State Authority, Indigenous Autonomy: Crown-Maori Relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa 1900-1950
Maori Councils in operation
Maori Councils in operation
At first the political institutions set up under the 1900 legislation did reflect and give effect to some of the aspirations of iwi, hapu and whanau. They tended to comprise 'chiefs and notables not invariably the most amenable to the new influences resulting from the crusade of the Young Maori Party' and some of their activities did not therefore entirely please the Crown. The representatives, in fact, generally shared the long-standing Maori vision of retrieving meaningful communal control over the Maori way of life. While the Councils and their committees were designed to appropriate Maori collective energies for state-desired purposes, then, many communities did attempt to use them as a state-provided device to promote their aspirations for autonomy. Moreover, the various levels of the Maori Council system, along with other Maori organisations, shared several significant aims with the Crown. The model regulations, for page 54example, covered hygiene, a ban on liquor in pa/villages at hui, and the exclusion of animals in specified Maori spaces. These were adopted or adapted by the Councils, and many village committees enthusiastically accepted delegation of Maori Council powers of enforcement.
As Kotahitanga and Kingitanga made clear, the system fell far short of meeting their collective wish. But its implementation provides an example of the Maori propensity to experiment with whatever could be extracted from the Crown, however inadequate, rather than to boycott it. Such expedient use of the Council and komiti system, insofar as it has been noticed at all, has been generally seen as reflecting a genuine Crown-Maori 'compromise' over the quest for recognition of rangatiratanga. The state has been seen as providing a real chance for Maori to control their own destinies in at least some aspects of life. This is another example of the prevalence in modern scholarship of wishful thinking on Crown-Maori issues. There has been a tendency to extrapolate from the Liberal government's incipient pakeha 'welfare state' and find a genuine desire to give effect to Maori political aspirations. But once again the Crown is depicted as perennially falling short in the execution, because of failures of will, courage, personality or whatever, and there is regret at the lost chances of meaningful partnership.
This regret co-exists with modern scholarly appreciation that the Liberals' 1890s Maori land policies were essentially about completing the colonisation process over Maori and their communal lifestyle by parting them from the bulk of their remaining lands. Lack of interrogation of the state's ultimate intentions and goals, however, has allowed a government geared to depriving Maori of their land and ways of life to be depicted as having had the will and potential to meet at least some key Maori aspirations. While Maori have been contextualised as major losers in the Liberal 'social laboratory', there is still much comment along the lines that Seddon's government 'widened the fracture in the New Zealand dream' because it had 'lost an opportunity for the development of a truly bicultural society'. This, of course, implies that the state had an enlightened vision of a bicultural New Zealand in the first place. The history of Maori politico-cultural interaction with the Crown and settlers suggests clearly that the dream of a 'bicultural society', especially one which page 55included autonomy or partnership, lay mostly on the Maori side alone (albeit in different forms according to period, politics and place).
The supposed Crown quest for 'progressive measures' for Maori, paralleling progress for settlers, holds understandably strong allure. Even the 1984 Maori sovereignty manifesto declared that, after 1900, 'the destiny of the Maori people turned away from the determined uncompromising desire for the return of Maori sovereignty' because such aspirations had been partially met by the Maori Council institutions. It is clear that the komiti marae often ran their own affairs successfully, but this the villages had already been doing. Moreover, the government's response to accusations that the Maori Councils would delay assimilation was to stress that their powers would be slight; they were 'something to occupy [Maori] attention'.
The modern (subliminal) search to find evidence of state willingness to endorse Maori aspirations can be viewed as reflecting a residual adherence to the former national myth that 'New Zealand had the best race relations in the world'. As part of the sales pitch for the Maori Councils, indeed, Maori were 'reminded' that indigenous people were better treated in New Zealand than anywhere else on the colonised globe. Yet even Ngata, who as one of the architects of the Councils had attempted to get more out of the Crown, felt at the outset that they were too underpowered in resources and authority. While backing the scheme as the only way of obtaining any devolved power during this period, he was one of many who saw that by its very nature it 'doomed Maori self-government'.
