He Tipua: The Life and Times
of Sir Apirana Ngata
In the Foreword, Sir Henare Ngata, son of Sir Apirana, on Behalf of the Ngata family and the Ngati Porou people, thanks Dr Ranginui Walker for “the notable account that you have compiled about our father that will be a fitting memorial to him”. Dr Walker will rightly value this most important of assessments. For the wider reading public too, by virtue of its subject, this is one of the most important New Zealand books published since Claudia Orange’s The Treaty of Waitangi.
Walker’s characterisation of Ngata as “He Tipua” succinctly makes the point that in his ideals and his tenacity in pursuing them for over half a century, Ngata seems to stand above mere mortals. Whether or not one wholly agrees with his policies, there has probably been no greater Maori leader – even when ranked alongside such remarkable men as Tarapipipi Te Waharoa (Wiremu Tamihana), James Carroll and Wiremu Ratana. Because when Ngata began his public career the Maori people felt themselves to be a “colonised” people (Walker uses the term frequently), but by World War 2 he had for the most part led them out of that condition, changing the attitudes of most Pakeha in the process. Not that he had achieved his goal of “equality” between Maori and Pakeha: in many material senses that has yet to be achieved. But in terms of winning respect for his people from Pakeha whose attitudes hitherto had been patronising and even contemptuous, and in fostering Maori pride, self-respect and achievement in a whole range of fields, Ngata wrought a veritable revolution.
In tracing Ngata’s life and times, Walker reveals just how bad things were for Maori in the early 20th century. It is not just that their numbers had dwindled to the point where it was still widely believed that they were headed for extinction. Nor that the colonists’ land-grab had left them with barely a tenth of their land, and most of that under a tenure ill-suited to economic development. Nor that thousands of them lived – or died – in squalid, disease-infested, rural slums. It was rather that in a country which believed that it was observing the principles of racial equality espoused in the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori were still likely to find themselves discriminated against, or simply overlooked, in a great variety of ways.
To give one example. In 1913, smallpox broke out in the Bay of Islands, whereupon Health Department regulations restricted the movement of Maori, but not Pakeha, people. Because the incidence of the disease was much greater amongst Maori, neither Ngata nor Peter Buck (Native Health Officer and Ngata’s close friend and colleague) objected; but in Parliament Ngata did object to the fact that when vaccinations began to be distributed they were initially given in greater proportion to Pakeha. There were many such matters about which Ngata and the other Maori MPs had to be vigilant, and Walker shows how Ngata dealt courteously but forthrightly with racist attitudes when they manifested themselves in Parliament.
The most serious discrimination Maori faced, however, was that much more state funding was made available for developing Pakeha land than Maori land, because the latter was mostly in multiple ownership. This was one of the reasons why Maori land remained undeveloped and hence vulnerable to purchase under the Native Land Acts. Between three and four million more acres passed from Maori ownership under the 1909 Act before Prime Minister Gordon Coates (a Kaipara dairy farmer who knew what it was to struggle) in the 1920s began to support Ngata’s programme for Maori land development. Walker’s account details how, decades earlier, Ngata had taken up the aspirations of his father, Paratene, and other East Coast leaders such as Ropata Wahawaha and James Carroll, and used his remarkable personal and cultural skills to lead Ngati Porou in developing their land, through private borrowing and their own labour. This provided the example of Maori achievement that Coates needed to justify state support for the development schemes. Ngata’s driving energy, in association with that of regional leaders such as Te Puea (Waikato) and Tai Mitchell (Arawa), then led to progammes of land development in most districts. Paralleling them was the movement to create great marae complexes and revitalise Maori culture.
In purely economic terms, the development schemes were not wholly successful. Consolidation of title (the aggregation of scattered interests into viable farms) took an enormous amount of administrative effort and was then undermined by further fractionation of interests through succession. Many Maori farms (like many Pakeha farms) proved too small to be economic, and many development schemes struggled under a burden of debt. But these are largely the understandings of hindsight. What is more important is that, in their own time, Ngata and the Maori people showed the sceptical Pakeha that they could work hard and use their land effectively in a modern economy. Moreover, they showed that the land did not first have to pass out of multiple or tribal title, as was hitherto believed necessary not only by most Pakeha politicians of the day but by Maori leaders such as Ngata’s colleague Maui Pomare.
