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No. 51 (June 1965)
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The Maori Adolescent

The symptoms and patterns by which we identify the adolescent, as laid down by the experts, would seem to indicate that no matter what race or culture forms the background to this individual, he will always stand out as a breed apart. He is the person who stands between two distinct patterns of existence: the existence of childhood, and the existence of adulthood. This is the critical turning-point described by St Paul: ‘When I was a child I thought as a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.’ The age of the adolescent is the period of the putting away of childish things in order to become a man.

The Period of ‘Storms and Stresses’

Like every other person coming to maturity, the Maori adolescent does not escape the ‘storms and stresses’ of life at this period. With other adolescents, he experiences the physical, psychological and emotional changes which so vividly mark the period of the teenager. In times past, adolescents have been described in many ways. A generation ago a particularly significant description was to be found in the term ‘flapper’, used to designate the female of the species.

It is interesting to note that the dictionary meaning of the word ‘flapper’ is ‘one yet in the nest, vainly attempting to fly while his wings have only pin feathers’. In a way, the fledgling bird and the fledgling human are driven by the same urge: the urge to set forth. In so doing, most young people make it the first time, but some for a variety of reasons need to try two and three times.

During childhood, the average family represented a collective form of security where the father was the ‘shield and buckler’, where the mother gave the life and the father gave the living, where the child accepted his lot automatically. The authority over the group was vested in the father, especially since under normal Pakeha circumstances, the immediate family circle was, by and large, the responsible ‘kinship unit’.

The Maori child needed and received the

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same sort of physical and emotional assurance as his Pakeha counterpart, but his responsible ‘kinship unit’ was often a wider one. His grandparents, his uncles and aunts, grand-uncles and grand-aunts shared, as of right, in the upbringing of the child. Even in the tribal situation generally, a keen sense of kinship gave the Maori child an assured sense of belonging.

The Maori child in the past learned how to identify with his community at a much earlier age than does either the modern Maori or the Pakeha child.

New Needs and Goals

Things that the child normally accepts automatically, tend to become irksome symbols of restrictions and subjection to the adolescent. Furthermore, new urges and new dimensions now begin to demand satisfaction on all planes—mental, physical and emotional. The need to have life explained becomes one of the dominant factors, as does also the need to satisfy other new appetites which emerge at puberty. At this time also, there arises a basic need to identify with others of like interests and urges. One of the adolescent's goals is to become emotionally involved in the lives and activities of others of like mind, in order to share in the security which can only come from the group.

He also needs to masquerade his individual oddness in the oddness of the group, for indeed to the adolescent there is nothing so odd as to find childish patterns repugnant, and the accomplishments of adulthood beyond his reach.

Easier Among Primitive Peoples

With more primitive peoples, the ways of coping with the period of adolescence were comparatively simple. For one thing, the group concept was developed to a very high order, for the sheer necessity to survive compelled them to band together in a group. In the group, the sense of kinship was the thread by which they maintained their identity, and for this purpose certain techniques were developed—hence the significance of the flawless ability found in the recitation of geneo-logical tables, regarded as a very accomplished art carrying with it a highly envied status. In this type of society the role of the individual was well defined, as was also the role of each of the sub-groups. Only the children were free of responsibility to the group.

As soon as the child reached the age of adolescence he was taken over and absorbed into the tribal pattern. He would accompany the young men on all the peacetime forages and expeditions, learning by precept and example his responsibility to provide and to share. There was a sort of curriculum for adolescence, and the goal toward maturity was clearly marked by certain tests of accomplishment and bravery which defined for the adolescent the state of manhood.

In the Maori world a great deal of influence from these primitive elements persisted in their changing patterns up until just before World War Two. Until then the Maori community was still fairly compact, and Maori social patterns were still centred around the marae, the hui and the tangi. But with the coming of a national crisis and the need to direct labour to the essential industries, the last bulwark of Maori society fell to the devastating onslaught of western civilisation and culture. With the calamity of World War Two, the Maori community became dispersed — his institutions redundant, and the pattern of tribal cohesion lost. Most tragic of all, the system of patriarchal leadership and authority was left without a constitution.

