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State Authority, Indigenous Autonomy: Crown-Maori Relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa 1900-1950

The early Maori war effort

page 184

The early Maori war effort

When war broke out in 1939, not just negotiations with tribes over historical grievances were placed on hold 'in the national interest'. So too were other developments in Crown-Maori relations. But the Crown had learnt some lessons from its First World War experiences. To maximise the Maori contribution to 'the emergency', it needed to make significant concessions to Maori aspirations for greater participation in public affairs.

As war was looming, Maori leaders had asked that approval be given for a Maori fighting unit, which they believed would provide an important contribution to the allied war effort. After the declaration of war, the Crown quickly conceded that Maori could indeed participate in the hostilities 'as a race'. In October 1939 it announced that a Maori infantry battalion would be raised. Those Maori who had already joined the army could remain in their existing units, but recruits would be sought for enlistment in the 28th (Maori) Battalion.

Pro-Crown tribes, eager to prove their loyalty and improve their image in a still largely pakeha New Zealand, had been at the forefront of the initial approaches to government. But others were also interested in having their young men serve. Some tribes argued that, whatever the recent frustrations, overall progress on Crown-Maori relations – such as the tribal trust board precedent – had been made since the First World War; their contribution would both reflect and enhance that. Recruiting was the responsibility of the wartime Maori Parliamentary Committee, comprising the four Maori MPs and Legislative Councillor Mawhete. It was headed by Paikea, Ratana's former private secretary, whose experience included building up the network of Labour Party Maori branches after page 185the alliance was forged. There was no difficulty in getting sufficient volunteers for the all-Maori (except for pakeha in higher ranks) battalion to be formed.

After Ngataist pressure, the four field companies of the 28th Battalion were allowed to be organised along broadly tribal lines, despite problems caused by this issue during the First World War. The decision reflected, among other things, official recognition that tribal energies could be a valuable resource for the state. The battalion was to prove this in battle, gaining New Zealand and international fame. The Crown regarded it with increasing respect, dropping its insistence on pakeha in leadership positions, for example. While the initial recruiting drive was successful, ministers and their officials had longer-term concerns. One was that the more ambivalent tribes (especially those in the raupatu areas) and purist Ratanaists might resist if the need for military conscription arose. This would have the capacity to damage the war effort, as in the previous conflict. Soon after becoming Prime Minister on 1 April 1940, Peter Fraser turned his mind to the issue. After consulting with the Maori MPs, he affirmed that the Maori Battalion would continue to be entirely voluntarist. When military conscription was introduced in June 1940, Maori were exempted. There were also proactive measures designed to keep Maori enthusiastic about service to the state. From time to time, for example, the government reiterated that it did intend eventually to settle the historical claims of the tribes, and Fraser personally expressed particular interest in the raupatu issue. For these and other reasons, the prospect of tribe-based mass disobedience to the state was minimised.

Maori leaders were aware that their wartime co-operation, and the agreed hiatus in Crown-Maori negotiations, did pose a danger that tangata whenua concerns would largely disappear from the state's gaze. This was foreshadowed early on. 'The wartime emergency' muted the official celebrations planned for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the settler nation, but still provided the government with a chance to proclaim its 'public values'. As the planning and events unfolded, it became clear that little attention was being paid to Maori, except for exotic touches to distinguish New Zealand from elsewhere in the British Commonwealth. Coverage of Maori issues focused on touristic vignettes of pre-1840 life page 186and crafts, with post-Treaty 'history' stressing progress from stone-age culture towards the ideal of assimilation to the ways of western civilisation. The official focus was firmly on 'a hundred years of progress' for white settlement. The Dominion was depicted as a sheltered, beautiful and quiet society, far from the evils of the old but possessing all of its (white) civic virtues. It was the best of all societies, a 'Better Britain' par excellence, in which Maori were fortunate to be able to share and to have the chance to become 'Britons'.103

The paucity of things Maori in Centennial Exhibition displays and official performances, functions and publications, except as decorative marginalia, was a fitting commentary on 100 years of post-annexation relations between Crown and Maori. During this time, the Treaty (if noticed at all) had been elevated in official and (to a degree) popular ideology to the status of the most enlightened 'founding document' in the world. Its Article Two ramifications, even under their most anodyne interpretation and despite ongoing Maori reminders, had been largely forgotten. Although the commemoration marked a greater appreciation of the Maori role in society than had the nation's half-century celebrations, which depicted the Treaty as a reflection of 'humanitarian' Colonial Office attitudes that had ceased to be relevant, it did not signify substantial progress towards autonomous control of the Maori destiny over the preceding 50 years. The official celebrations, therefore, reflected reality. But their 'disappearing' of Maori, even at a time of pro-war rhetoric and assistance from within Maoridom, did not seem to indicate any serious future efforts by the Crown to achieve a significant relationship with its indigenous people.

