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No. 11 (July 1955)
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Hauwhenua Kirkwood, prominent elder and ex-chairman of the Onehunga-Mangere tribal committee, looks on as the younger people are enjoying themselves at the Onehunga community centre Christmas party. (Hill-Thomas Photograph.)

IN ORDER to look at tribal committees from the inside. Te Ao Hou interviewed Mr Earle Opai, chairman of the Onehunga-Mangere committee. We could have selected any of a large number of committees and got a very similar picture. Mr Earle Opai works as head barman at one of the hotels in Onehunga. We found him at his job; we asked the manager for permission to interview, but the manager seemed to be quite accustomed to Mr Opai doing tribal committee business at work—and more than that, he seemed to be pleased about it.

The Onehunga-Mangere tribal committee was formed in November 1949, and it was officially gazetted under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act in March 1950. Mr Opai was then secretary and the chairman was Mr Hauwhenua Kirkwood.

The committee area covers two Maori settlements, near Auckland City, one at Onehunga and the other at Mangere. These settlements have changed considerably in the last few years; whereas only five years ago, the Onehunga people lived and worked mainly on the market gardens, they are now spread over every type of occupation in Auckland and a good number of the market garden shacks have made place for modern standard State rental and Maori Affairs houses. In Mangere, State housing for Maoris has made similar progress so that one may say the Onehunga-Mangere people are living in an atmosphere of hope and steady improvements.

What contribution has the tribal committee made to these people's lives? Has it helped to ease the transition from one way of life to another? The Maori Social and Economiec Advancement Act gives a definition of tribal committee functions well worth quoting here, because nothing could tell more clearly the true nature of Maori self-government; its general function is to promote, encourage, guide and assist members of the Maori race.


to conserve, improve, advance and maintain their physical, economic, educational, social, moral and spiritual wellbeing;


to assume and maintain self-dependence, thrift, pride of race, and such conduct as will be conducive to their general health and economic wellbeing;


to accept and maintain the full rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship;


to apply and maintain the maximum possible efficiency and responsibility in their local self-government and undertakings; and


to preserve, revive and maintain the teaching of Maori arts, crafts, language, genealogy and history in order to perpetuate Maori culture.

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A Christmas present was given to every child at the Christmas party organized by the Onehunga tribal committee. (Photo: Hill-Thomas.)

This is a formidable task indeed; it is a task in some ways far more difficult than that imposed on European local government. After all everybody knows what has to be done to maintain a road, but maintaining social wellbeing, pride of race or Maori arts and crafts—how does one go about that?

It says a great deal for the tribal committees that they have often been able to give working answers to such perplexing questions. At One-hunga-Mangere, as in so many other places, the tribal committee has been preoccupied from the start with the need for tribal—or community—centres. As Ngata said, until these are provided, the community will not seriously take up other problems. There had been talk of a community centre for the district as long as 25 years ago. However, the formation of the tribal committee brought a new approach to this problem.

Consisting mainly of young men with a high-school and town background, the committee decided, in the words of Mr Opai to use their pakeha education in the problem of building a maree.

The committee organised sports, particularly competitive football. After two years, it was on a sound financial footing and in addition had made substantial donations to every local, national and even international appeal held during the period.

Among the causes helped by the committee were the Onehunga Plunket Society Building Fund, the Dominion Appeal for the Blind, the United Nations Childrens' Appeals as well as local sports clubs. They raised £1000 for the Onehunga War Memorial.

The committee built up 12 football teams, four basketball clubs and numerous other organised competitions. They won the respect of the community. They did not forget their ultimate purpose; the community centre.

Their chance came when an old building belonging to the Onehunga Borough Council suitable for club rooms, fell vacant in April 1953. The tribal committee applied for the lease—and was successful, at the very low rate of £1 per week. The council decided, because of the extreme importance of the tribal committee's project not to call for tenders for the lease as this would have put the building out of the Maoris' reach, but to use its special powers to grant a low-priced year-to-year lease by private contract.

The Onehunga Maori people at once set about improving the old building. They repaired it, painted it, built new kitchen cupboards, and a shopping corner. They bought crockery and other kitchen ware and started to serve Sunday dinners in Maori style. Many of the Onehunga people still do not have suitable homes where they can spend Sundays pleasantly.

To fit out the old building completely it will also be necessary to build a stage, a sanitary block and later two tennis-basketball courts. Altogether the expenses may be about £1,500, and it is probable that half of this sum will be contributed by the Government as a subsidy under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act.

From a longer view, the old building will only solve the Onchunga people's problems for a while—perhaps fifteen years. Once the present centre is fully developed, the people plan to start raising money for a new building fully adapted to the thousands of people to be served by it in the foreseeable future.

