment Participation Rates by Ethnicity and Gender (Percentage), 2007/17

                                    Female             Male

Pakeha                         64.0                 75.1

Māori-Pakeha             65.7                 75.8

Sole-Māori                  57.9                 69.7

Strikingly, those who classify themselves as ‘Māori–Pakeha’ have employment responses similar to Pakeha. (They may be slightly higher because of different age profiles.) One is left with the uneasy feeling that subjective ethnicity may be influenced by objective socioeconomic characteristics.

What we cannot be sure of is how these definitional issues play out. But evidently there is a disconnect between the public perception, which is still too dependent upon the rural Māori of a century ago, and the reality of a socially and economic diverse urban population, as survey responses show.

The full paper and the books relate a story of Māori economic development evolving; of tikanga being broken in order for tikanga to survive. Māori have adapted to new opportunities in difficult circumstances,. But the urbanisation of the last half century has proved a challenge which has not been fully met, in part because it has happened so rapidly but also because the nation was so unprepared for it.

The message of this column, and the books and presentation, is that too often we impose our uninformed prejudices on Māori; prejudices which are based on historical misunderstandings and do not allow for Māori adaptation. Māori are not living fossils but, like Pakeha, evolving and adapting. We need to keep our thinking evolving and adapting too.