US Forces in New Zealand

Page 9 – Americans and Māori

‘Haere mai, Amerikana’

In 1942, New Zealand may not have had ‘the best race relations in the world’, but there was a wide acceptance of relaxed social intercourse between Māori and Pākehā in public. Some of the Americans had different traditions. A number came from Texas and other southern states where ‘Jim Crow’ laws still kept ‘niggers’ apart and in their place.

They did not feel comfortable drinking and eating in the company of Māori; a considerable number of the fights involving American servicemen appear to have been with Māori men, especially soldiers. In addition, there was reported trouble involving Māori women being regarded as ‘fair game’.

An ugly situation might well have developed, but strenuous efforts were made to build bridges. The most extensive of these involved Princess Te Puea and the King movement at Ngāruawāhia in Waikato. Towards the end of 1942, after reports of unpleasant incidents, Te Puea decided to approach the Americans and, after some initial misunderstanding (Te Puea, described as ‘this black woman’, was kept waiting outside the commandant’s office in Manurewa), it was agreed that groups of Americans should visit the Tūrangawaewae Marae to meet Māori people and learn something of their culture. Groups of officers travelled to Waikato on three occasions between November 1942 and February 1943. The meetings were a great success. The officers had carefully learnt the expression ‘Tēnā koe’, and the kuia replied by grasping their hands and calling, ‘Haere mai, Amerikana’.

The series of gatherings climaxed with a visit by some 500 Americans on 27 March 1943 for the annual regatta. The Māori King, Korokī, made a rare appearance and presented some gifts to Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who in turn presented them to the senior American naval officer, Captain S.D. Jupp. One gift was a carved inkstand intended for use by President Roosevelt on the day Japan was defeated. The second was a fruit bowl for Mrs Roosevelt, a symbol of plenty and therefore of peace. At the regatta, the Waikato people brought out for the first time two of the three waka (canoes) originally built for the 1940 centennial. Even today the Tainui tribes sing a waiata (song) which recalls romantic memories of the wartime visitors from across the sea.

Waikato iwi were not the only tribes who made special efforts to welcome the Americans. A popular weekend jaunt for servicemen on leave was a visit to Rotorua, and Whakarewarewa in particular, where they learned something of Māori carving and tradition. Americans were also welcomed onto marae in Gisborne, and Wellington’s Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club made regular visits to the hospital at Silverstream to entertain the patients with waiata. The enthusiastic interest which the Americans showed in Māori culture can be seen in the remarkable photographs of them indulging in haka, and also in the surprising fact that a number of wounded soldiers took up Māori carving as occupational therapy.

How to cite this page

'Americans and Māori', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012