Essentially, Ngata established the approach to Maori participation in the modern world which is followed to this day: that there is no necessary contradiction between tribal allegiance and pride on the one hand and individual achievement on the other. Rather, the former can be a springboard for the latter, and can provide crucial support in a competitive and alienating world. From a basis of tribal strength and pride, Ngata sought also to foster inter-tribal cooperation and fraternity among the Maori people. Today he would be impatient with the jealous factionalism that hinders Treaty settlements and the development programmes that flow from them.
Probably no single topic in the book receives more attention than the accounts of how Ngata organised great tribal and inter-tribal hui, including hui where Pakeha Governors-General and Prime Ministers accepted Maori hospitality and paid their respects to Maori achievement. In revealing the social meaning of these events, Walker brings to bear his insights as a Maori writer: Pakeha authors would have had other priorities.
Some readers might wish that Walker had written more about the problematic aspects of the relationship between individual, tribe and nation. For example, the situation of the individual Maori farmers within tribal development schemes has frequently been awkward, as the writings of another Maori scholar, Professor Hugh Kawharu, reveal. So too was the question of how debts should be distributed and redeemed. More broadly, Maori today wrestle with the question of how far “tribal fundamentalism” can be sustained in a modern, urbanised world.
In that context, there was a possibility that the Maori War Effort Organisation, largely inspired by Ngata to support the Maori Battalion in World War 2, might have evolved into an established system of tribal governance, had the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945 been used to foster it. It was not, partly because Labour’s paternalistic tendencies promoted centralised authority in Wellington rather than devolution to tribal authorities. Was this an important “last chance” missed? Regrettably, Walker passes rather lightly over this episode; it would have been interesting to learn more of Ngata’s views on the subject.
But many Maori themselves felt that Ngata’s vision was too agrarian-centred and romantic to deal with the problems of modernity. Walker shows that even among Ngati Porou there were those who thought that effort and funding would have been better directed towards domestic housing than meeting houses and marae. Ngata was all the more vulnerable because in his absolute determination to demonstrate Maori capability and win support from Cabinet at a time of financial stringency, he had agreed that Maori would accept lower pensions and employment benefits, living off the land in a way that Pakeha could not. Part of Ngata’s ground for quarrel with the Ratana movement was that he feared it would sap Maori self-reliance and promote welfare dependency. But in the depths of the Depression, when the Ratana movement and the Labour Party formed their alliance, it was on the basis of their mutual recognition that Maori (along with most Pakeha) desperately needed the better wages and pensions, employment opportunities, medical services and the child endowment which Labour offered. Against that programme, the Maori politicians associated with the conservative parties stood no chance in the polls, and Ngata himself lost his seat in 1943.
But if Ngata’s adversaries reminded him that Maori needed bread on the table before they needed marae, he would no doubt say that man cannot live by bread alone. And for all that Ngata sought to build on tribal foundations, he was a moderniser. The marae movement was largely to restore legitimate pride in the culture, but it was also about improving building construction, sanitation, and health care. The fact that Maori language and literature were rescued at all, and at least partly recognised in the national education system, is largely owing to Ngata and Buck. But Ngata and his fellow Te Aute graduates also wanted more Maori to receive mainstream secondary and tertiary education, to equip them for modernity.
Ngata won respect largely because he was himself such a talented person, in both Maori and English culture. But perhaps what impressed most was his unfailing graciousness and courtesy in the face of ferocious and often unfair criticism. Because he had had to toil for 25 years to get state funding for Maori land development, when it finally came (and especially when he had charge of it as Minister for Native Affairs from 1929-34), he raced ahead with his programme in a manner that frequently bypassed administrative niceties and correct auditing procedures. Sections of the press mounted a campaign against him, and Labour’s criticisms obliged Prime Minister Forbes to appoint a commission of inquiry. The virulence of the campaign reflected rather more than the proper calling to account of a responsible minister: it reflected ongoing Pakeha distrust of Maori competence and integrity.
