My new book describes the great postwar Māori migration from the countryside into the cities.

The cover of the book captures its theme. On the back is Whina Cooper with her granddaughter starting out on a lonely dirt road that seems to be going nowhere. The front cover shows the 1975 Land March, which she led,  passing through Auckland.

The Land March forced most urban Pākehā to take serious notice of Māori – to move them from the margins of society to a central part of our lives. There had long been Pākehā sensitive to Māori concerns and on occasions there were mass public outbursts – such as ‘No Māoris, No Tour’ in 1960. But the 1975 Land March – halfway through the great urban migration – is a symbolic moment.

There is a subtle issue. If you have ever been on a demonstration you will know the feeling of achievement and camaraderie. You go home and you reflect, what did we actually achieve? Sure, the not-inconsiderable logistics of a successful demonstration were a success (probably), it was fun (even if the rain was sheeting down), (hopefully) you made your point (although on most of the ones I have been on there was no simple consensus). But did it make any difference?

The same thing happened in the Land March. The marchers ended up in the city, dispersed and then what? The hikoi made a point but did it make any difference? (A quick answer: it is taking time.)

That is what the book expands on. Māori got to the city but they did not settle easily. Its first half of is a narrative of the heke (migration). The second is a inventory of attainment showing that  on most measurable socio-economic indicators Māori are about a generation behind Pākehā; that is Māori today are about where their Pākehā equivalent were 25 years ago.

I shall explain the book’s argument to Pākehā who, because they are generally outside Māoridom, see the world differently. (Māori who have read the book have been very supportive, seeing the book as elaborating what they implicitly understood.)

Our Pākehā problem is that being Māori is evolving albeit with a continuity. That is true for us too, but the change for Māori has been even greater.

In the first half of the twentieth century, most Māori lived in a subsistence rural economy in which they were largely self-sufficient, although they earned a little market income for items their community could not supply. Many exchanges within the community did not use money.

While there may be traces of this subsistence/gift exchange economy in the urban economy, it has largely disappeared. Māori now get most of their income from earning in the market (they also receive social security benefits). They are also no longer likely to live in a Māori community (caveats to come), although many continue to (try to) express their Māoritanga.

Māori were badly prepared for the migration. Māori rural schools were not very good. Their skills were more than adequate for rural life but not nearly as relevant for urban employment. So they ended up at the bottom of the labour market. That meant they were more likely to be unemployed. Because our skills training was (and is) inadequate, many Māori were trapped down there, an entrapment passed on to succeeding generations. 

Economic change just as they were arriving in the cities compounded Māori difficulties. The permanent collapse of the wool price in 1966 – the end of the golden wether – led to economic turmoil, structural change and higher unemployment. There was a shift in labour force demand towards more specific skills, which left those with low skills in low demand and disproportionally increased their proneness to unemployment (in a world of higher unemployment).

There followed in the 1980s the implementation of neoliberal (Rogernomic) policies which were deliberately biased against the poor and therefore disproportionally hit Māori. (National even wound back skills upgrading programs such as apprenticeships.) Māori may have been most affected. Their male mortality rates rose in the late 1980s, perhaps as a result of heavy redundancies in industries that employed relatively more Māori. (There has been a subsequent recovery and the mortality rates are falling again, but remain higher than for non-Māori ones.)

Pākehā can point out that a couple of generations back their ancestors also migrated from country to town and went through harsh economic times shortly after. (The economy stagnated from about 1908 to 1935.) But they left commercial, not subsistence, farms, while their schooling was probably already better than those the Māori experienced a generation later. Moreover, Pākehā were first movers and set the framework of how urban life would function; Māori coming later had to fit in.*

Māori could have assimilated, becoming brown Pākehā, but their cultural roots were too deep and they adapted. Some of the new urban Māori institutions perplex us. Māori gangs are attempts to create urban communities. Regrettably we focus on their criminal activities; peaceful domestic activities are not news. Another adaptation was that the Māori Women’s Welfare League was originally rurally based but has had to evolve as urban life became more common.

Similarly maraes evolved. Historically they were only in the rohe/region of the iwi/tribe. As Māori poured into the cities, they left their rohe and the marae that were the base of their community. There was a danger they could be cut off from their cultural roots. Fortunately Māori commonsense enabled urban marae to evolve, although the kawa/protocol always acknowledges the mana whenua.

An important development has been the urban Māori authorities. (The book is based on a report commissioned by Te Whānau  o Waipareira of West Auckland who sponsored its publication.) There is not a lot of published material on them, but they are working away providing community services (including for those who are not Māori).

‘Iwi corporations’, as I call them, are much more publicly prominent. Based on the traditional tribes in their rohe and the recipients of the Treaty settlements, some are quite wealthy: from these, from other legacy resources and from careful investment. However they are not ginormous compared to the economy as a whole and while there is considerable attention given to the ‘Māori economy’ it is only a small proportion of total economic activity. Most Māori are involved primarily with the rest of the economy; they are likely to remain so. Because the iwi corporations are based in the rohe of the iwi they may not be responding as well to their people in the city. The urban Māori authorities are filling the gap but compared to the iwi corporations they are desperately underfunded.

There is much more in the book of course, but let me finish on a theme emerging from the last few paragraphs. Published in 1940, The Māori Today is a terrific book on mid-twentieth-century Māori; its main contributors were Pākehā but Sir Apirana Ngata wrote three and a bit of its chapters and was deeply involved with the others. If you want to know what was happening at the time you should read it.

Yet it got the future story badly wrong. There were no demographers of Māori in those days and the writers almost completely failed to recognise that the rural economy could not sustain the burgeoning Māori population even at a subsistence level. (There are some very good Māori demographers today, many clustered around the University of Waikato.) So they failed to forecast the postwar Māori urban migration.

I am not saying this to criticise the writers but as a caution to myself. I should like to believe that my book is forward looking but Māoridom is a lot more adaptive than anyone can predict. It would be terrific if scholars were to look back at Heke Tangata and see it as a basis to account for the next eighty years in the way that The Māori Today was for me. But frankly, such is the speed of adaptation, I shall be very satisfied if I can contribute to our understanding of the next eight years. All New Zealanders need to be sensitive to the challenges that Māori, and therefore we all, face. The book should help.


* Observe that the last few paragraphs refer more to Māori men than to Māori women who, like non-Māori women, have different relationships with the paid-labour market. This is reflected in the statistics in an interesting way. Māori women record lower levels than Māori men on the various economic variables; the same contrast is true for non-Māori women and men. However, the difference between Māori and non-Māori women seems to be smaller than for men although Māori women are still at the bottom. The negative story is that they also suffer the same handicaps as other women. The positive story is, probably, that their urban migration experience was not as harsh as it was for Māori men because of their different relationship to the labour market. I would like to investigate this more thoroughly but the required data is not always available.)

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