This was indeed what had been intended. The history of early colonial New Zealand can be conceptualised as the interaction of two sets of autonomous zones. When this ended with Maori autonomy being physically crushed after the conflicts of the 1860s, it thereafter sought new forms of expression and the Crown found new ways of countering it. In the state's eyes, the process away from autonomy needed encouragement. In 1900 it saw appropriation of Maori desire for organisational autonomy as a means not just of diverting that desire but also of marshalling it in the ultimate quest for full assimilation.
Interpretations which see the 1900 experiment as having been initially page 56motivated by an urge to meet Maori aspirations, and then as having fallen short in the execution of policy, miss this key dynamic of history. In so doing they inadvertently denigrate the strength of indigenous resistance to what remained a policy goal of full assimilation. The interesting story is how the Crown, with all its coercive and appropriative power, and with the help of sites of collaboration, failed to crush aspirations for rangatiratanga. Maori actions to achieve autonomy have, in fact, persisted to this day, often sotto voce to the pakeha and therefore to historians who work from pakeha documentation and world-views. What the 1900 experiment reveals is both the pressure for autonomy which Maori placed on the Crown at the end of the nineteenth century, and the government's determination to ensure that, whatever it seemed to be doing, it always had the ultimate aim of full assimilation in mind. At the very least, it was anxious to neutralise dangerous opposition to its hegemony – as can similarly be seen in its diversion of trade union activity away from strikes into the more tranquil world of industrial conciliation and arbitration.43
However, as with unions, those who were to be controlled engaged with the state to maximise their own positions, and became increasingly strident as they came to appreciate just how far the system had been designed to counteract rather than endorse their aspirations. With the Maori Councils, this had initially been disguised not only beneath accommodatory rhetoric but also by the exigencies of the situation. Even the most pro-western of Maori involved in operating the new structures realised that their success would depend partly on mobilising elements of pre-existing Maori authority structures. Moreover, close association of rangatira/chiefs and kaumatua/elders with the process of establishing and running the system helped give it mana/prestige. On such issues, despite its ultimate assimilationist goal, the Crown once again proved to be flexibly realistic in the 'public good'. This in turn had benefits for Maori: the Councils which operated vigorously on behalf of their people were usually those in which tribal and chiefly power was prominent.
This did not mean that the Crown in any way faltered in its efforts to maximise its influence on the Maori Council system, especially through Ngata and his Young Maori Party colleagues. Not content with model page 57bylaws reflecting its own requirements, it set out to ensure co-ordination, inspection and (in effect) control of the movement from the centre. With royalty visiting Rotorua in 1901, the government arranged through the Council system for a large hui that doubled as a village operating under the hygiene and coercive rules of the model bylaws. The Councils and their committees were urged to take the methods demonstrated there back into their communities.
A small office was established in the Justice Department to run the Maori Council system. Ngata was appointed as 'Organising Inspector' in 1902 and Gilbert Mair, a pakeha former leader of kupapa forces, was appointed 'Superintendent' the following year. Through the head office mechanism the Crown sought tighter monitoring and control of the system. Ngata's first notice to Council chairs included a request for detailed reports on their districts. The Maori Council system's part-time police personnel were generally under the guidance of the New Zealand Police Force and were used at times by the regular police as auxiliaries (the only occasion on which they were allowed to coerce Europeans). Some Councils even came to be dominated by pakeha with official links.
When Seddon proclaimed at Putiki in late 1902 that the Maori Council experiment had proved that Maori could be trusted with local body powers, he was hoping that the system, while initially using the tribal milieu, would eventually speed up detribalisation and assimilation. If it performed satisfactorily, he opined, from time to time its powers might be extended. While most of its participants sought the empowering of communal lifestyles and tribal decision making, the Crown was increasingly instrumental in effecting a different agenda. This had been implicit from the beginning, of course. In the related area of health reform, for example, when Maui Pomare was appointed the first Native Health Officer in 1900 (in the new Department of Public Health), it was later reported, '[e]very step he took cut across customs and traditions'.