Ngata responded in detail to the myriad charges of breached regulations and procedures, and made no attempt to shift responsibility onto subordinates, other senior officials or ministers (including Coates) who had had charge of some of the schemes before Ngata took over. He was obliged to resign his portfolio. But Walker designates this “The last hurrah of colonialism”, for in fact the schemes continued, with increased funding, and Ngata continued to assist successive ministers who took over Native Affairs. The whole affair was “only a temporary setback to the emancipatory project set in train by Ngata”. By his dignity and generosity of spirit, Ngata had safeguarded the tradition set by Carroll and others before him, and the Ratana Members of Parliament and ministers in their turn continued to work within the national institutions to secure equality of rights and responsibilities for Maori and Pakeha. Their efforts constitute a powerful call for a generous response from Pakeha.
Ranginui Walker has used the privilege of access to Ngata family papers with skill and discretion. Some of the liveliest and most insightful passages in the book are those dealing with Ngata’s private life and the politics of his own community. Walker has also worked conscientiously through Ngata’s public life, dealing chronologically with issues great and small. He has tried to be fair. Rather than flinging around accusations of Pakeha racism, he
distinguishes carefully, as Ngata himself did, between racism and ethnocentrism – the Pakeha view that Maori were perfectly capable of the achievements of Englishmen but their culture held them back. Readers will also learn that it was not Pakeha ethnocentrism that was responsible for the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907, but Carroll and Ngata, who were concerned to protect the essential values of the Maori culture from those who would manipulate and traduce them.
Only in respect of land issues does Walker sometimes overstate his case. He is perfectly correct to say that until very recent times the former Maori customary estate continued to be whittled away. But, on his own evidence, the notion that the Pakeha were intent on “mopping up the remnants of Maori land”, “until there was none left” is at least 60 years out of date. In any case, is it not about time, in such discussions of goals and outcomes, that the many thousands of acres, and hundreds of millions of dollars, deliberately acquired by Maori in the general property system be added into the equation of loss and benefit? More balance might also have been brought into discussing the excessive
advances of credit in the development schemes: while complaints of excessive debt burdens are almost certainly justified, mention might also be made of the fact that the State wrote off many thousands of dollars of debt. And
still on the subject of land, Walker says that Ngata was “heavily involved” in the making of the 1909 Native Land Act. If so, that would seem not to be entirely to his credit, for it was a statute that facilitated the alienation of Maori
land; but perhaps Ngata and Carroll (Native Minister at the time) hoped that more would be alienated by lease than by sale. On such matters, one would like to know more about Ngata’s role, his private hopes and fears.
Though he undoubtedly had his hands full, Walker has not used as many of the relevant secondary sources as he might, including many recent books and the wealth of reports written by and for the Waitangi Tribunal. This contributes to the sense that, though the discussion about Ngata in his own times is detailed and solid, it is not connected as well as it might be to our own times. Apropos of which, it is highly misleading of author and publishers in this day and age to reprint a map of “Iwi boundaries” with their neat demarcation lines: what of all the furious controversy and litigation about just this issue in the last 10 years? There are also a few errors of fact, such as a reference to Cook Islands “independence” in 1965. These are matters which good editing should have picked up, along with the score or more mistakes in grammar, syntax and spelling. (Do teachers in schools and universities know or care any more about misrelated participles?)
But these are counsels of perfection. By the general canons of scholarship, Dr Walker has discharged his task conscientiously and well. Most memorably perhaps, the book reveals in rich detail the way Ngata’s private and public lives intermeshed, and thus a great deal about Maori values, perceptions and ways of working. It is an important contribution to New Zealand studies.
Alan Ward is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales.