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No. 24 (October 1958)
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This is the text of a talk given over the YC stations last May, dealing with Maori-pakeha relationships.


One may divide New Zealanders into three groups: A European group, a Maori group and a small group (partly European, partly Maori in descent) with access to both worlds. Naturally the European group meets Maoris in shops, factories, offices, schools and hotels, but most of the important features of Maori life remain closed to them. The same thing can be said of Maoris: to the great majority the real core of the European culture remains quite unfamiliar.

My first contact with the real Maori world was when I attended a ceremonial gathering. It was one of those affairs where Ministers of the Crown talk, where a whole row of prominent visitors sit at the top table and where the hosts dash about in outward calm but inward trepidation as any mistake in the proceedings would blot the tribe's mana for a generation. It was with some alarm that I met the stern uncompromising marae police at the ceremonial gate; when I saw the huge semicircle of visitors face the defiant figures on the carved meeting house. I felt in a strange country.

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The hakas, the gesticulations of the orators speaking in an unknown tongue, the punctilious ceremonial could not readily be associated with the Maori people I had met in the city. Many of the public were Maori city workers. They all fitted perfectly into this new world; so profound was the difference that thoughts and speeches appropriate and fully accepted in their city life had now become anathema. Everything that was said in public—and much that was said in private—revolved round the well-being of the tribe, and the only sort of fact that was worth reciting related to the tribe's history. The walls surrounding the marae kept out nearly all the world I had previously known and when later I in turn had to speak to a tribal meeting, I was bound also to fit my speech into the same pattern.

The Maori feels the same way when he steps into one of the sanctuaries of the European world—be it the local repertory society or professional women's club. Of course a few Maoris do it, but not the majority; no more than the majority of Europeans feel comfortable sleeping in a Maori meeting house.

I don't think there is any particular harm in the condition I have described, but it shows that the relationship between the races is to a very great extent dependent on a small group of people who are at home in both worlds. Of necessity they are a minority, but they are a most important minority.

One finds similar groups all over the world; for instance, in our relations with Asia we are helped greatly by the small number of people who are equally at home in East and West—it is through them that the East may get some understanding of our way of life.

I like to call them the mediators. They may be migrants, teachers, traders, doctors or missionaries. Others are students or simply travellers. The first characteristic of the mediator I have already mentioned. If he is a European in a Maori environment, he must have a definite function to fulfil, close to the tribal sphere. Yet not every teacher or official can be a mediator. He must also set up a warm mutual relationship with the Maori group. This only happens if the European feels some definite need to belong to and be identified with the Maori group. Some people become mediators largely because of the isolated places in which they live, but more often the mediator is a person who feels some attachment to the Maori way of life.

One of the greatest dangers of some European mediators is that they tend to regard themselves as benefactors. Such an attitude is fatal to good relations and never leads anywhere. The only right attitude for a mediator is to ask himself frankly: why have I come here? It is either because he liked to or because he had to. So there is absolutely no reason for gratitude. In fact the expectation of gratitude from another race just because one happens to spend one's time in its midst is very poor race relations. Quite on the contrary, it is the people amongst whom the mediator lives who make the most valuable gift. Right from the first meeting, it is the hosts who have to show the hospitality, spend endless hours telling the newcomer all about the history and the culture, and if the mediator is successful he will begin to suggest changes, according to the particular function he fulfils. If he is a farm supervisor, he expects changes in farming; if he is a teacher, parents and children have to adjust themselves in his demands. Admittedly, the community may ultimately benefit, but that is only afterwards. The period of change itself means upset and dislocation, based fundamentally on the trust of the people in the mediator. That is perhaps the greatest gift of the people: their confidence. The old men of the community have to make way for him, the stranger, so he can take over part of the leadership and modernize the village. It is a hard wrench, but for the sake of progress and the future it is done. The mediator should realize the great weight of responsibility that rests upon him.

Many hundreds of Europeans are working in this way among the New Zealand Maori. Their influence is of course only one of many that determine the Maori situation. One could mention the films, the hotels, the whole of our money economy. The difference between all these and the mediator is that the latter works from within, from and understanding of the community and with its active consent. If there were no mediators, there would still be culture change, but it would be uncontrolled; social and economic evils would not be checked except by pure accident. Mediators can help the community find a way out of the dangers of a changing culture; their knowledge of European culture will suggest to them remedies that may not be known to the Maori leaders.