Displaced as Well as Dispossessed

The Maori now found himself not only dispossessed, but also displaced, and ill-equipped to adjust quickly to the foreign mode of life which was imposed upon him.

Hard on the heels of all these forced external changes, there came an internal phenomenon which was to rock the old canoe to such an extent that the rocking has not decreased in momentum even now. This phenomenon was the great ‘population explosion’ which now hit the race, whose decline in numbers two generations earlier had been a matter for grave concern.

As present history shows, the result today is that the Maori race is a race of young people, without sufficient numbers in the older age-group to create the balance required for adequate social and economic stability. The latest figures available to me would indicate that in a race of something like 180,000 people, sixty per cent are under the age of 21.

Another important aspect of the situation of the Maori is that he belongs to a racially ‘non-effective’ minority group which lives and moves by permission of a ‘dominant group’ whose social and economic pattern has in the past been foreign, and therefore hostile to the background and experience of the Maori

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in a modern situation.

The Place of Religion

Fear is an early and important ingredient in the life of the individual and the race. Man's life, bracketed between the two oblivions, is haunted by fear—of enemies, of nature, of sickness, poverty, ostracism and most of all of death.

In the early Maori situation, everything that could not be explained was attributed to some deity or other. Anything which needed protection, either from the elements or from man, was dedicated to a deity, and the law of Tapu functioned with unusual effectiveness. The Maori deities were not only providers of good but also dispensers of evil, so that the codes regulating behaviour possessed a heavy religious content, based on a system of rewards and punishment. Generally, this meant that the reward was a reprieve from death, and the punishment was the withdrawal of such a reprieve.

Elements of this type of religious concept lingered through the years, and even though pagan religion was replaced by Christianity so long ago, today we are apt to find quite a number of Maoris reverting to this old pattern to explain some deep and disturbing phenomenon which might befall either himself or some near kin. This is particularly evident in the field of mental health and the Maori patient.

When Christianity replaced his old religion, the Maori was still in his pre-dispersal days. The Christian churches evolved a very effective pattern for religious practice, so that the Maori found it a comparatively simple process to apply these new religious values in a particularly meaningful way.

Old Signposts Have Become Inadequate

Today however, he is finding in his dispersal that the old signposts which provided direction to his religious impulses have become inadequate, and tend to increase his sense of insecurity. He is surrounded by a whole set of religious groups which vie for his allegiance, and the basic result is increased confusion.

Basically, he is by nature still a very religious being who despite all confusion, in moments of crisis manifests this fact in many different ways; although he is often unaware that his approach to his Deity is to a large extent determined by his sense of need. This need is vividly outlined in the supplication so frequently raised by those who are unable to cope with disturbing and overwhelming situations in the words:

Guide me O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak but thou art mighty,
Hold me with thy powerful hand.

Amazing That There Are Not More

In conclusion may I say that considering the tremendous upheavals which, from the turn of the century, the Maori has had to face—


Dispossession of his lands.


Depletion in numbers from disease and warfare.


The dispersal and detribalisation of his society.


The new predominantly juvenile component of his race.


His comparatively limited economic resources.


The breakdown of his social patterns.


His living by permission of the dominant group.


His loss of appreciation of the religious concept.


His lack of skills and knowledge of how to adjust to a new and oft-times hostile society.


Plus the extreme hazards which he faces along with all other adolescents.

Considering all this, the amazing thing is that more of them do not become delinquents who require the attention of the law, since they are by nature and inheritance, so utterly group-orientated.

Any programme of any institution of any kind therefore should have as one of its principal aims, the promotion of a sense of belonging not merely to a local village, a local neighbourhood or a racial group, but to a nation, and ultimately to all ethnic groups and all humanity.

Finally may I say that I have presented the extremist view, in order to promote controversy and stimulate discussion. However, I do contend that it is not what the Maori has inherited from his past that makes him a potential delinquent, but what he has lost; for he comes almost empty-handed to this modern, post-Christian era of the organisation man.

This article is the text of a talk given by the Rev. Manu Bennett at a meeting of the Whakatane Prisoners' Aid and Rehabilitation Society.