One of the reasons the Young Maori Party was so favoured was that some party policies sought to phase out customs and activities, such as certain tangihanga/funeral rituals and types of hui, which were deemed to be damaging. While Maoridom's strong desire to control its own destiny did not preclude an evolution in lifestyles, the state's programming page 58of its own imperatives into the structural and policy reforms led to reactions, even within the Maori Council system, which looked to the past. Other of the new institutions preferred a 'modernising' line. Some Councils took the Crown at its word in terms of self-management and unilaterally attempted to take greater powers than allowed by law – exercising controls over pakeha, for example, or over Maori from 'outside' areas. They found out the state's limitations in tolerance when such practices were proscribed.44
In view of such differing agendas, the Maori Council system was soon increasingly abandoned as a vehicle that could be used by Maori leaders to fulfil their aspirations for autonomy. Some remained with it because the mechanisms and associated Crown activities were providing at least some benefits for their people. These benefits, however, came at the price of continued tightening of the Crown's general surveillance and control of Maori. At the first general conference of Maori Councils in Rotorua in 1903, Pomare procured a motion for Maori villages to come under sanitation surveillance. When he followed this up the following year by establishing a network of 'Native Sanitary Inspectors' reporting to him in his official capacity, there was far from universal welcome for their activities – inspecting villages and monitoring komiti marae programmes, among other things. And yet they were carrying out reforms that undoubtedly led to considerable improvements in Maori health, so much so that they contributed to the demographic revival among Maori.
From the beginning, Pomare had seen that working through the Maori Councils, rather than through a separate Maori-oriented health workforce, was a way of marshalling collective endeavour both to effect health reforms and to undermine some of the bases of that collectivism. After his appointment as Assistant Native Health Officer, Te Rangihiroa reflected the views of his circle in urging a vigorous attack, through the community-based institutions, on customs detrimental to health. He explicitly linked the concept of communal life and organisation to anachronistic health practices. 'The communism of the past meant industry, training in arms, good physique, the keeping of the law, the sharing of the tribal burden, and the preservation of life … The communism of today means indolence, page 59sloth, decay of racial vigour, the crushing of individual effort, the spreading of introduced infectious disease, and the many evils that are petrifying the Maori and preventing his advance.'
One of the inspectors' targets was the institution of tohunga, often at the time translated pejoratively as 'witch-doctor'. In traditional Maori society tohunga combined religious, medical and other services and social control functions. The Crown had long seen the presence of tohunga as an implicit challenge to the European mores which underscored the state and its doings. Its allies in the Young Maori Party believed that colonisation's impact had destroyed genuine tohungaism, leaving charlatans to ply the trade, and they passed resolutions accordingly. But the profession retained much power in the majority world of Maori who wished to regain control over their own affairs and customs.
Thus the Crown needed the inspectorate, operating under the umbrella of the Maori Council structure, to build up a dossier that equated tohungaism with fake faith-healers playing on people's fears. This became ammunition for the eventual passing of the Tohunga Suppression Act in 1907, although the legislation was intended specifically for potential use against resistance leader Rua Kenana. While the Act was supported on public health grounds by some important Maori leaders, many others observed that, while it might have the good effect of suppressing fraudulent tohunga who had thriven in the liminality which followed tribal breakdown, it also constituted parliamentary interference in their customary law and tribal office-holders.