I have already stressed that not all mediators

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working in Maori communities are Europeans. Many are Maoris with a European education. It would be hard to assess the influence of these Maori mediators, these men-of-two-worlds, who have been the main Maori leaders for the last two or three generations, but undoubtedly it has been immense. Obvious examples are Sir Apirana Ngata and Sir Peter Buck. In the life of Ngata one can distinguish three important phases: in the first phase, he is given a good European type of education. In the second phase he advocates health reforms and modern farming methods among his own people. He encourages the Ngati Porou to take up sheepfarming and organizes institutions like co-operatives, all on European lines. He launches land development as Minister of Maori Affairs, makes pleas to all tribes to utilizeland along mainly European patterns. The third phase, starting in late middle life, was to champion the revival or preservation of the traditional Maori culture.

We see a similar pattern with Sir Peter Buck who started off by working on health reform, then took up anthropology and in the evening of his life was concerned only with the study of Polynesian (traditional) cultures.

Obviously in these cases and many others less eminent, the Maori mediator begins by absorbing some aspect of European civilisation fairly deeply and then returns to his people to impart this knowledge which will help their progress. Such Maori leaders are naturally very influential because of their knowledge of the Maori mind and their clear sense of the sort of reforms that may be needed. In fact they have all the advantages over European mediators except that of number: it is impossible to find enough Maoris even today for the many tasks demanding the services of mediators. It follows that the European mediator becomes less important, as progress of other races is accelerated. This is true for Asia as well as for the Maori people: at the outset the European is indispensable, but gradually the intrinsically more suitable native mediator can take over.

What is, then, the best way of improving race relations in New Zealand? I would say it would be fruitful to concentrate on the comparatively small group, both Maori and European who are likely to act as mediators between the two cultures. This means that Europeans who may teach Maoris or work among them as officials, social workers or any other way should be given the best possible preparation to understanding the Maori, and therefore other races in general. New Zealand has produced several brilliant anthropologists—even before any New Zealand University offered a degree course in the subject. Yet it is surprising how little the average man knows about other societies. Courses now introduced into the teachers colleges will bring some of the necessary knowledge to school teachers which is a necessary first step. Nonetheless, I think that more effort could be made to increase the sophistication with which the average person moves into a Maori—or other alien—community.

The important problem of increasing the number and efficacy of Maori mediators is more complex. The raising of Maori educational standards would naturally be a great help. It should be realised however that many of the more talented children will not, on leaving school, be particularly interested in returning to their own communities for any purpose whatever. Many desire nothing so much as to become absorbed in European life, learning the necessary skills and rising beyond the limitations of their childhood environment. The lives of most of the important Maori mediators contain a phase, sometimes of many years, dedicated solely to this purpose. There is of course a place for Maori youth clubs and similar organisations, and it may be valuable to many to attend huis and similar gatherings. None-theless, many talented young Maoris will wish to keep their distance from this side of life, at least for a time.

Past evidence shows that these young people are not necessarily lost to the race. I have heard Maori elders say that it is futile to give their young people a good education for they will only drift away and be no help to the tribe. On the other hand, if they were not so well educated, they would stay.

Fortunately this is not typical of the attitude of Maori parents. In any case, taking a long view it is not true. It is really surprising how few educated Maoris do not at some phase in their life feel a strong urge to return to their own people. Once they have assimilated as much as they want of the European way of life, they gradually take up the old contacts again. They look for an opportunity to meet their kinsfolk and gradually let themselves be drawn into community activities. In old age, this atmosphere becomes more and more attractive and there is an unpleasant saying that a “Maori will always go back to the mat”. If this means anything at all, it means that one cannot have one foot in two cultures for ever, one must in the end make a choice. This choice is for most mediators—both Maori and European—to go back to their own people.

For nobody is really at his best in a strange culture. For instance there are few Europeans who can emulate the Maori in oratory or action song; there are few whose minds function as elearly and brilliantly on Maori issues as they would in the context of the culture in which they were brought up. The foot one sets in the strange environment is always the weaker foot. And it is wise for the European watching his Maori compatriot to realise that he has not really seen the Maori's strongest foot, that this strongest foot is in the Maori's own environment about which Europeans know so very little.