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The endless struggle for rangatiratanga

Group photo 1940 1 copy
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Leighton Williams
08 March, 2021


When the 28 Māori Battalion left for war in 1940, it was perhaps expected that life was to change dramatically upon their return. After all, there was a firmly established assumption that whatever triumphs they might have experienced overseas would be emulated at home in Aotearoa. In that same token, the legislative basis upon which the Māori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945 had been enacted lay somewhere in the idea that those same successes – of greater respect from Pākehā and increased assertions of political autonomy – would be sustained beyond the wartime era.[1] Although the war would have no doubt delayed prior efforts to achieve a more substantive recognition of rangatiratanga Māori by the state, it had by no means caused them to fall away from the political objectives of Māori.

The 1945 statute created the pretence that Māori would be put in an independent position to manage their own affairs. Although the government maintained the position that it was offering Māori a greater degree of self-determination over their ‘problems and difficulties’, there was still an effort to play a controlling role in post-war Māori Affairs.[2] Certainly, the Act meant progress for Māori in terms of reaffirming their rangatiratanga, and the level to which this would be recognised by the state would be much more than it had been in the years preceding the war. The moves necessitated by the tense political climate of the wartime would bring much change for Māori society.

Indeed by 1945, and since the arrival of the first Europeans, Māori society had encountered considerable change. The continued efforts to suppress Māori reassertions of rangatiratanga was to have a dramatic impact on the way they politically organised themselves. While many Māori may have viewed state power structures as being supportive of their efforts to deal with their own issues, government policies were still being used to stifle any hope that greater autonomy for Māori could be achieved. By some accounts, government motives remained set on diminishing Māori culture and integrating the people into a European way of life.[3]

In fact, it was typical for government policy in the post-war period to be coloured by integrative overtones. Hunn distinguishes assimilation from integration, writing that both differ in their respective treatment of Māori culture. The former would erase Māori culture completely while the latter would allow it to remain distinct.[4] Both terms, however, are defined as being equally concerned with a single nation as the end goal. Arguably, integration is said to have been the object of political pursuit when it came to the Māori people, while assimilation needed to be relegated to the annals of historical inconsequence and colonialist error.[5]

This is an issue of some contention given that Māori Affairs policy at the time did not seem to be receptive in allowing an ‘alternative’ Māori worldview to co-exist in the singular nation goal of integration. If integration, as defined by Hunn, was the objective aim of Māori Affairs policy, it does not follow that any such moves should have required a major shift or displacement from a Māori way of life as it was at the end of the war. Cynical as such a view might be, one could argue that Māori policy was merely assimilation hiding beneath an integrative veneer.

A key feature of Māori policy at the time was the consistent assault on the Māori land title system. Where issues of land development and Māori land tenure are concerned, examples of the state’s bigotry for difference emerge. Much of this intolerance stems from how Māori owned their lands in a collective title, which the government perceived as a hindrance to the post-war ethos that everyone should make full use of their land. Multiple ownership, in their mind, would stop any adjustment of Māori to modernity and would continue to give in to an unhealthy attachment to the land. Hunn addresses this issue in 1960, asserting that the fragmentation of ownership had remained as a serious bar to what he deemed the ‘proper’ use of Māori land. He argued that the division of land into minute fractions over successive generations holds no value other than one having a sentimental and perhaps tokenistic feeling of tūrangawaewae.[6]

            It is from within this wider historical narrative that I draw on the experiences of my whānau and document the events that had disrupted our own quest for rangatiratanga. Most of this pertains to land and the diminished sense of tūrangawaewae that we have endured as a result of land conversion in the 1960s. Hunn’s misunderstanding of the term tūrangawaewae might have given thought to the way Māori held the land but it did not offer any consideration for how Māori viewed it.

            The view held by my whānau is one where the land is a vessel, a repository for our mana. Under the post-war regime of converting land title into a more palatable form for Pākehā, the creeping acquisition of our lands by the Māori Trustee was to wreak havoc on the exercise of that very mana. In that way, the invocation of the ‘Māori Trustee’ does not bring to the conscious mind any feelings of comfort or relief. Through labelling interests as uneconomic as well as live-buying shares from landowners, the trustee was able to acquire vast amounts of land in our district. These tactics of conversion in the district were to the extent that they were viewed as confiscation – a view which the Hunn Report fiercely contests.

            Consequently, our family would be forced to relocate to the cities in an attempt to reclaim some sense of identity bereft of any meaningful access to our land and tūrangawaewae. Since 1945, successive moves by the Māori Affairs Department to ‘assimilate’ Māori into a European manner of life would still not restrain any effort to recover the lost mana and rangatiratanga that had been previously enjoyed by our tūpuna.

It is unlikely that anyone could have foreseen such a loss, but it is no doubt apparent that whatever the government might have professed to Māori – greater recognition of our rangatiratanga – would not be the story to eventually play out. Our cries to develop our social condition were muffled, and our struggle for rangatiratanga became more difficult.

 Image: group photo, private collection.


[1] Raeburn Lange, To Promote Maori Well-Being: Tribal Committees and Executives under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act, 1945-1962 (Wellington: Treaty of Waitangi Research Unit), 5.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] Richard S. Hill, Māori and the State: Crown-Māori Relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa 1950-2000 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009), 34.

[4] Jack K. Hunn, Report on Department of Maori Affairs, (Wellington: Government Printer), 15.

[5] Aroha Harris, “Dancing with the State: Maori Creative Energy and Policies of Integration, 1945-1967” (PhD thesis, University of Auckland, 2007), 38.

[6] Hunn, 52.

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