The celebrations drew some protest, both pakeha and Maori. At the Akaroa event, Ngai Tahu's paramount chief stressed the importance of its tribal claim, to Fraser's obvious discomfort. The raupatu tribes boycotted the North Island celebrations. Even Ngata's general praise of New Zealand race relations was qualified. Maori, he said, could scarcely be expected to be interested in celebrating the loss of most of their lands. He joined Paikea in suggesting that, although negotiations were voluntarily suspended, it would be appropriate in the centennial year to settle Maori grievances in principle. As an opposition MP, he went even page 187further, opposing welfarist lumping of all New Zealanders together. This, he stated, implied anti-tribalism, whereas Maori cultural renewal, while reflecting a general unity of purpose, was based on a tribal vigour that augured well for the Maori contribution to New Zealand life. Ngata noted the paucity of Maori attendance at the celebrations, implicitly inviting the government to draw inferences. Other Maori spokespeople also embarrassed the Crown by querying the myths of assimilative harmony and stressing the need for a Maori-based future for their people.

In this 'Pacific haven' of 'peace and tranquillity', however, Maori objections to assimilationism and their reassertion of tribal energy were generally either resented or (more commonly) ignored. It was the 'intrepid' and 'dauntless' settlers who should be, and were being, celebrated – not their Maori foes (or allies). It was the pakeha 'pioneering spirit' that needed to be reforged for the nation's contribution to the international struggle against fascism. A supposed 'Maori warrior spirit' was seen as an interesting exotic touch, but not central to the war effort.

Overlying the patriotic fervour of the centennial events, which were tightly controlled by the state, was a celebration of beneficence: of 'British' governance in general, and of the Labour government and its policies in particular. Combining proto-nationalistic pride over socio-economic progress with the colonial and imperial mindset, Labour guaranteed both social security and 'preservation of freedom'. In Treaty terms, it promoted Article Three's emphasis on 'equality' over Article Two's respect for Maori differentness. In a national hegemony produced out of 100 years of privileged membership of empire, there was little role for indigenous self-determination. In the words of one cabinet minister at the 1940 celebrations, the government wanted, not tribalism, but 'Maori and pakeha to live side by side as brothers'.

The general Maori desire to assist, and to be seen to be assisting, the war effort was not, however, geared to winning a place in a homogeneously 'British' New Zealand. Rather, it was, as reflected in the title of Ngata's 1943 pamphlet 'The Price of Citizenship', a repeat of the Ngataist rationale for joining the previous international war effort. Proving that Maori were willing to assist the Dominion and 'the civilised world' in their darkest hours, even by the shedding of blood, would aid the page 188tangata whenua struggle. This was a quest not just for the various manifestations of 'equality', such as socio-economic progress, but also for the autonomous control over their lives that had been implicit (and arguably, in Article Two, explicit) in 1840 when they signed up to British subjecthood. The Maori MPs, particularly, were conscious of the need for Maori to 'prove themselves' to be loyal subjects of the Crown as a prerequisite for pakeha public support for concessions from the state. In the absence of such backing, nothing much would happen in terms of Crown recognition of rangatiratanga.

The Maori Parliamentary Committee put great effort into stressing, particularly to the tribes with the major grievances, the potential political spin-off from enthusiastic and ongoing co-operation with the Crown. In turn it elicited grateful government responses to the many wartime initiatives from within Maoridom, and reported these back. Some concessions came early on. It was the Committee's insistence that the need to 'foster tribal unity' in the war effort could best be done in 'the traditional way' which had led to the government's acceptance of giving 'recognition to the principle of tribal leadership (consistent with military efficiency)' in the 28th Battalion. The Maori MPs worked hard to encourage voluntary enlistment and, when this flagged, set up an intensified recruitment campaign.

Even the leaders of the tribes which had resisted full collaboration during the First World War were now, their eyes strategically focused on post-war gains, careful not to be seen to be discouraging members from joining the military effort, although there was a relatively weak response to volunteering in raupatu regions. Maori became popular with pakeha as a result of publicity for the 28th Battalion. One observer later reminisced about the unusual experience of approval for her people during 'the Pakeha war': 'Maoris seemed to be heroes instead of "black niggers" … I will never forget the sight of the Maori Battalion as they marched through Wellington with all the other soldiers. The applause they received from the people was thunderous. You did not need an education to kill people. As long as you could pull a trigger you were fine.'

The Maori war effort was headed by the Maori MPs on the home as well as the fighting front. Here, too, there was strong Maori support for page 189'patriotic service'. Even Te Puea and the Waikato elders and people were enthusiastic in the production of food and materials for the war effort. The scale of the national challenge meant that, for the first time, 'Maori manpower' became an essential factor in the New Zealand 'national interest'. As a result of this, their military contribution and other home-front activities, Maori came to be seen by the state and pakeha as 'an asset' rather than a 'problem'.

At first, flax-roots contributions to both the home and fighting fronts were informally organised and loosely encouraged by the Maori politicians. These efforts were based on existing tribal structures, a traditional propensity to form komiti within these for specific purposes, and (to a lesser degree) what remained of the Maori Council system. After a year of disparate activities, the Maori MPs concluded that the tangata whenua effort needed to be more formally structured, and coordinated across all war-related activities. Their proposals gained widespread acceptance among Maoridom and, after considerable planning among the MPs and their networks, in May 1941 the government approved formalisation of the Maori contribution to the war. Military recruiting was to be its major focus. Paraire Paikea, pivotal to the Labour– Ratana alliance, had been appointed Member of the Executive Council Representing the Native Race on 21 January that year, in addition to chairing the wartime Maori Parliamentary Committee. He now became minister in charge of what was officially called the 'Maori War Effort'.104