The measure was a high-profile example of actions and institutions associated with the 1900 structure which had the ambitious aim of helping state and private institutions to undermine the Maori communal political economy and way of life. Temporary drafting into service of the communalist structures on which such lifestyles had been based in the first place was as common a phenomenon in New Zealand as in the history of empire generally. When a Maori Council was established in 1902 in the remotest inhabited area of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands (Rekohu/Wharekauri), for example, it was linked to enlisting 'loyal' Taranaki tribal elements. Here the Crown had previously paid little attention to indigenous matters, such as the enslavement and then page 60marginalisation of the Moriori (a people conquered by Taranaki tribes prior to British colonisation), so long as an acceptable degree of order prevailed. But from time to time the actions of followers of the prophet Te Whiti o Rongomai had been seen as a threat to order in the islands, and this was again the case. The new structure was intended to help undermine their resistance to the Crown.
Whatever the Crown's motivations and actions, however, in many areas covered by active Maori Council committees the people did gain positive benefits from the new institutions. At the 6000-strong 'model' hui/village at Rotorua there was no sickness, disorder or drunkenness over a two-week period, and this prompted attempts at emulation. Collaborating or co-operating with the state, and even helping direct its 'native' policies and structures, was considered in many quarters as contributing to 'raising up' rather than to disappearing. In the Chathams, as elsewhere, children entered school, sanitary reforms began, drunkenness and other forms of disruption to village life fell off. In the Waikato, where Kingitanga hostility prevented the institution being established, living conditions remained reportedly most unhealthy.45
The Young Maori Party members appreciated that those who followed resistance leaders such as Te Whiti were engaged in the same general project as themselves, working to better the prospects of their people as a people within a settler-dominated society. But they believed that the opportunities offered by Maori Councils could lead to concrete improvement in the short term that would provide a basis for longer-term developments. Moreover, they argued, the Maori Councils system, together with recent legislation conferring legal equality, ensured that Maori had a greater degree of actual or potential control over their own destinies.
Concomitantly, however, under the new processes the state had increased its capacity for socio-racial surveillance of Maori, their aim being similar to that of the official runanga system of the 1860s upon which, via the komiti, they were conceptually modelled. The system's boosting of chiefly authority, therefore, was intended to be only temporary, part of the Crown's broader 'civilising mission'. The bylaws of the (eventually 25) Maori Councils reflected the Young Maori Party-page 61generated prototypes, whose aims were to assist the resuscitation of Maoridom through westernisation. They and the Council enforcement arms complemented the state's instruments of coercive and hegemonic control over the whole population.
But the Maori Councils and allied bodies did not act entirely as creatures of the Crown, and failed in several ways to effect its wishes. Many of their members believed that to 'suppress the tohunga was to strike at the roots of Maori value systems', and so declined to promulgate prohibitive bylaws. That is why the Tohunga Suppression Act was needed – to give regular police the power to move against millennial prophets, religio-medical healers and others who were deemed to be socially corrupting. As a prominent detective said, after the failure of the 1900 institutions to move over an issue of such significance for the state, '[g]aol seems to be the only way to break down the prestige of a recognized tohunga'.
Even if the only achievement of the Maori Council system had been to get the Maori Parliament disbanded, the strategy would have been deemed successful as a return on a very small Crown investment. The key state strategy, however, remained the hegemonic winning of Maori adherence to western ways of thinking and doing. But its results were jeopardised by the state's fear of devolving too much power to Maori authorities. The first general conference of Maori Councils asked for greater powers. They wanted to regulate Europeans living in Maori villages, deal with such offences as assaults and thefts, and have full delegated local government powers in wholly Maori areas.
Carroll sought to gain such extra authority, but during the passage of amending legislation in 1903 (following a 1901 amendment which provided some enforcement powers) he managed to obtain only minor accretions in powers and resources. The Councils were, therefore, denied the means to achieve the results that both they and the Crown wanted. Occasionally, state and/or Maori institutions would have to intervene when Councils or komiti marae exceeded their statutory powers – in disciplining pakeha, for example, or taking modernising zeal too far by 'oppressing' tribal members who had clung to the old ways.