Traditional Maori society was hierarchical
By John Robinson
There were considerable class distinctions within traditional Maori tribal society. Each extended family had a male head who, if he were a man of good birth (belonging to the tribal aristocracy), would be termed a “rangatira” (a tribal lord).
Any person lacking position was “a tuatua, not worth a spike nail”. Slaves could be killed at a whim, and for cannibal feasts, including following the death of an important chief. Women were burdened with all the heavy work, and aged rapidly.
Then Europeans introduced the idea of equality. The great transition that followed necessarily reduced the power and position of chiefs.
This was clearly recognised during the debate preceding the signing of Treaty of Waitangi. For example, Tareha, the great chief of the Ngatirehia said “No Governor for me – for us Native men. We, we only are the chiefs, the rulers. We will not be ruled over.”
Different attitudes to equality
Despite such challenging rhetoric, those present that day accepted the new system. Indeed change was already under way – Christians among the Ngapuhi had started with the freeing of slaves from Kapiti the year before, and many intertribal peace talks were under way.
At the same time many wanted to preserve their chiefly prerogatives. In a 1837 letter to Samuel Marsden, “Will you give us a law”, Wiremu Hau asked for his chiefly privileges to be maintained: “ Another thing we are afraid of, and which also degrades us, is this; slaves exalting themselves against their masters. Will you give us a law in this also.”
In 1848 Waikato chief Tamati Ngapora wrote to Governor Grey also wanting the preservation of class and slavery – “that a law may be made for the native chiefs, that their slaves may be induced to obey them; and do you strengthen our hands, so that the many slaves of this land may be kept in awe, and the chiefs be enabled to love and protect you.” He was angry since “the slaves look upon themselves as equals with their fathers the chiefs”.
Differences lead to feuds
During the long cultural transformation there were considerable differences among Maori, which at times led to violent conflict and savage feuds.
The first phase of the major New Zealand wars was among Maori, between senior chiefs who wished to preserve their control and position, to forbid land sales and keep land under their centralised control, and those who wished to profit from the conditions of the Treaty, to be independent and able to sell. This was a Maori class struggle.
Fighting was not simply about land – after all, the tribes who fought had sold little land. It was primarily an effort by warrior chiefs to conserve the old ways and to preserve their positions.
When there was war a warrior chief was a big man, a leading general, gaining glory and renown on the battlefield. But in peace he became one of the group, of no particular importance.
Class differences were preserved in different ways
Fighting in the 1850s, in north Taranaki, was between those who held to the Treaty, the land-sellers (such as Ihaia, Rawhiri and Teira), and those who brought violence to impose their chiefly rule, the anti-land-selling leaguers (such as Katatore and Kingi), supported by warriors from south Taranaki such as Titokowaru.
For a time the British held back, considering the feuds to be a Maori affair, before being drawn into the already existing fight when Governor Browne promised to at last apply the law and order that they had promised.
In other parts of the country, senior chiefs who were in control of much tribal land became landowners and wealthy squires. Tamihana Te Rauparaha of Otaki and Wiremu Parata of Waikanae were two such. Thus class differences were preserved in various ways throughout the cultural changes.
Working class Maori have suffered in modern times
The majority of Maori were ordinary folk, working class. Large numbers moved into the cities after the Second World War, prospering during the years of economic expansion, strong trade unions and relative equality.
That pattern was shattered in 1984 when the David Lange – Roger Douglas government ditched previous Labour Party ideals to bring an era of considerable inequality, with the associated poverty and misery, that continues today.
That widening of class differences has been supported by Maori separatists who argue against solidarity. The state has given considerable rewards to the burgeoning grievance industry (through the Waitangi Tribunal, Crown Forestry Rental Trust, and many other privileges).
The unity of the nation has been seriously undermined.
The plight of suffering Maori in the underclass has been ignored as the focus has been on rewriting history and seeking grievance, demanding handouts (Treaty settlements) that overwhelmingly profit a tribal elite.
Class differences remain today
The insistence on tribal affiliations has kept attention away from the fundamentally different and antagonistic interests of labour and capital, of employee and employer.
This has moved active young Maori away from unified unions to individual tribes with their insistence on rangitiratanga (the rule of chiefs), which has been wrongly claimed to be a promise of the Treaty of Waitangi.
The consequences are evident in social statistics. Many measures of well-being, such as life expectancy and infant mortality, have improved over the long period since the formation of the nation, as a consequence of collective healthcare and education. However, other measures show the considerable influence of class, where differences have widened since 1984.
In my analysis of Maori social indicators (in many projects during 1986-2002) I was constantly on the lookout for discrimination as a possible cause of persisting differences; I found none, but many examples of special programmes for Maori.
Yet the insistence has been, and is today, on supposed racial discrimination with calls for separation by race. Recognition of class would challenge that theory and threaten many careers built on acceptance of that current dominant narrative.
Tribal elites have great power
The insistence of race-based provisions in much legislation, and in the operations of public bodies and government departments, has granted many special rights to a few.
The right to carry out both private and public works is often dependent on permission from iwi, governed by their tribal elite – and such permission is frequently dependent on a payment (call it bribe, recognition, what you will).
Requirements for unclear recognition of traditional cultural mores (tikanga) provide further opportunities for blocking action, including access to public land.
As a student I walked freely up Mount Ngaurahoe – the National Park belonged to us all. Now the Department of Conservation tell us to keep off , to “respect the sanctity of the sacred mountains”, whatever that means.
All such provisions provide ready opportunities for commercial gain to, and corruption by, the controlling tribal elite in an acknowledged class-based society (with rangatiratanga, power to rangitira, a basic element of the Maori tikanga that we all are told to accept).
The elites do well while the underclass struggles
The lack of clarity in so many statutes requires decision-makers to call upon Maori ‘cultural expertise’, wasting limited funds on unneeded (and race-based) employees.
The recognition of tikanga, a cultural outlook that places prior loyalty to whakapapa and the extended family (the iwi), has opened the door to preference for relatives in government employment.
The process has been aided by the destruction of the 1912 Public Service Act, taking away its many provisions for a public service intended to serve the public without favour.
The favouring of friends that had been prevalent in the nineteenth century has returned, with iwi leaders to the fore.
Meanwhile struggling Maori, who form a significant portion of the struggling underclass, have been abandoned. The considerable, continuing expansion of the Waitangi Tribunal and the increasing calls for separation of government (already far advanced) has been hand-in-hand with widening class differences.
Tradition Maori class structures are back with a vengeance, helping to support the domination of the privileged few that is part of the inequality of 21st century life.