NZ Race Relations

Page 3 – Māori and Pakeha relations 1900-1945

Māori entered the 20th century economically disadvantaged by a range of government policies and actions which had severely reduced their landholdings. During the second half of the 19th century land held by Māori under communal title had been halved from 8.8 million hectares to 4.4 million. Over the next 30 years this total was halved again as successive governments vigorously encouraged the development of farming.

The opening decades of the 20th century saw a number of new Māori leaders emerge. The aforementioned Pōmare and Buck were joined by fellow Te Aute College graduate Apirana Ngata to form the nucleus of what was known as the Young Maori Party. This group played a leading role in providing direction for Māori as far as government policies and initiatives were concerned. They tended to work within the mainstream of New Zealand politics and urged Māori to make the most of the ‘Pākehā way’. They believed it was important to retain those aspects of Māori society that were compatible with ‘modern life’ and essential to the survival of their culture. Ngata led a renaissance in Māori knowledge and culture, as did the important Waikato leader Te Puea Hērangi.

Te Puea’s primary focus was on the needs of the Waikato and Kīngitanga. Key examples of this were her reaction to the conscription of Waikato men in the First World War and her work in dealing with the effects of the disastrous influenza pandemic of 1918. In 1921 Te Puea began work on the Tūrangawaewae Marae at Ngāruawāhia. This new marae would provide a new home for the Māori king and a source of unity for Waikato Māori. Te Puea promoted kapa haka – traditional Māori performing arts – as a way of keeping Māori culture alive, and also used it to raise money for the construction of Tūrangawaewae.

Māori had mixed views about the First World War. The iwi who supported the war effort were tribes noted for their loyalty to the Crown. The four Māori MPs were united in their support for Māori participation in the war. Peter Buck led from the front and volunteered for service. He believed fighting together as a group might break down what he saw as the negative aspects of tribalism and help unify Māori. Ngata believed involvement would strengthen Māori claims for equal status with Pākehā.

The Māori who did not answer the call to fight for 'King and Country' were largely from Taranaki and TainuiWaikato. In these areas there was still bitterness about the confiscation of land following the wars of the 1860s. King Tāwhiao, having made his peace with the Crown in 1881, forbade Waikato to take up arms again. His grand-daughter Te Puea intended to honour this. When conscription was imposed on Waikato Māori from 1917 she supported those men who refused to report for service.

By the end of the war, 2227 Maori served in what became the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion. Of these, 336 died on active service and 734 were wounded. Māori enlisted (and died) in other units as well.

During the war violence broke out at Maungapōhatu when armed police were sent to arrest the Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana. Kēnana had apparently stated that the German Kaiser would appoint him King of New Zealand once Germany had defeated the Allies.

The influenza pandemic that struck New Zealand between October and December 1918 killed 9000 New Zealanders, almost half as many as had been killed in the whole of the First World War. No event has killed so many New Zealanders in such a short time. The impact on many Māori communities was particularly severe. About 2500 Māori died, and their per-capita death rate was more than eight times that of Pākehā. The impact of the pandemic would be felt for many years to come. Te Puea took responsibility for more than 100 children orphaned in Waikato.

In the midst of the pandemic in November 1918, a farmer near Whanganui, T.W. Rātana, described a vision in which he was pronounced as the māngai (mouthpiece) of the Holy Spirit. He was apparently blessed with the gift of healing through prayer. Rātana’s reputation quickly spread and thousands attended his meetings throughout the country in the early 1920s. The Rātana Church was formally established in 1925 and in 1928 Rātana moved into politics. He referred to the four Maori seats as the four quarters of his body. He aimed to win these seats on the basis of the 40,000 followers of his church. An alliance was formed with the Labour Party and by 1943 all four Māori seats had been captured. Rātana believed that for Māori to progress the Crown needed to honour the Treaty of Waitangi.

The rate of Māori land loss slowed markedly after Native Minister Gordon Coates became Prime Minister in 1925. Coates had grown up close to Māori communities in Kaipara and was sympathetic to their needs. He worked closely with Ngata despite the fact that the latter was in the opposition Liberal Party. In 1926 Coates appointed the Sim Commission to investigate land confiscations. It eventually reported that the land confiscations of the 19th century were largely unjust.

Māori arts and crafts

Te Puea and Ngata worked hard to maintain traditional Māori arts and crafts. In 1927 a carving school was established in Rotorua under the Maori Arts and Crafts Act 1926, championed by Ngata. Te Puea was also instrumental in establishing a carving school at Ngāruawāhia, led by master carver Piri Poutapu.

In 1928 Ngata became Native Minister in the United Party government. In 1929 legislation provided for government loans to assist Māori land development. Of particular concern was the fragmentation of Māori land which meant it was often divided into many small, unproductive plots. Ngata believed the solution was to consolidate this land by joining it together into larger, more economical farms. He extended the scheme from his own East Coast area to Waikato, where he worked closely with Te Puea. Numerous development schemes were begun in the early 1930s, although not all were successful. Allegations of financial irregularities in these schemes saw Ngata resign as minister in 1934.

In contrast to the First World War, there was no organised Māori opposition when war was declared on Germany in September 1939. Te Puea retained concerns about fighting for the British Crown while the matter of confiscation had not been addressed. But she did not stand in the way of men from the region enlisting. She raised money for the Red Cross and organised material support for the men of 28 (Maori) Battalion. By the time the war ended in 1945 the battalion was one of the most celebrated and decorated units in the New Zealand forces. Nearly 16,000 Māori enlisted for service, which Ngata saw as paying the ‘price of citizenship’. The tribally based Maori War Effort Organisation assisted with recruitment and war-related services, adding to a sense that Māori had played their full part as citizens. After the war Māori servicemen received full rehabilitation assistance from the government.

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'Māori and Pakeha relations 1900-1945 ', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-May-2020

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