Of a total of 1500 Maoris in the Onehunga-Mangere area, between 300–400 use the centre every week. It is a centre for the sports groups; on Monday and Wednesday nights table tennis and other indoor games are played, on Tuesday and Thursday nights boxing and physical training,—the centre is a registered boxing gymnasium, while Friday and Saturday are reserved for committee functions such as dances, concerts and entertainments. On Sundays religious services are held (Anglican, Methodist, Catholic and Ratana in successive weeks), meals are served and people have a chance to get together.

There is also a women's committee which runs a kindergarten.

Classes are given in Maori Arts and Crafts and other subjects. There is a very effective group of wardens, including female wardens, who keep an eye on the five hotels of Onehunga.

The committee's major problem, says Mr Opai, is still housing. Quite a few Maori Affairs houses have been built and the tribal committee is on the allocation committee for new homes. Cases are referred to the committee which may write an support of applications.

The difficulty with the housing scheme, to the Onehunga Maori, is that people marry young and have large families before they have moved into

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an income group in which they can save much money. The committee has pushed the idea of state rental housing, but where husband and wife are both working, or where there is only one child or none, the committee advises to go to the Department of Maori Affairs as it feels such people could have little chance of a state house.

Out of all money raised at functions, the committee allocates 10% to an Educational Assistance Fund, to be used to help promising young people to get education they would not otherwise get. Mr Opai knows from personal experience of boys doing well at school who had to leave because of lack of money in the home. Under the government's recent scheme, this revenue of the committee is subsidisable for approved cases.

Activities such as Mr Opai described are typical of the way many tribal committees interpret their functions. Almost invariably social and sports activities are encouraged; in the moral sphere, wardens are often active and effective in dealing

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Mr Earle Opai, chairman of the Onehunga tribal committee. (Photo: Hill-Thomas.)

with problem cases; housing is a concern of many of the more lively committees; so is the reviving of arts and crafts.

The very close relations between the Onehunga-Mangere committee and the European population is perhaps less general; it is, however, a very progressive pattern, especially for people who are living near the city and who must be more closely involved with Europeans than would be necessary in country districts.

The committee has an Advisory Board ‘consisting of one member representing the Onehunga Borough Council, one from the Onehunga Business Men's Association, and another from the Onehunga Rotary Club. The Board's Chairman and one other member come from the tribal committee itself.

Through this Board it has been possible to get European goodwill behind all the committee's actions. At times this has meant financial help; at other times material help such as odd jobs done by the borough council staff. Police and borough council refer difficult cases to the tribal committee. The Senior Sergeant of Police gives the committee 100% support. Naturally the Advisory Board could do nothing without the Maori people taking the initiative but outside help has been appreciated, while the committee always stands ready to contribute to outside causes.

Te Ao Hou unfortunately did not meet the whole committee. Obviously, it must contain quite a number of very active members. There is a sub-committee for each of the activities and tribal committee members are all serving in and leading these sports, social and cultural sub-committees, helped by many people for whom there is not room in the controlling body. At the time Te Ao Hou called, there were 16 members instead of the statutory 11 and reducing the number was almost impossible. Through the delegation of work to sub-committees, leadership and responsibility was shared by a good many people and this in itself satisfies a very important requirement in the M.S.E.A. Act. Responsibilities of citizenship and in local self-government were things tribal committees were intended to promote.

The most important sub-committee. Te Ao Hou was told, is the judicial committee. The wardens are all members of this committee and it is responsible for order at the marae and in the community generally. The power to fine has never yet been used, but one man who caused a fight sent the committee a letter of apology afterwards, enclosing a self-imposed penalty of one pound.

Mr Opai, the only committee member Te Ao Hou interviewed had lived at Onchunga for 21 years. He got his job at the hotel through his work with the Maori people. The hotelkeeper met him at a football committee of which he was chairman and Mr Opai a member. Mr Opai was then living in a caravan with his wife and family

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and was offered a State House away from One-hunga. To keep him in the district, where he could continue his work among the Maori people, the hotelkeeper offered him a job and a cottage. This was five years ago and Mr Opai is now head barman with a staff of ten.

The committee finds the hotels very co-operative in regulating Maori drinking. When a man needs correction, a hotel will say he can't come in for a month. The other hotels in Onehunga are at once informed of the incident and also refuse to serve him for that period. Hotelkeepers can see the value of wardens to their business. One hotel pays the tribal committee 10/- per week towards wardens' expenses; another hotel pays one-pound.

Last Christmas a grand children's party was held at which photographs were taken for Te Ao Hou. It was an example of community collaboration for at this party all supplies were brought from local shopkeepers at wholesale rates; there was, besides Father Christmas, a magician and a picture show.

So, the tribal committee has brought the people of Onehunga the warmth and comfort of a true community centre. It has also brought them higher standards of behaviour and outlook and in short better lives.