THERE was a ledger open on the desk and a large map of Northland spread out. Mr Bell, Consolidation Commissioner, was spelling out in simple language for this reporter a dizzying outline of the technical and personal complications of the consolidation of Maori land titles. The ledger and the map were merely the physical record of innumerable interviews and transactions over a period of months and years, but the man himself, far younger in voice and appearance than his more than forty years of experience would suggest, showed no signs that he would ever reach an end to his interest in Maori tradition and genealogies. He explained lucidly from his own long experience the methods past and present of sorting out the bewildering tangle which the Maori form of succession left for the present claimants of Maori land.
Consolidation Commissioner is a cold pakeha name for a man who, with his assistants, does a job that reaches right into the homes and hearts of the people he has to deal with, and many kindly things get done through his office which are not recorded in any ledger. This is an office in which there is accumulated a prodigious store of knowledge of Maori custom and tradition along with a clear understanding of the fact that while the Maori is much attached to the land of his ancestors, he is not living in ancestral times but in the year of the first man-made satellite.
The map, being a Northland map, was studded with tribal names that will never be forgotten. Most of the names in the ledgers were also ancient names, though some came from further away than Hawaiiki. But names meant people, and I went off to talk to them about consolidation, in farmhouses, in town kitchens, in buses and on the waterfront. I forgot about the map and the ledgers, put away in the back of my mind the history details of land settlement to be read in Ngata, Buck and Keesing, and looked at the situation as it faces the Maori landowner today.
With no exceptions, old or young, everybody agrees with what might be called the simple arithmetic of consolidation. For instance, a young man and his wife start out with five hundred inherited acres. In time they have four children, and in more time the children have children, and in no time so
to speak, there are sixty or seventy claimants to the original five hundred acres. If the original owner's land happens to be partly scattered in small blocks to start with, the subdivision of claims becomes ludicrous even sooner. Simple arithmetic all right, but arithmetic takes no account of heartache.
Younger people, if you may believe what they say themselves, are less concerned about this kind of arithmetic than their elders. They do not remember a time when jobs were hard to get, and for reasons understandable even if regrettable, the bonds of custom hang loosely on them. But for any elderly Maori landowner who has not completely accepted the pakeha way of doing things, there comes a time when he must make a decision about land succession entirely on his own with none of the props of custom to guide him. He is caught in the arithmetic trap; a farm that will support one family (even a large one) will not support three or four. Nothing will alter the facts, no Government decree or any appeal to ancient tradition.
Nor is the picture any different in bigger blocks of land in which larger groups have an interest. If a block capable of development has fifty shareholders who agree that five of their number could successfully farm a fifth each of the original block what is to become of the other forty-five? There is no compulsion. A few concerned may have their homes shifted to a house section on a road frontage, but in the main the other claimants must be bought out. If they are wise and there is enough money they can buy a stake in a house section or a house in town where jobs are available. If their shares in terms of money are less than £25 they may be compulsorily bought out, but beyond that figure the only compulsion is the compulsion of too many people on too little land.
Everybody agrees to the logic of the situation, but… always, in every conversation about consolidation there is this ‘but.’
There is objection to the smallness of the sum —as small as a few shillings on occasion in the past—paid out for the compulsory acquisition of tiny holdings. Nobody can suggest what else might be fairly done about uselessly small shares in uselessly small holdings, but still the feeling rankles that ancestral land can be reduced to a handful of change. There is a sense of loss and finality not related to value in pounds, shillings and pence at the cutting off of a tangible connection with the past. Whether it is five shillings or five hundred pounds, money is not something you can build a house on. Nobody's ancestors are buried in a bank.
But these in the main are the heartaches of the elderly, though none the less heartaches. The proverbial love of the Maori for his ancestral lands is remembered, perhaps too well remembered. It is a sentiment embedded in song and story, and in pakeha times it has been the main subject of several books and hundreds of articles. It is a sentiment so continuously and so ardently cultivated that you may hear it spoken in the pakeha-style sitting rooms of Maori people separated from the land for two generations, and comfortably and effectively established in city jobs.
Of course the Maori is attached to his ancestral land. In most cases he still gets a good deal of his favourite foods from the sea, lakes and rivers as his ancestors did before him. But there were times long past when troubles about land bore heavily on the Maori people, when the answer to the problem of arithmetic could not be found. Then custom was boldly put aside and the Maori removed himself dramatically to another country altogether, bringing to New Zealand not the ancestral lands but the mana of the Maori people. Nobody can buy mana or sell it or partition it or consolidate it. It can be left undiluted to a million descendants.
For the truth is that Maoritanga does not reside wholly or even largely in the individual ownership of the land. It is right and proper and inevitable that parts of New Zealand should continue to be farmed, perhaps for ever, by people of Maori blood. For many years to come the slow and sometimes painful though voluntary consolidation of titles must go on. But it is a gospel of defeatism to insist that what makes the Maori a Maori, with all that implies of tradition and speech and history and song, is ownership of a specific piece of land.
There is that wealth of goodwill and understanding in the Commissioner's office to soften the blows of family arithmetic but the answer is always the same. An increasing number of young Maori people must do as thousands have done before them—come to terms with life in 1958, making use of their unique position at the junction of two cultures to achieve a wider enjoyment and perhaps to serve a greater purpose than is possible for those of pakeha descent alone.
The boys of St Peter's Maori College, at Northcote, Auckland, presented their third Maori opera in the Auckland town hall concert chamber in October last. The opera, called “Rata”, is a tragedy written, composed and produced by a teacher at the school, who also wrote the other two. The entire school of 78 pupils took part. The scenery was painted by an old boy of the school, Paratene Matehiti, and the pianist was Hohepa Topua, a pupil of the college.
The pupils are responsible for their own makeup, costumes and weapons, and boys with soprano voices appeared as Maori maidens.
The composer, says that a tragedy gives the boys a much wider scope to show their acting ability. He points out that much Maori music was also of a tragic nature. Tragedy was woven into the life of the old Maori, and laments form a large part of Maori music.